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  • Writer's pictureMatt Davies

Writing and exercise

During the opening session of this year’s EWF National Writers Conference, Toni Jordan, as part of delivering her top tips for emerging writers, demonstrated an exercise she does at her desk to loosen up her back. As writers, it’s very important, she said, to look after our health, especially our spinal health, given how much time we spend hunched over a desk. And Lionel Shriver, speaking on an episode of Q&A, talked about being sidelined by a recent back injury – an occupational hazard for writers.

Lots of other authors talk about the importance of looking after our health – both physical and mental. We spend a lot of time sitting down, that’s one thing, but our writing can also take us to places that might play on our minds long after we’ve switched off our computer or to characters with whom we empathise or relate so much that it can be emotionally taxing to tell their stories.

In and out of shape

I’ve been in and out gyms since I was a teenager, sometimes for a stretch lasting a couple of months and sometimes regularly for a year at a time. When I lived in China as a 21-year-old, I trained as a fitness instructor and taught classes in a hotel gym frequented by expats. I exercised a lot back then.

It’s much easier to stay in shape than to get in shape. That’s what they say. Of course, it’s true, but I’ve let myself get out of shape too many times to count. But then something spurs me on (often it’s an approaching summer) and I get back on the horse.

Finding something that fits

In 2017 I stayed overnight with my son while he was on a month-long school camp (run, at the time, incidentally, by YA author Mark Smith). All the dads went along for the night. During the day we surfed (well, attempted to). At night, we took part in activities to get to know our sons better and talked about the particular challenges facing 15-year-old boys who are, as Mark described it, on the bridge to manhood. We slept in tents, and the next day we got up and joined the boys, if we wanted to, in their morning yoga class. After spending a restless night sleeping on a thin mat in a tight sleeping bag, it was the perfect release for my aching muscles. And it suited me too. I’ve always been flexible (I was a gymnast as a kid) and all the stretching really worked for me.

When I got home, I started going to yoga every Monday night at my local gym. All my other gym activity had dropped off, and so I was paying a monthly membership to do one class a week, but that gave me even more motivation to go. I really loved it. And I liked the instructor, too. Sometimes, when we would get a substitute instructor, I’d be tempted to turn around and leave. There’s more than one type of yoga, I discovered, and hers was the style that suited me most. She held poses for a long time and incorporated tai chi moves as well.

But then my gym closed for an 18-month renovation and the other place the instructor taught was too far away. And I didn’t want to join another gym to, again, only go to one class a week. I investigated other yoga studios but discovered how expensive yoga classes actually are. I ended up downloading an app instead. My participation is, today, haphazard.

Incorporating exercise into my everyday

I’m a freelance writer and editor by day. I work from home and, of course, spend a lot of time sitting at my desktop computer. For the past few months, I’ve made a point of going for a walk at lunchtime. I’ve got a creek that runs behind my house, so it’s a nice walk, especially when the weather’s kind. I listen to a podcast (almost exclusively about writing) or, if I’m not in the mood to engage, I listen to music instead.

Lately, I’ve decided I need to step things up (literally – see picture). Walking is great for relaxing, and it’s meditative in its own way, but it’s not improving my fitness. And, with my yoga sessions being so sporadic, I wasn’t getting enough exercise.

Ascending from the path that runs along the creek near my house is the pictured set of steps. There’s 120 of them. These steps are my new challenge. For almost two weeks now, I’ve been running up and down these steps maybe four times a week. I started on three rotations, now I’m up to six. My goal is nine. If I climb the steps nine times, that’s more than 1000 steps climbed. I’d be happy with that. As the weeks press on, I imagine I’ll stick to nine times (maybe 10 to round it out) but get faster and with less time spent resting in between sets.

Do it for your writing

As writers, we recognise the benefit that investing time in something today will have on tomorrow. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to glue ourselves to the seat when the writing gets tough. Because if we don’t keep tapping away at our keyboard, we’ll never finish that book.

So why can’t we see exercise in the same way? If the thought of feeling good when you wake up in the mornings, avoiding illness and disease and being able to play with your grandkids into older age are strong enough motivators for you, think of the creative benefits you’ll get today. Exercise isn’t only good for the heart muscle, it’s good for your creative muscle too. Even walking – breathing in fresh air – can clear the mind, helping you to see whatever your working on from a different perspective. Stuck on a plot point? Go for a walk.*

Exercise! You’ll feel better. I guarantee it.

* I recognise that not every writer is physically able to walk, but there are many forms of exercise – work out what suits you and your abilities and preferences best. But make it a habit!

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