Hey man, over the holidays I noticed I was looking in the mirror a lot more. I go to the gym a lot, and as that got disrupted in 2020, I think I’ve become more angry with my appearance. I’m noticing less definition in my muscles and slowly I think it has been weighing down on me. I didn’t think gym was my identity, but I’m now realising I’d be a bit lost without having a solid-looking body. What can I do about how I feel?
The new year tends to spike personal expectation around health and fitness: “too much” turkey, the fad diets, detoxing, the themes of January’s doomscroll. Given how the previous 12 months have robbed most of us of our hobbies, it’s very excusable to feel as you do – you’ve been cheated out of maintaining progress and routine on the terms you prefer.
If you’re at a stage where you’re just feeling a little more self-conscious each time you walk past the mirror or are missing the endorphin hit, there are lots of good home exercises on YouTube. When I tried to get hench in lockdown one, I got into ATHLEAN-X for strength, and FitnessBlender for cardio.
Of course, heavy lifting is a relief that isn’t easily replicated without trying to bench press your fridge-freezer, which – for obvious reasons – could be dangerous. However, there are muscles you could go to town on by doing bodyweight workouts at home. These are: obliques (for real abs), erector spinae (a group of muscles that will make big posture gains when used properly) and forearms (to help you lift more). All these might provide a similar level of That Good Burn to hitting the gym.
In terms of changing how you feel – at least initially – it could be helpful to realise that everybody is in a similar position. Gyms are closed and progress has been halted for anyone that isn’t a professional athlete or filthy rich. It might not look that way when scrolling through your usual channels, but it’s true.
The main concern isn’t getting back to where you feel you were in terms of gains, it’s to feel okay about yourself and where you are now. If that’s not happening, this might be the sign of a deeper issue. Concerns about your appearance can lead to things like waking up earlier to squeeze extra reps in or something more serious, like BDD - short for body dysmorphic disorder. This is a severe anxiety disorder focused on appearance, which Dr Marianne Trent, a clinical psychologist and founder of Good Thinking Psychology, likens to “a fungus – something that invades you and tells you bad things about yourself”.
If things are beginning to head down this road, hit up your GP. There are also places that will accept self-referrals, including IAPT (Improving Access To Psychological Therapies), a therapy service for people with anxiety disorders and depression – both of which can stem from low self-esteem or concerns over body image. The main thing here is to be kind to yourself. Trent says that, beside heading to a GP, “trying to have compassion is a good first step. Jot down some of the thoughts you’re having about yourself, if it feels safe to do so”.
Lots of people rely on the gym, so it’s also worth talking to your mates when you feel in doubt about yourself. You’ll likely find some reassurance that you’re doing okay, or that they feel similar. Wherever you are on your journey, keep your community as close as possible. You recognise that something isn’t feeling right which means you’re halfway to finding a solution. The message I can offer is to prioritise this self-kindness, and to keep reminding yourself of the parts of your life that aren’t related to your appearance.
Best wishes, man.
Hey man. I keep finding myself drinking, because there’s nothing else to really do. This increased over Christmas. I’m not sure I’m dependent on it, as I can quite easily not drink some days, but I’ve realised it permeates most of my social life and I’m worried it’ll escalate. How can I make sure I’m ok?
A wise cartoon once said: “Alcohol – the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” In a sense, it’s not wrong. As far as substances go, boozing is the most wide-spread and complexly used of the lot. It’s caught up in social situations, dining, traditions, religious ceremonies, culture; you name the occasion, it’s five o’clock somewhere and there’s a drink for it. Yet it’s also worse for us than a lot of classified drugs. Back in 2010, The Guardian reported on a study in which they said “if drugs were classified on the basis of the harm they do, alcohol would be Class A, alongside heroin and crack cocaine”. It’s probably the most damaging yet socially acceptable thing we, as humans, regularly fuck with.
If it’s that bad, why do we bother? Well, it’s complicated. Drinking is fun, but there’s also two sides of the fence. Keeping tabs on how and when you’re getting the pints (or cans) down you is crucial, so nice one for writing in.
When assessing how you’re doing, it’s important to look at current habits. Mapping out roughly how frequently you’re drinking, as well as the strength and amount you’re drinking, should give you a good idea of where you’re at. If you drink a single beer once every few weeks, you’re probably okay. If you’re averaging more than one stiff drink a day, and have been every week for the last couple months, perhaps you’re less on the straight and narrow than you thought. It isn’t a nice realisation, but given how shit 2020 was, and that we’ve just stumbled through a lock-in Christmas, more of us might be in this position than we realise. Realising it is the most important step.
Take a holistic approach to consider how you are both physically and mentally, with and without alcohol. The way to do this is to try and cut or reduce your alcohol consumption, at least for a small while. “We don't recommend this for people who are alcoholics, but if you’re not physically dependent on it, doing something like dry January is a good way to figure things out.” says Live Rehab founder Denise Roberts. Of course, it can be any 30-day stretch – you can start it at any point in the year.
It’s only when you strip back the layers that you start to get a real grasp on how you’re doing, which is why this is a recommended approach. For instance, if you’re noticing you’re drinking alone more, it makes sense to ask why that is, and to see what feelings come to the surface when you stop. You might just feel even more bored, but it’s only by not drinking that you can make sure there aren’t any underlying issues that are less easy to wash down. When the month is up, you’ll likely get the answer to how you’ve been doing.
If you’re concerned about the physical side effects of drinking, Dr Luke Pratsides, a GP in east London and with Numan, an online clinic for men, suggests getting “a blood panel done, to look at things like your risk of diabetes and anaemia, also cholesterol”, as these are the most common forms of early damage from excessive alcohol consumption. Pratsides also mentions that sedentary lifestyles and alcohol are more likely to mix now we’re all working from home. If you are drinking as you would normally, it’s worth trying to include some exercise.
If you’re struggling with telling friends you’re taking a break, Janey Lee Grace, coach and author of Happy Healthy Sober: Ditch the Booze and Take Control of Your Life, says “to just make it about you. Say to them ‘I'm doing this because alcohol's been making me feel anxious' or 'I just find I'm not clear headed enough to do stuff’, whatever the reason may be”. When it comes to going to the pub again, when we can, Grace recommends making sure they have a decent non-alcoholic option, or even asking if you can bring your own, though you may have to pay corkage.
Obviously, the social aspects of drinking are less of an issue right now than usual, so it’s a good time to give this experiment a go. If you cave and start drinking, maybe you aren’t okay – but this isn’t something to resent. It’s a starting point for change. (Plus: nobody is always doing okay.) It’s an opportunity to consider why you caved and then to try again when you feel more ready. If you aren’t able to give up, you could opt for a weaker drink, or just one less drink, and work from there. All progress is progress.
I’m a few days into dry January writing this – I’m not sure I’ll get to the end, but I’ll do my best. If you come out the other end doing okay, feel free to have a beer and celebrate. I’ll join you.
Cheers (AF), man.