Sarah Murphy is a 31-year-old Director of Development in New Orleans. Her fitness journey demonstrates the positive effects physical activity has on holisitc well-being, and also represents the importance of instilling these habits in other lives that might find themselves in our care. Sarah is expecting her first child, and her relationship with fitness demonstrates that the benefits of exercise include the peace of mind and fortitude necessary to prepare for the challenges of parenthood.
WB: Give me a brief overview of the main things you participate in that keep you active and healthy.
SM: Right now I have two main activities: jogging and doing pre-natal yoga. Actually, I’m a little more comfortable on the elliptical trainer at this point in my pregnancy than jogging on a track. With the pre-natal yoga, I like yoga practice in general but it’s also helpful for some of the aches and pains that go along with being pregnant. It also helps prep you for the birth process.
When I moved back to NOLA, I decided to do the Couch 2 5k program. My apartment was near the street car tracks so I ran outside, along the tracks, and the weather was absolutely beautiful at the time. Now, I’m able to run a full 5k. It’s something I like doing outside. In the last couple of months it’s harder outside because of the heat, but I can do it on an indoor track. Now, there’s jiggling, and the bigger I get the more uncomfortable I get. I also have gestational arthritis, so the elliptical is more low impact. That’s working better for me now. It’s an extension of my running practice. After I have the baby, I’m hopeful that I won’t have these joint issues.
Yoga is something I’ve been involved in on and off since high school. I’m naturally very flexible, I love stretching, so it appeals to me that way first. Also it’s really nice to go into a quiet, sort of dimly lit room with relaxing music for an hour a couple of times a week. I like the philosophy that yoga has of being satisfied with being where you are, not being focused on where you want to be. Being okay with the now. That’s something I struggle a lot with. Being okay with now, not trying to think too far into the future. The yoga instructor constantly reminds you to be okay with where you are, if you want to take it further, do that, but if not, be happy with where you are now. Prenatal yoga is really about that. I’m having to make adjustments to things that are normally easy for me, to “make room for baby.” It’s less intense than regular yoga, but it’s very relaxing. We focus on the areas of your body, sciatic nerve pain, pubic bone, hips, that kind of stuff. We also focus on holding difficult to hold positions – like holding goddess pose for a minute, which is the length of the contraction. So you can practice being uncomfortable for that length of time and not being able to escape it. We turn our attention away form the pain and onto other things. We also do a lot of keigle exercises.
WB: How do these activities relate to your personal identity? What do they say about who you are, fundamentally, as a person?
SM: Running reflects the Type A, goal-oriented part of my personality. There is so much that I can track when I’m running. I love starting up the Nike app and seeing exactly how fast I’m running, if I’m hitting certain goal points, if I’m making a personal best, I love that. I can set a goal and there’s a concrete way for me to reach that. I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. It’s similar to how I am with everything. I like to set goals and blow them out of the water.
With yoga, I’m a little neurotic too, and I get stressed out about future plans. I worry about a lot of things that I don’t have control over, and yoga is kind of a non-pharmaceutical manner to help me chill out and remember that I can only control the things that are in my immediate vicinity and try to accept the things I can’t control. It’s hard, but it’s something I need to do especially as I become a mother. I keep thinking about this person that’s quite literally a part of me right now. This is the only time in my life when I have control, and I don’t even have that much control over how this person is living and being. Once it comes out, they’re their own person. I can make plans, but this kid could be a total pain in the ass! I have no control over their personality, what they’re going to like, what they want to do, and that’s hard, it’s scary. So I’m trying to become as much as possible, at peace with the unknown and the scary.
At the end of every yoga class, the teacher reads a selection from a book called Mama Zen. The selection is called “Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood.” At the end of every single prenatal class the teacher reads a selection from this and it’s a Zen meditation on the challenges of parenthood. It’s made me think a lot more about how to deal with some of the difficulties of having another human being that you’re responsible for that you love and care about. You have to deal with all the chaos of a child – you can’t just throw your hands up and go “I’m not dealing with this!” That will be one of my biggest challenges, the big lack of control over my child and who they are.
WB: How do these activities make you feel? What are the benefits you derive from them, from both a physical and emotional standpoint?
SM: I’ve suffered on and off from depression and anxiety, and when you’re pregnant you can’t take any medications. There are some that are okay, but I’m not on anything while I’m pregnant. I weaned myself off for the most part before. So physical activity is important for me to keep good, happy brain chemicals going. I need those endorphins. I need that stress release so that it’s okay that I can’t take anti-anxiety meds if I feel like I need it.
Physically, being pregnant, everything hurts. I’m uncomfortable sleeping, and it’s becoming more so. My hips are sore. Having that physical activity helps me to feel better in my body. Yoga is particularly helpful with that.
WB: How do you feel about your current level of health and fitness - not just physically, but mentally? Is this different from how you've felt in the past? If so, what's changed for you, and how were you able to make those changes?
SM: I feel really healthy right now. I’m in good physical shape. I’m in good mental shape. Several years ago I lost about 200lbs. I’ve gained some of it back. I’m 175lbs below highest my pre-pregnancy weight. My lowest weight wasn’t actually sustainable – I wasn’t even exercising then and was barely eating. But I feel good physically now. I think my level of exercise is good. Mentally I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in. I was at a really low point before I left NYC. Being back home and being able to get out of that cycle of depression I was in, and start a new life helped a lot. I’ve worked very hard in the past two years to get myself into a mentally healthy place. I tend not to think too much about my health in terms of my size. The questions I ask myself are: can I do the things I want to do physically? Can I do them with relative ease? Are my vital statistics good? My blood pressure is really low. I had it checked and my midwife was like, “Do you run marathons?” and I was like “No, but I jog.” I think about this correlation a lot because my BMI is high, I wear a relatively large clothing size, but that’s where my body wants to be. Everything else about me, my cholesterol, my blood pressure, my resting heart rate, the things I can do physically are all really, really good. I find in the fitness world, there’s not a lot of acceptance of health at any size.
WB: Are there mindsets you've adopted, rituals you complete, etc. to keep yourself in a positive mind/body space? What are they?
I like to keep my house as clean as possible. For me, being in a non-chaotic space is really helpful. I’m pretty triggered by my environment. I do like keeping my physical space around me clean. I try to, in my yoga practice at least, keep my mind as clear as possible, letting a thought come in, acknowledging that it’s there, and putting it away.
WB: What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to adopt habits and routines to achieve greater health and wellbeing?
SM: One of the things that I’ve struggled with the most is that if I see a project or goal that’s huge, it’s easy for me to become overwhelmed by it and not deal with it at all. For me what’s important is that things like Couch to 5k is you start out really incrementally. You start to understand that those smaller increments are actually really big changes. If you’ve never run before and you go run 3 miles, you’ll get less than halfway and never go running again. So, it’s small things, it’s being able to run for 90 seconds, then 3 minutes, then 5 minutes, then 10. You’ve gotta break it down into small things. Every little thing that you do is helping you towards a healthier you. Lots of little tiny things add up over time. Before you know it, you’ll be further along than you thought you were. If anyone is looking to get into running, I highly recommend Couch to 5k. If you try to move onto the next week and that run is killing you, you can just repeat the week before until it feels comfortable and go forward from there. For me, it’s just doing one thing at a time, breaking a task down.