2019 was one of the highlights of my life. I had settled into my late 30's, adapted to life with three kids and made being healthy a real part of my life. In 2018 I had taken up running, but in 2019 I went from a casual runner to taking things pretty seriously, training multiple days per week, putting out around 100k per week in distance and running distances of up to 10k at a sub five minute pace. I lost a ton of weight. On top of that, I managed to travel loads, we managed to hit up Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and Dubai in a single year. I was happy and healthy.
Then came 2020.
Covid-19 made my life hell. It hit me first with the lockdowns, working from home and the closure of my local gym wrecked my routine. I hate running outside in the winter months and my motivation went right down the toilet. Then race after race got cancelled, as did my local Park Run (after only one official race!). Then in the summer, before vaccinations kicked off, I caught the virus for myself and although I had a relatively mild initial infection, I was one of those people who landed a good old case of "long covid" which caused problems with my breathing. After visiting my GP and getting some tests done, I was formally diagnosed with Asthma and had to start a regular program of treatment via inhalers (including steroids to help with serious asthma attacks). Work was also super stressful thanks to a program of layoffs which took the best part of the year to get worked out, although amazingly, I survived the cut.
On the plus side, we didn't lose any close family to covid and my new breathing troubles put me in the high-risk category and allowed me to get vaccinated amongst the first in my age group.
In 2021, I tried getting back into the gym and working with a personal trainer to get my health going again but weights and movement never really got me going in the way a good cardio session did. I tried to get running again but couldn't manage more than a few hundred meters without huffing and puffing. Add to that the constant interruptions of snap lockdowns and my health just spiralled. From 76kg in 2019, my weight slowly rose all the way up to 96kg at the end of 2021, largely as a pattern of stress/boredom resulted in nights spent eating takeout and junk food on the sofa . On top of this I developed a bitching case of insomnia and a huge brain fog descended over my life, which impacted my ability to focus at work and drastically impacted my mood and behaviour.
Thanks to the wonderful pandemic, we didn't feel comfortable travelling so by the end of 2021 I had a big chunk of vacation due from work, and so I booked off the back-end of December to spend at home with my wife and kids. We had a good Christmas but I found myself staying awake later and not getting out of bed until close to lunch time.
Something had to change.
I started off by cutting social media from my life. I deleted the apps for Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and more from my phone, hoping that I would find some more focus. I also blocked their websites using ScreenTime and had my wife enter a pin code that I didn't have access to. This allowed me to spend less time looking at my phone and spend more time living in the present moment. I felt a little happier.
By the time December was over, I had seen the benefits of this small change in my life and I was eager for more positive change and I'm an "in for a penny, in for a pound" kind of guy, so I went all in.
I wanted to lose some weight, I hoped that would take some stress off my lungs and allow me to get running again. With that goal in mind, I decided to start Paleo aka "the caveman diet". Eating a diet of only meat and vegetables, cutting out grains, sugar, dairy and all artificial crap. As someone who was chronically exhausted the idea of cooking fresh food every night didn't appeal, so I decided to get into meal prep. I purchased a big batch of food, cooked it all at once, divided it up and put it into the fridge so that when I was hungry, I could quickly grab a healthy meal instead of taking out my phone and ordering takeout.
The first week was horrible. I felt hungry a lot. I couldn't sleep and that made the tiredness worse but I did lose some weight. The second week, although I was still hungry, it didn't feel quite so bad and more weight dropped off.
I'm already down from 96kg to 88kg in just a couple of weeks.
Time to fix my sleep.
First step was to cut the caffeine. Tiredness and caffeine are a vicious circle - you consume more coffee to stay awake, which makes it harder to sleep, which means you need more coffee to keep going, and the cycle repeats.
Prior to my winter break, I had been drinking upwards of 8 cups of coffee per day just to keep myself awake. Luckily, the benefits of getting out of bed later in the day meant that I actually drank less coffee, getting down to around 3 cups per day. This made it much easier to go cold turkey and cut out coffee almost completely.
I still have a single straight espresso in the morning and I've been drinking decaf tea throughout the day but overall my caffeine consumption dropped drastically. I bolstered my caffeine reduction with an evening meditation session (thanks HeadSpace) and putting my blue-light emitting devices away at 8pm sharp every night, reading paper books instead and going to bed by 10pm, instead of staying up until past 2am.
It took a while, but this week I actually started sleeping. Not just sleeping but actually dreaming. Deep, detailed amazing dreams that I could still recall upon waking. This was a massive change from the months and months where I had been lying in bed, replaying stressful scenarios over and over in my head.
Then it happened.
Out of the blue, I woke up one day and the mental fog that had been plaguing me for so long was gone. I could focus for long periods, listen to detailed conversations and talk without losing track of what I was wanting to say. I felt like a whole new person. On top of that, I realised it had been a few weeks since I had last used my inhaler.
I felt energised, I was awake and ready to kick-ass. Amazingly this timed perfectly with the gyms re-opening after our last snap lockdown in December, so I dragged my arse to the gym and knocked out 5k with relative ease (for someone that hasn't run properly for the best part of 18 months). The next day, I did it again. By the end of the week, I had done it four times, knocking out a total of 20km.
3 weeks. 21 days. Not even a full month. Thats how long it took to get my life back under control. I still have things I want to improve (primarily losing more weight and get my 5km time back to under 25 minutes) but I no longer feel like I'm in a rapid spiral towards an early death. I feel hopeful and confident. The people around me are seeing the changes too. I'm calmer and more capable. Three weeks was all it took to remove the cursed mental fog that was plaguing my life.
Three weeks ago, I wouldn't have been able to write an article like this without a significant amount of support and far more time.
I'm not sharing this story as a humblebrag, but in the hope that maybe one day, someone who struggles as much as I have been, might come across this and just maybe find some light at the end of the tunnel. If that person is you... just remember. Three weeks isn't a long time to get your life back on track.
Here's a quick summary of all the things I changed in my life so far this year:
- Adopted Paleo Diet (with healthy meal prepping)
- Cut out social media and stopped using devices after 8pm
- Removed caffeine
- Evening meditation
- Nightly reading
- Early bedtime (10pm to sleep)
- Back to the gym
- Taking daily multi-vitamin supplements and vitamin D3
I wish I knew exactly which of these things contributed to me feeling better, but for now I'm content to maintain this new status-quo. Maybe I'll reintroduce a few things in the future, but it'll be slowly and with caution. I don't want to slip back into my old ways.