Like most of us, it’s with resigned trepidation that I scan the news every morning. And, sure enough, this week’s headlines have not disappointed.
Amid whispers that a new, improved lockdown may be coming, one featuring “stricter measures and initiatives to boost adherence, following concerns at weekend scenes of crowded seafronts and parks”, a Government source made an interesting aside. The rule allowing two people from different households to meet for exercise was “being used as an excuse for people to go for a coffee with friends”, they said, before adding: “It may be we tighten up on things like that…”
If our exercise-buddy support systems are banned, I will indeed be gutted. Lockdown will become even more of a “slogdown”. It’s tough for everyone, of course, but my situation is unusual. Aged 52, going through a divorce, I am temporarily living with my father until finances are sorted. I’m a writer, so I work from home.
There isn’t day-to-day interaction with colleagues – even if it’s rumoured that masks will be introduced into offices, which will make the morning coffee run interesting. I have a boyfriend, but he lives in New York. We talk and message several times a day, and I spend a lot of the day gossiping on social media with friends and interesting strangers. Sure, there is also video conferencing and virtual drinks. But stuck in an overheated room staring at your Zoom chin doesn’t always cut it. My dad is good company, but he’s a 78-year-old man.
Outdoor daily social interactions keep me sane. Twice a week, I have my personal trainer – and these days, our activity consists of running through local fields. Well, we’re meant to run. A lot of the time, we walk and talk. You see, it’s not just about the exercise. Tough and sunny Karen is also great company and a fantastic listener.
I get to sound off about the challenges of my living situation and to regularly swap stories with a woman my age. Sometimes, we even get takeout bagels (sorry, Boris). And these days, it’s more about the “talking therapy” than the exercise.
I also see my friends, but not as regularly, as they all live an hour’s drive away in north London, previously my home of 30 years. Once a week or so, I’ve been driving up there for socially distanced walks on Hampstead Heath and in Highgate Woods.
But now, even this minor pursuit seems under threat – or at least frowned upon. Last weekend, friends Jessica Allen and Eliza Moore were walking at a reservoir five miles from their Derbyshire homes when they were stopped by police and fined £200 each. They said their cars were “surrounded” by police, they were questioned on why they were there, and told the hot drinks they had with them were not allowed as they were “classed as a picnic”. Ms Allen said the experience was “very intimidating”. The police insisted driving to exercise was “not in the spirit” of lockdown.
The “spirit of lockdown” may need upholding but those – particularly those not living in bustling family units – also need to keep our spirits up. I mean, I’m hardly attending raves. And, yes, this worrying new virus variant is far more transmissible than the first one.
But most research agrees that it’s generally not passed on outdoors. For example, a study of 318 outbreak clusters in China, found that coronavirus is mostly passed on in the home and on public transport. Transmission outside rarely occurred and was where social distancing had not been observed.
There’s a lot of vague chat about “mental health” these days, but for those of us suffering emotionally, this isn’t just theory. A structured day and social contact are really important in staying well – both provided by regular walks with a friend, Last week, Rethink, the mental health charity, revealed that the number of people being diagnosed with depression had rocketed: more than six million people had been prescribed antidepressants in the three months to September 2020, the highest on record. Behind these statistics are lots of human stories.
And it’s not so long since I was among them. I spent most of the 2010s poleaxed with insomnia and depression. Thank God, I’ve been healthy for two years now. But I need to be careful, especially with my sleep “hygiene”. Exercise and sunlight are vital for the regulation of the sleep hormone, melatonin and one’s circadian rhythm. How much harder is it to motivate yourself to drag yourself out for a walk alone, without a “fitness buddy” especially in miserable January and February.
So, yes Prof Whitty, I’ll wear a mask in the queue outside the supermarket or walking to local shops. I’ll stay off public transport. I have my arm held out for a vaccine. But, please, leave my exercise support system intact.