The deaths of my friends snapped me into reality

After the passing of two friends, Irene Halpin Long decided to focus on improving her health and wellbeing, by looking at her diet and fitness, as well as deleting social media platforms. Here she talks about her new-found lust for life...
The deaths of my friends snapped me into reality
Irene Halpin Long and (right) personal trainer Jamie Cronin at Dennehy's Blackpool, Cork.Pic; Larry Cummins

The deaths of my friends snapped me into reality

IN the last 12 months, two of my friends died. My friend, Dave, passed away, aged 38. He was a year older than I am now. Along with the feelings associated with the loss of my friend, Dave’s death slapped me into reality.

I realised that today is the only day I truly own and that I needed to focus my attention on the present. I needed to re-evaluate how I was living my day to day life and drastically improve my wellbeing, health and fitness.

In June, I decided that an improved path to overall wellbeing would only be successful if I attempted to de-clutter my mind.

One afternoon, my three-year old daughter, Saoirse, and I sat down to colour in a picture.

Midway through our activity, I started scrolling through social media on my phone. Saoirse tapped my phone with the top of her marker to grab my attention and said, “Mummy! Please put your phone down.” I realised that I was spending too much time in the virtual world. I was consumed by what other people were doing, reading their opinions on things that didn’t concern me and would not benefit my life in anyway.

I deleted all my social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — and removed myself from the virtual world. Being away from social media had a positive effect on my mood because my mind was no longer bombarded by information and opinion.

Irene Halpin Long with Paul O'Sullivan of Paul O'Sullivan Bespoke Nutrition, and personal trainer Jamie Cronin at Dennehy's Blackpool, Cork. REF ELAINE DUGGAN.Pic; Larry Cummins
Irene Halpin Long with Paul O'Sullivan of Paul O'Sullivan Bespoke Nutrition, and personal trainer Jamie Cronin at Dennehy's Blackpool, Cork. REF ELAINE DUGGAN.Pic; Larry Cummins

Less screen time meant more time to properly enjoy the moments I was sharing with my daughter and husband. It allowed space to think about how I might improve my health and fitness.

I thought about how each of us uses our bodies each day to move around our worlds — to get us out of bed, get us to work, run after children, walk the dog. We all need to eat to fuel our bodies, yet often make mindless decisions with regards to food — we ‘grab’ something to eat, instead of planning meals. Our decisions become clouded with excuses, like ‘I don’t have time’; ‘eating healthily is expensive’. There is an element of truth to these types of excuses. Both time and money are precious commodities. There is always some unforeseen expense that arises. There is always a party or a wedding to attend that will interfere with a healthy diet. But why are excuses more important than following the fundamental principles of healthy living?

I had fooled myself into believing I was a healthy eater and that I was active. I wasn’t. I needed to re-educate myself and learn what it means to really live and not run mindlessly from one day to the next.

My first port of call was to nutrition coach, Paul O’Sullivan of Paul O’ Sullivan — Bespoke nutrition, based in Dennehy’s in Douglas. Over the 12 weeks I worked with him, not only did my eating habits improve, my general wellbeing improved. Paul explained to me the key factors I needed to address, in order to improve my overall health and wellbeing.

Paul said: “Good nutrition impacts everything in your life — your sleep, your mood, your immune system, your physical performance and recovery, any injuries or illnesses you may be suffering with. To improve your health and wellbeing, drink more water, increase your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with lean protein, set a proper sleep routine, find ways to manage daily stresses better and move more, be it in the gym or by starting with daily walks.”

As I was starting to eat better and lose weight, I noticed I had a lot more energy. Paul continued to emphasise the importance of moving and exercising regularly. For many years, I had made generous donations to gyms, in the form of monthly fees. I would cross the threshold of the gym once a month, stroll on the treadmill and juggle the lightest set of weights. I was probably exerting more energy carrying the grocery bags from the boot of the car to the kitchen than I was attempting to exercise at the gym. After listening to Paul’s advice, I vowed that my attitude to exercise would change. I was going to hit the gym regularly.

Irene Halpin Long challenged herself to jump on the gym boxes.Pic; Larry Cummins
Irene Halpin Long challenged herself to jump on the gym boxes.Pic; Larry Cummins

When I started attending Dennehy’s gym in Blackpool, I decided I would try spinning classes. I had tried spinning years ago but never found a class I enjoyed. Frankly, I used to think that pedalling a stationary bicycle in an ‘in-vitro’ nightclub, surrounded by strangers clad in Lycra, seemed ludicrous. But I was on a new path now and had removed the mental shackles that had previously bound me to negative notions about exercise.

I attended a spinning class one evening. Jamie Cronin, a personal trainer at Dennehy’s gym in Blackpool, took it. The class was high energy, fun and challenging. I was both pleased and shocked. I had finally found an activity I really liked.

Jamie explained the importance of enjoying your exercise routine: “Add something to your lifestyle that you can keep up with. Do something you look forward to participating in. The most important thing to aim for when beginning a new exercise regime is to enjoy yourself.”

After attending a few more classes, I decided to sign up for a six-week block of personal training sessions with Jamie. I attended one personal training session a week and went to the gym three times a week to workout.

On the first day, Jamie asked me to outline my goals. Along with losing weight and inches, I had a particular goal in mind that stemmed from wonderful childhood memories I have of playing with my friend, Catherine, on her farm. We both loved jumping on and over the hay bales that lay in the barn. In the fitness studio at the gym, there were a series of boxes, all varying heights. Looking at them, I was reminded of the joy of jumping as a child, without fear.

Jamie guaranteed that I would be able to jump onto these boxes at the end of my six-week block of training. He added plyometric training to my gym routine. I started jumping onto a step, over small hurdles and progressed to jumping on the boxes. Lo and behold, by week six, I had planted my two feet on top of the tallest box.

Although the onus is on the individual to work towards improving one’s health and wellbeing, not one of us can go through life without support. I certainly needed advice and support from people like Paul and Jamie in order to succeed in improving my overall health, fitness and well-being.

Jamie said: “People put too much pressure on themselves to improve all aspects of their lives at once and end up failing. Continue to improve little by little and you will succeed. Accept advice from people in the know. I have designed fitness programs for people with their specific goals in mind, only to see them in the gym the next day, doing an exercise they saw on Instagram which does not suit their goals. Listen to your trainer.”

 Irene with Paul O'Sullivan of Paul O'Sullivan Bespoke Nutrition. REF ELAINE DUGGAN.Pic; Larry Cummins
 Irene with Paul O'Sullivan of Paul O'Sullivan Bespoke Nutrition. REF ELAINE DUGGAN.Pic; Larry Cummins

I lost a stone in 12 weeks and 22 inches from my body. Whilst I am proud of these achievements, the greatest gift I received is a newly-found lust for life.

My friend, John, died in June. We were classmates at UCC, studying towards an MA in creative writing. He was a fantastic poet and lived life to the full. I had never written any poetry, but I liked the thought of trying. I was due to pick my classes for my second year and was debating with John as to whether or not I should take the plunge. He said: “Irene, when, again, in your life, will you get a full 12 weeks to read, write and study poetry? You should do it”.

I’m glad I listened and took his advice. Discovering and writing poetry has opened up a new and creative world for me.

John’s advice about taking the opportunities that life offers feels far more poignant now.

If you want to make a positive change to your life, do it now. Fill your life with activities you love and surround yourself with people who bring joy to your life.

Paul offered the following advice: “Take action now. Don’t wait until Monday. Make a change immediately. It can be something as simple as deciding to drink more water each day to working with a coach. But, if you want to change your life for the better, take action.”

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