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The Elation In Their Eyes

At Achieve Oxfordshire, I'm a full-time practitioner. I deliver programs for weight loss management, cognitive-behavioural change, mental health pathways, all that sort of thing. And then my side-line is my fitness company, Enjoy Fitness Oxon. I deliver personal training sessions and obviously do contractor work for Aspire, which is through the Active Reach project. With the gym being shut over lockdown, Aspire got in touch with me to ask if I’d continue online. I said, ‘Of course I will, these people still need physical activity.’ So everything had to be done virtually. I had to adjust all my face-to-face classes, so everything happened in my living room.


I have built my relationship with Aspire and Active Reach, that helped bring all of this about. We’ve got good foundations in place, we understand each other. Initially, I used to volunteer. They started paying me when we started doing virtual classes, that’s when they had the funding. And that was fantastic for me, obviously, financially. But to be honest, if there hadn't been funding, I would have done it anyway. For me, it's a vocation. Just seeing people smile, the elation, the way their faces change online. That was really important. At first I thought, ‘Can I do this, do I want to do this?’ The world was shut down, I had my daughter to worry about, who had Covid and was very poorly in isolation in her bedroom, then my younger daughter and my partner as well. But I realised people were going to need support mentally, physically and emotionally. I just took it one day at a time.

We got the session running online on Fridays. And, you know, it was so nice. The first week, you just think ‘Oh nobody's going to turn up.’ And I've had over twelve people joining the session to do some exercise. In terms of their mental health, or recovery and things like that, they really needed that contact. I would have to make sure the session that was delivered was for anybody – people completely new to exercise, or somebody that was regularly coming along. It was a very diverse group of people. Some people were on some medication. One guy, he's got challenges with balance etc, but they managed to set him up on Zoom. He couldn't do all the activities, but it didn't matter he loved being part of the session. It makes my eyes prickly, just that simple free session on a Friday for people to come along, do some activity and socialise, and you'd get regular committed people every week.


I could see everybody in their houses, living rooms, they could see me. We’d just start off with a light warm up, and then spend half an hour doing some aerobic moves, combined with core focus strength and having some fun together creating some unity. We’d then spend at least 15 minutes doing just relaxation, and stretching exercises, just to wind everybody back down, to bring us back into balance. We always finished with a couple of breathing exercises just to get any negative energy out of everybody's body. We would then go and break for five minutes and grab a coffee, and then we would share a half hour of mindfulness. We would do some meditation, breathing exercises.


A lot of the sessions, as we were going further into lockdown, we did a lot of talking about mental health, trying to figure out what we could do to support each other, sharing things, understanding things, there was lots of tears at times. It became a really safe space, not just for me, but everybody that was there. People felt trust. And it was just really lovely. It was about creating a sense of unity, community, talking, sharing, you know, and everybody feeling really vulnerable. In that situation, everybody felt supported, I think because we started swapping things, ideas, feelings. People were struggling with food and money. We started talking and trying to give each other pathways – food banks, community larders, stop smoking services, alcohol support, weight loss. All those different elements of my job came into supporting these people, just being there each week. That 10 to 12 slot was sometimes emotional, but most of the time happy. People really opened up, we shared and understood. Since then, some of us have met up, and a lot of that group have continued to come to the face-to-face group. They've got that sense of a community security; it gives them the confidence to leave their house.


The other program I worked on through Active Reach was with Banbury Mosque, supporting the set- up of a gym that women can use. I remember going in there and just seeing the stress on the coordinator’s face, like a bunny in headlights. I've been supporting her to understand the mechanisms of getting the gym set up, getting people qualified, helping them nutritionally, setting up their IT system, just building relationships over at the Mosque. To be able to offer the ladies from that community safety and comfort in coming into a gym, that’s massive. Just seeing the elation in their eyes that they've got something that allows them to come out of their homes, and they can do safely, and they're allowed to do it – we can't ask for more.


I'm very grateful that I had the opportunity to do all of this in lockdown. And also, I was thankful to have a job. But also for my own mental health, you know, I was affected mentally through lockdown the same as everybody else. So, it's a journey of self-discovery for me, but also about what I can do for others. I truly believe that everybody – doesn't matter what the situation, good, bad or ugly – everybody deserves the same opportunities. And just to give them a simple thing like exercise, to trigger their mental health in a positive way. That's huge for me, huge. Let's take the complexities away as much as we can.


I think a lot of people have gone back to basics, you know. We don't need all these materialistic things in life, what we need is to talk to each other more, understand each other more, share things more. And what's a massive for me is that people need to recognise that everybody has a limitation to their mental health. I really hope moving forward, that there's a huge investment in giving people mental health and wellbeing support. We live in a very affluent country, you know, people need to be aware of the services that they have out there and they're not, they don't know.


Covid has made me really passionate about it, that people need this help. People have become even more vulnerable. I've always wanted to help people, but to really focus on the mental health side, that desire does sort of come from seeing people struggle through this time. This pandemic has had a detrimental impact on people's lives, and we’re not just going to flick a switch, it's not going to just change instantly. Some people haven't left their homes for over two years, nearly. And that's frightening. They're scared to go to their front gate, you know.


I'm just worried that now, people will just switch back into hustle, bustle, buying, selling. Please, just stop doing that. In the midst of that, things get lost, actual feelings, understanding, caring and just being there for people. I don't want to see people suffer. Nobody needs to suffer in silence.

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