Many Mindful Miles

Another one of our local This Girl Can ambassadors, Emma Brinkley has used physical activity to help manage long term health conditions over many years now. In this blog, she talks about finding ways to stay active within her limitations during the first lockdown and how participating in the 100 miles for Suffolk Mind challenge will encourage her to stay active throughout the winter, as well as support her mental health whilst we continue to live with restrictions during the pandemic...

It's fair to say I've been quiet on the blog front this year. Well, I guess pretty much last year too. If I'm completely honest, I lost my mojo a bit. You see, I was on this awesome journey of self-discovery. In 2016 I ran my first ever 5k, after spending the best part of 15 years letting myself believe that my Crohn's Disease and spinal surgery had resigned me to doing little more than the odd spot of power walking. From there, I challenged myself more and more: I found I also loved cycling and swimming and triathlons too, and I was excited about what else my body could achieve. And I became a This Girl Can ambassador; I wanted to show that if I could do those things, so could others.

But, during those amazing few years, I began experiencing symptoms of arthritis. Initially it was just a few niggles in my hands, but it gradually began to affect other joints in my body, including my feet. By summer 2019, I'd realised my running, and to some extent, walking days were probably over, at least for now. I felt like I'd been on this amazing journey, only to see it cut short, just as it was really beginning. I eventually got a diagnosis of Psoriatic Arthritis later that year. I'm incredibly grateful that can cycle and swim, but it's been a long struggle coming to terms with the physical limitations the condition has placed on me.

Then along came a certain pandemic. With the pools closed, and with such glorious weather, I definitely made the most of it on the bike. But in many ways, not having events to train for took some pressure off. No chasing a certain speed or distance, just riding purely for the enjoyment. And having just moved to a different Suffolk location, I made a point of seeking out unexplored roads and beautiful vistas.

As I was working from home and shielding, cycling was often the only time I'd leave the house. For the first time, I fully appreciated how being able to get some exercise, fresh air and connect with nature made such a difference to my sense of wellbeing. It was critical for my mental health.

Of course, the long summer days don't hang around forever (oh how I wish they would). As the nights started drawing in and the weather turned colder and wetter, my cycling again retreated indoors on Zwift. Still working from home, I began to realise I was hardly going outside – even in the garden – in the daytime. And it didn't take long for me to notice the dip in my mood. So, about a month ago, I made a promise to myself: I would try to go out for a short walk at lunchtime. Even if it was just for 10 minutes. And this time I would make a point of exploring the many countryside footpaths I am so lucky to be near to.

I wasn't sure how my joints would cope at first. Initially, they protested somewhat, but after a while, my body began to adjust to the new routine. I have even managed a few 4- or 5-mile walks at weekends; far further than I expected I'd manage.

Besides, I was doing things differently than I used to in my power walking days. My joints forced me to slow down a little. Which meant I could look up and really take notice of my surroundings, and appreciate the new sights and smells and sounds. I began using my walks as an opportunity to practice mindfulness: to reconnect with the present moment, soak up the natural world, notice the trees and the birds. And it reminded me to be grateful that I could at least still walk and be able to experience these moments at all.

That, and the fresh air and a bit of gentle exercise…it's powerful stuff!

And so finally to the point of this blog...

I recently found out about a 100-mile challenge that you can complete in any way you like and in any time frame you like. I decided this would be a great incentive to keep me getting out for walks through the cold dark days of December, not only for the sake of my physical health, but my mental health too. Besides, the event is in aid of a mental health charity very close to my heart: Suffolk Mind.

Back in 2008, I was dealing with the repercussions of spending 20 years ignoring the impacts of my traumatic younger years and suffering a lot of depression and low self-worth. They provided me with free counselling sessions which steered me on the path to dealing with my issues (a path of self-discovery that I'm still on!), and I know they've been there for many other friends and family too.

So, I'm excited to be able to raise funds and awareness for this amazing charity. I will be walking 100 mindful miles. I am aiming to complete this by Christmas Eve – 46 days since I started this Monday. I've covered 9.13 miles so far, and I'll try my best to update my progress here. Although it may be a different challenge to what I had my eyes on two years ago, it's helped me realise that I can still challenge myself, in spite of my conditions.

To read more about Emma's story and to see her progress on how she is getting on with her 100 miles, visit her 'Does it Like a Girl' page by clicking HERE.