Any committed couch potato gathering evidence for a treatise on the evils of exercise need look no further than our running group’s WhatsApp chat in the weeks before a marathon. Taken at face value, our graphic descriptions of runners’ trots, nipple chafes, urine leakage and wall-hitting are enough to convince the ‘running sucks’ brigade of the wisdom of a life more sedentary.
It’s true that embarrassing incidents involving poo, wee, blood, sweat and tears form a rich, if pungent, seam of wincingly frank confessional material in my writing about running. I’ve learned to suppress embarrassment in this regard, but I contend that being completely honest about barriers to exercise will help people to transcend them and move on, move more (and move their bowels a couple of hours ahead of a big race…)
This is also the spirit in which Dr Juliet McGrattan, GP, sports coach and marathon runner, wrote her new book, Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health. She’s a doctor, so you can trust her not to shy away from bodily functions, but still, any book that has ‘fanny farts’ as a topic of discussion gets a thumbs up from me.
McGrattan has, true to her word, sorted all the barriers to exercise that women cite when excusing themselves from PE, from menarche to menopause. Rolling up her sleeves and washing her hands thoroughly, she gives her readers a full pelvic examination – suggesting ways of coping with heavy or dysmenorrhoeal flow, the chafing of sanitary towels or the grumbling ache of period pain – then moves on to childbearing and attendant issues, not least the business of dealing with the ultimate issue when trying to train post natally. (And no, it’s not all about trying to attain beach-ready bodies weeks after the happy event).
The good doctor then turns her attention to the perimenopausal woman and her elder sisters, gently persuading us that although weight gain and fatigue are an all-too-common symptom of this time of our lives, it does not have to be inevitable.
There’s no hectoring in her well-researched and informative writing. Each chapter starts with a chatty, easy-to-absorb biology lesson, then moves on to the types of exercise people can try to alleviate their symptoms. There are also chapters on common injuries and other health problems, as well as moods, motivation and medication. Opinions and advice are sought from clinical specialists in all of the fields discussed: psychologists, diabetes doctors, surgeons, cardiologist and specialists in respiratory medicine all give second opinions.
Then there are the women’s stories: funny, frank and encouraging all. There’s the woman who discovered the hard way what a rectocele is (go on, look it up, then make a mental note not to do too much too soon after parturition). Then there’s the student athlete who has to plan her training around her IBS. Another, aged 60, is training for a one-mile open-water swim following a hip replacement. Even well-known good sports get a word in, including television presenter Carol Smillie, who cheerfully writes about a particularly gory occasion in peri-menopause when she felt her ‘insides literally fall out.’
The message is that, though it may not always be pretty, keeping active is always the better option than opting to do nothing at all (and the statistics are provided to back it up). Even osteoarthritis – commonly, and mistakenly, called the ‘wear and tear arthritis’, responds better to exercise than rest. Getting active doesn’t wear down arthritic joints further, as Arthritis Research UK concurs.
It is, of course, not a new message. The Exercise Works campaign has been banging the same drum for years now, but Doctor McGrattan has a lovely, reassuring manner way with her; it’s just like bagging an appointment with your favourite GP (we all know how hard that is) and having as long as you like to talk about the stuff you wouldn’t even share with your partner.
‘Pooing your pants with excitement and fear happens at any age.’ she writes, comfortingly. And suddenly, those barriers to exercise seem surmountable.
Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99