Anisha Gangotra: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

January. Thirty-one cold, dark days stretching out ahead of me, the colour and vibrance of spring a lifetime away. I've never been the biggest fan of January. But I now see this time of year as an opportunity to reset my system and find my feet again. As an Inclusive Dance and Zumba Instructor, it's the perfect time to do this and to create good habits for the rest of the year. I know it isn't always as easy as that, especially when you may be living with a chronic illness, disability or mental health issue. I know this all too well.

LIVING WITH CHRONIC ILLNESS

I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, ulcerative colitis (UC) in 2008 at the age of 24. UC is an auto-immune condition where my immune system attacks my bowels. It is one of the two main forms of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, along with Crohn's. My symptoms include blood loss, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, pain, fatigue, and brain fog. Living with a chronic illness can be tough, particularly when it is invisible. While I may look healthy and well on the outside (it's amazing what a bit of make-up and a smile can do!), my insides are being attacked by my own body. Days can feel physically tough but mentally they can be just as challenging.

DEVELOPING MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES

That's not all. In 2011, I was the victim of a high-speed car accident. Overnight, my life changed. My physical injuries meant I couldn't get out of bed by myself, I struggled to cut up food and eat, I was in constant pain and my rehab and recovery took years. I also suffered with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety. My symptoms included flashbacks, nightmares, crying, a lack of concentration and motivation, hypervigilance and a lack of energy. Having always been an active person, it was a shock having to adapt to this.

A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP

Life felt really tough. I had to take things step by step. I started by walking a few meters around the house. Then I moved to the garden and started by doing one lap and then two. And from there I continued to take steps forward slowly but surely, and eventually I was able to go to Zumba classes. My personal challenges and love of music and dance are what led me to becoming an Inclusive Dance and Zumba instructor. Dance pulled me through some of the most difficult years of my life and I understand what it feels like to struggle.

This is why my classes are inclusive and I welcome students with disabilities, long-term conditions and mental health issues. Students include those with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, amputations and spinal cord injuries. They all dance alongside non-disabled students. Everyone does what they feel comfortable and there is no pressure or judgement. We dance, we sweat and most importantly, we have fun! We were even featured on TV in 2019 on the Chrissy B Show, which is a show dedicated to mental health and wellbeing, to inspire others.

Having a chronic illness, disability or mental health issue doesn't have to hold you back from being active. Some days life is about your dreams, hopes and visions for the future. But there are some days where life is just about putting one foot in front of the other. And that's ok too.

So put one foot in front of the other and get involved in Red January!

If you'd like to come along to a class, it's on Mondays 7.30-8.30pm at SportsAble, Braywick Road, Maidenhead, SL6 1BN. All fitness levels and abilities are welcome. There's no need to book. You can find more information at anisha123.zumba.com or on social media: @zumbawithanisha. You can also find more information and tips on how to become active if you're living with a long-term condition as part of the 'We are Undefeatable' campaign.


Nic Dawson: things don't always go to plan!

A couple of months back I was asked if I would do a blog about RED January, with a focus on how having an event booked helps with motivation at what can be a pretty tough time of year for exercising. I'd recently recovered from a hysterectomy and got back into running via the NHS Couch to 5K app - I was up to week 8 and had booked myself into the Reading Half Marathon with the view that it would keep me focused and off the sofa and lacing up my trainers, so I immediately said yes.

But then I broke my leg ☹

At the beginning of December I slipped over while queuing for car parking at parkrun (how fantastically British – a queuing injury!) and broke my tibia, fibula, talar joint, lateral malleolus and posterior malleolus. So instead of a parkrun PB I had 3 nights in hospital and surgery to insert a titanium rod into my tibia and attach a load of other bits of metal onto various bones and joints. I know I was nervous about running the half marathon in April, but this was an extreme way out even for me…

It was obvious that RED January was just not going to happen as I was barely able to move, so I settled in for several weeks on the sofa with my leg elevated, spaced out on painkillers and feeling very sorry for myself.

But then a couple of weeks after surgery I had my first physio appointment and decided that maybe RED January was exactly what I need, I just needed to rethink what activities I can do, and I set about planning a schedule of arm weight reps, core strengthening activities and propelling myself around in the wheelchair. I'm still on 2 crutches for walking but am hoping I may be able to start some gentle swimming later this week.

It's certainly not been the half marathon training that I was anticipating, but I think in a lot of ways it's been far more important. I am lucky to have wonderful family and friends around who have been there for me throughout this, but even with that support I have become painfully aware of how easy it would be for forced inactivity like this to trigger a horrendously self-destructive spiral of inactivity, lethargy, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression.

Focusing on some kind of physical activity every day has given me a sense of determination and achievement, as well as releasing the exercise happy hormones that I was missing so badly.

So, I'm 6 days into a somewhat modified RED January, and as a friend said a few days ago "I bet doing some activity every day in January might be the hardest thing you do all year, but also one of the most important".

Good luck to all of you doing it – here's to a physically and mentally healthy kick off to the new year!


Steph Johnson: "Red January – Don’t MIND if I do!"

Wow…. Where did December go? A month of Christmas preparations and hopefully happy distractions from the hustle and bustle of normal day life! So now January is upon us and a new year lies ahead for us all. This new year could bring new challenges, goals, or maybe just a fresh start. Sometimes I feel really overwhelmed at new year as I feel the pressure to make these enormous changes…. What should I achieve? What if I fail? What's everyone else doing??? But the most important thing is to do what's right for YOU! There are 2 hugely important things that individually we need to look after and that's our body and our mind. We neglect these things every now and again or we don't notice when one of them needs a bit more TLC.

What the start of a year does give us all is the chance to maybe change habits or try new things, but take this one step at a time…… And I mean this literally. In January I will be supporting RED January which is a campaign to encourage people to try and be active everyday during that month.

My drive to support the campaign doesn't come from wanting everyone to get to the gym everyday and sweat all those Christmas chocolates away, but it is driven by an understanding of how being active daily can help our mental health.

As an athlete for 17 years I never had a problem with not wanting to work out but due to some difficult life events I was faced with some mental health difficulties which changed my life. But what has helped to bring me out the other side is physical activity but in a way that is not just healthy for my body but also my mind. I never appreciated the effect this has had more than I do now. Being active can help us mentally get away from some of the stresses in our life, or sometimes it gives us time to think about things that are important to us maybe while you're out walking the dog!!! (I still need to get one of these!). And of course, we could all do with some of those happy hormones that come from being active.

You don't need to join a gym or a running club or an exercise class if that's not for YOU! Being active can include so many different activities. Doing the housework, gardening, washing the car, or going for a good old walk with family or friends or personally I love sticking my headphones in and just being with my own thoughts.

So, for January I will be pledging to be active everyday doing something that I enjoy and makes me feel good, or if it's the housework I will be blasting some tunes throughout the house so I can sing along!

For this campaign just remember that every step counts! – Let's do this together!!!

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