'I didn't grow up as a sporty child," says Norah Casey, businesswoman, about the long route towards exercise she has taken. "Sport wasn't a big thing in my school - I think we played netball, and that was it - and I wasn't part of a team outside school. But, because I grew up in the Phoenix Park, I had the whole of the park as my back garden."
There were, Norah says, eight people - six children and two adults - in a three-bedroom house; "the door was opened every morning, and we just raced out. My father and grandfather were rangers, so there wasn't an inch of the park I haven't run around and explored, on foot or by bike. It was a very healthy childhood, almost like living in the country."
However, life didn't stay so healthy. After school, Norah first became a nurse. "We walked miles every day," she says. "It's very painful on your feet, it wrecks your back, and there's no spare money for going to the gym. In those days there were so few staff on the wards," she recalls, "I still have lower back pain from all the lifting and shunting. I was often on my own in the wards at night, and there were none of those ergonomic lifts you have now. If you are on your feet all day for a 12-hour shift, you don't come home and go to the gym."
From nursing, Norah moved into journalism, and an unhappy first marriage. "I was with a husband who was abusive, for nine years. Because of that, I wanted to escape the house as much as possible. Now, I feel exhausted listing all the things I did in my 20s. I was working full-time, I did a post-graduate in journalism, in the evening I did TV production and direction, I learned radio with the BBC at weekends.
"Then I had my own programme on radio on Sundays. By my late 20s, I had transferred to a Phd, I was a CEO before I was 30. I look back at that period and wonder, 'how on earth did I do all that?' But exercise was not any part of my life then."
Norah left that marriage -"I had to come to terms with the new reality of a life with no money and no home, but I never imagined that my way to calming my head was exercise. I didn't look to exercise, not once." Even when she met Richard, her second husband, and entered what she describes as an intensely happy period of her life - "he was the love of my life; there was this fantastic period in my 30s where I married him, and had my son, Dara" - she didn't.
"As any woman who has a baby - and Dara weighed 10lbs at birth - knows, exercise can be hard," she says. "And then I found myself, when Dara was about seven years old, on the phone and saying to someone 'well my baby was 10lbs, and that's why I've been overweight…' and I heard Dara in the background saying, 'stop blaming me, mammy!' I thought, 'he has a point!'"
At the time, Norah was working in magazine publishing, in London and Dublin, commuting between the two, and juggling parenting. "My life was crazy. I was CEO of three companies. I was getting up at 4am several days a week, flying to London, coming back, picking Dara up from nursery, doing dinner, bedtime, back onto the computer at 9pm; there was no concept in my head of time-out for physical activity. And, at that time, exercise wasn't talked about nearly so much. It wasn't a thing, at all."
And so, like so many, Norah divided her time between the most demanding duties - work, home - without any place for exercise.
"I did, at the back of my head, always wonder if I was missing out," she says. "But there were no role models then."
It was only after Richard died, in 2011, Norah says, that things began to change. And then only because they had to. Norah reached a low point that forced her hand.
"Richard's death floored me," she says. "The person who helped me through everything was gone. I've never experienced anything like it in terms of lethargy, apathy, disinterest. Dara was 12. I didn't know what to do. He went back to school, and I went back to work. I didn't know what else to do.
"But my work life was full of people grieving Richard - he worked there too, he ran the editorial side of the publishing company. I was picking up emails addressed to him; it was not a good place to be. In the evening time, myself and Dara would come in, do homework, have dinner, watch something on TV. I wasn't energised to do anything else.
"Grief is an exhausting physical thing. There was no will to do anything. I was over-eating and eating all the wrong food. I used to say there was no emotion I couldn't eat my way through, whether it was happiness, grief, stress. I had this constant feeling of getting further and further down, sinking lower and lower."
Within a few months, she says, "it was clear this was not working. We needed to take some time out." She and Dara moved to Wicklow for a few months, and there, change began to happen. "I started walking in the forest. At first, it wasn't even about the walking, it was being in nature. There was a little river near the house, and we just lost ourselves in nature for a few months. I found some connection there that helped me think more clearly."
As part of that, Norah changed work direction - taking on more TV and radio broadcasting - and began to realise "that even though my personal life was a disaster, there was a part of my brain that could still be fired up by work. I began to feel more energised. I finally found the energy and impetus to start exercising."
It is, she says "not as easy as being told 'get out and get active,' or looking at beautiful bodies, in fact, that's a turn-off for me."
Instead, the impetus had to come from within, but also from her circumstances. "Dara had lost one parent, he was obsessing about every cold and sniffle I had. I owed it to him to do the best I could to stay alive and healthy."
She started with walking, at first with friends. "But I found that if they couldn't go one day, I didn't go either, so I decided to rely on myself. I've found I'm more likely to do things when I'm solitary."
Once the walking became regular and comfortable, Norah went further. "I started climbing mountains, I climbed Carrauntoohil and got a real kick out of doing that. Then I started venturing into more extreme things. I'm not a gym person, I've never felt an attraction to it, but I began white water rafting on the Liffey. I'm terrified of heights, so I went up in an plane and threw myself out.
"I started jogging. I was trying all sorts of different things, and I was healthier during that period than I have ever been in my life. I was hitting 50, and the healthiest than I have ever been. A year ago, I took up yoga, because I found that, for all the benefits I was getting from exercise, I was still craving some stillness in my head, and yoga was giving that to me."
She also did Dancing With The Stars - "that was by far one of the best things I've ever done. I found dancing to be very therapeutic, great fun and great exercise. You're in the moment. Your mind is fully engaged.
"My ancient body needed loads of stretching; Curtis Pritchard [Norah's pro-dance partner] made sure we spent at least 50pc of every workout stretching - years of desk-work meant my spine, my neck, my shoulders, were bent out of shape. I was about an inch taller when I finished!"
During the pandemic, Norah's exercise regime had to adapt, of course. "I had a very busy pandemic," she says. "With a lot of commitments. I do a lot of mentoring, of business women globally, and they needed a lot of support when this devastating thing happened. I also had my own business to keep afloat.
"I did some nursing duties, for cancer patients in the community; they needed to stay well away from anyone who might be infected with Covid, so community work was something that needed to be done more than acute work. Also, my mum was cocooning, and my son has severe asthma. So I was running between one thing and the next constantly.
"But I decided from early on that no matter what, I was going to do my walk. I went out early every day, and my walks got longer and longer.
"I took up cycling again, in the Phoenix Park, which is something I always loved. I had been too terrified of the traffic to do it, but with no traffic, I got my confidence up again, despite a lot of scraped knees!"
Yes, there were days she didn't much feel like it, but "I knew my own health had to be at its best to help others, and that exercise is a vital part of that. It is the key for health, and for mental health."
Norah Casey is a supporter of Chapter 4 of the 20x20 campaign, 'No Proving. Just Moving.' It is calling on all women - regardless of age, ability or sporting background - to create a new habit with physical activity. To make this journey easier, 20x20 partner, Lidl, has created a new dedicated online platform, see lidl.ie/20x20
Health & Living