Saturday, 4 September 2021

Why Did 'Stronger' Make Me Feel Weak?


I mentioned in my last post that I recently read 'Stronger' by Poorna Bell. It's a fantastic book about women's fitness and strength, and about how discovering power lifting helped her to survive the loss of her husband. It reads partly like a memoir, partly a study on the factors that prevent women from engaging in physical activity and partly an exhortation of the benefits of exercise for women. As someone who has always struggled to engage with sport and exercise, it should have left me feeling inspired to get out there and find the right activity for me.

Instead it left me feeling flat.

I've never been a natural when it comes to physical activity. My memories of school PE are being the last to get picked for netball and the first to drop out of the bleep test. (The fact I had asthma that went undiagnosed until age 16 didn't help.) I discovered musical theatre when I was 13 and loved to dance, but never got far with it.

I often made plans to become more active that never came to much. My university charged an extra fee to join any sports societies and I decided it wasn't worth the money for one or two classes. When I graduated I couldn't afford to join a gym or classes, then I struggled to find time alongside other, more appealing hobbies. And then I had children which left my body altered in various ways and my schedule full.

Finding an activity that works for me is hard. My asthma is mild and only triggered by running, but that rules out the most straightforward and accessible exercise. The PGP I suffered with in both pregnancies has left me with a hypermobile SI joint, and at some point I've developed a mild scoliosis which means that my back almost always hurts and my hips are slightly uneven. I also had stomach muscle separation post-pregnancy which I'm not entirely sure is fully healed. Pilates helps with the back, hip and rib pain I suffer from but too much at once can make things worse, as I discovered when I tried hour-long classes. I also find it pretty boring if I'm honest.

So, back to 'Stronger'. While the book brilliantly addresses many barriers to women's fitness, I felt it didn't really address two big ones: time and money. It does mention money, but then talks about the importance of a good personal trainer, which even at the most 'affordable' level is still out of many people's budgets.

But for me, time is the major barrier. I was really disappointed when this was barely acknowledged in the chapter aimed at mothers. There was simply a quote from a mother who talked about making time and prioritising her health. And I get the point she's trying to make - mothers should not constantly put themselves last - but is it that simple? I've never found it to be. Squeezing pilates classes around the bedtime routine was stressful, and making time to work out at home means leaving something else undone that needs doing. My children are amazing but require more support than their peers and disrupting their routine by disappearing off to exercise is hard for all of us. Plus, I'm never not tired. I'm still woken early in the morning so by the time they're both in bed I can't face exercising.

And that's the thing. The book talks about how wonderful an effect exercise has on your mood and your brain, but I've never enjoyed it and can't see myself ever doing so. Dancing aside, I've never found an activity that didn't feel like a chore. And with my wonky skeleton and weakened core, I'm not sure dance is an option for me any more.

Reading 'Stronger' made me feel lots of things - guilt at making 'excuses' not to exercise, frustration at my experience as a mother not being fully acknowledged, even a sense of loneliness that so many people find fulfillment in physical activity when I don't. I can't hold these things against the book, I know it is me projecting, but it left me despondent, feeling that strength was even further out of my grasp than I realised.

Can anyone else relate to this? Have you found anything that works for you? Or can you offer solidarity in being so tired that the thought of exercise stresses you out?!


  1. Solidarity! Its great that she found a way to help with her loss and I'm all for that. But I'm a bereaved mother. I'm older, fatter, and disabled physically. Exercise is not going to be my way out. All of her inspirational ideas leave sections of society out. Strength is a lot of things that aren't necessarily physical. Thank goodness.

    1. Sending love to you. The book does deal with age, size and disability, and makes clear that exercise isn't the whole answer when it comes to grief or mental illness, but it came from a place of assuming you really wanted to do some kind of physical activity so willing to make the time sacrifice and push through the stage where it just makes you feel a bit useless. I do want to be stronger and fitter, but I've yet to find an activity that is safe for me and I actually look forward to doing enough to give up other things I enjoy.

  2. I haven't read the book. But, I didn't get on with PE in school either, and have never really been a sporty person. Recently, I read - online - about NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis), which made me feel a lot better. It suggests that being active doesn't have to be about sports. Any kind of movement can have an effect on your health. I've taken it to heart and just tried to move a bit more during the day. I'm walking a bit more as I clean or cook, parking a bit further from shops, adding a little bit of physical movement to storytime, playing slightly more physical games with the children. It's making me feel like I'm an active person, even if I'm not a sporty person. And, I am - finally - starting to lose the baby weight.
    No idea if it would help anyone else. But, I found the shift from 'exercise' to 'activity' really helped it seem achievable.

    1. This is a really good way of thinking about movement. I do actually walk quite a bit but I often feel like that's not enough, so maybe reframing my thinking would be helpful. Thank you! (And sorry it's taken me so long to reply to your comment, I only just found it!)