Rhona Re-wrote her Body Code and lost 3 stone. Could I do the same?

No, I don’t want to lose 3 stone. But I do need to change the habits of a lifetime, and a lot may depend on it.

Rhona and I started this blog back in 2014 (OMG, has it been that long already??) after an incredible season of rowing fitness and fun. Rhona, in her mid twenties – had literally changed her own life for the better by loosing several stone, by ‘re-writing her own behavioural code’, that being her attitude towards nutrition and exercise.  Check us out at the Blog awards back in 2016, being all fabulous!

So fast-forward to 2017, and what has happened? Rhona’s code stayed re-written. She skipped down the aisle this year, fit and fabulous, under a bower of oars raised by our crew and is now a happily married woman. She’s running, rowing, swimming and strength training, and she’s a constant source of motivation to those around her.

My journey has been a little more scenic. After 3 years of fitness, disaster struck. I was practising yoga intensively, heading off to handstand workshops with balance gurus like Dylan Werner, and setting up a weekly yoga class in my workplace, as well as going to fab yoga holidays and workshops. I was rowing at least twice a week, competing (and medalling) at national competitions, as well as erging and strength training. I took a coaches course for rowing and started a yoga teacher training course.  I was running twice a week for fun, and working hard to get my 5K time down to under 22 minutes and having a blast with new running buddies in Dublin and in Limerick. I was kayaking, hiking and generally being my most bad-ass, healthy self.  Queen of the green smoothies me.

And then I hurt my back.

One minute, I’m high on exercise endorphins, rocking my skinny jeans and gleefully chomping down on 3000 calories a day. The next, I’m unable to put on shoes without crying, and I’m sleepless with sciatica.  (And the calorific intake went up, TBH)  It was hell. I won’t bore you too much, but yes I had MRIs, physio, acupuncture and the rest.  I did everything you’re supposed to to get better. And over the course of 6 months, my back relapsed no less than four times. I’m now on nerve blockers, (which help a bit) but I’m still in constant discomfort and driving is a bitch. I’ve opted not to have surgery, though it’s been discussed. This week I had a cortisone epidural, which I’m hoping will kick start a period of recovery.

Needless to say, I haven’t seen the inside of a rowing boat for a while. My back pain was diagnosed as a ruptured L4/L5 disc and a herniated L3/L4. However, I believe strongly that my inability to heal is a rather more complex thing to diagnose.

[Medical disclaimer – everyone is different, I am not a back expert, and I’m not a doctor, though I do prefer an evidence based approach to medicine and therapies. This is simply an observation on my own injury, not a suggestion on treatment for anyone else]

These are the things that I believe have caused my back pain to linger:

  • Insufficient deep (Slow Wave) sleep
  • Poor breathing
  • Poor stress management
  • Poor posture

Though I started a fitter, healthier lifestyle back in 2014, I never considered these to be control factors for genuine health. I routinely sleep only 4- 5 hours per night mid week, as a ‘night owl‘ and a ‘burn the candle at both ends’ kind of person. I also work and write constantly, drive heaps, and am online 12 hours a day. In hindsight, I was chronically sleep deprived.  My Twitter profile proudly boasted “Will sleep when dead”. Talk about hubris.

Deep Deep Baby

Deep wave sleep has a number of specific benefits that are key to back pain. It’s a period of accelerated cell repair. During deep sleep your body makes Human Growth Hormone (HGH).  HGH is responsible for growth in children, and tissue and cell repair in adults.  We get less and less deep sleep as we get older, from 20% of total sleep in our twenties, to around 5% when we’re rather old. It’s hard to find clear data on deep sleep and how much a person needs, but we do know that the older we get, the less deep sleep comes our way. You can in fact, read a person’s sleep EEG and from their percentage of deep sleep (delta wave) calculate how old they are!

Deep sleep also releases Prolactin, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Lots of repair and recovery type things happen to our body during deep sleep, and I could tell I was getting very, very little. How did I know?Well, around the time of my first relapse, I bought a fitbit.

Fitbit, and other trackers like jawbone and garmin have gotten mixed reviews, and it seems that people tend to use them fanatically for about three months, and then lose the charger. However, for me, the sleep analysis facility alone has been life changing. And YES I suspect it’s not entirely accurate.  However, when you work in data, you know that you can’t change things until you start measuring them. And checking my data each morning really made me accountable for just how little sleep I was getting. I could see months of 3, 4 or 5 hour weeknights. Weekends where I might sleep binge for 10 hours, twice that of the night before, waking like the Walking Dead, and of course, chronically hooked on coffee. Was it coincidence that after extended periods of little sleep, prolonged stress and driving that my back would give up the ghost? What’s more surprising is that it’s taken me so bloody long to see the obvious.

Fitbit allows me to record not just my total sleeping hours, but the amount of deep-wave, REM and light sleep I get. And the verdict is in, it’s not enough. And so, I have begun to TRY, really, really hard to change the habits of a lifetime. To re-write my night owl code.

  • Because I used to bend over backwards while juggling fire, and now I can’t even touch my toes.
  • Because I love rowing with all my giddy heart and soul and the thoughts of never racing again makes me well up.
  • Because I want to be the fit healthy me, for my children, and for my mental health.

So, if Rhona can re-write her body code, then maybe I can re-write mine?









Bitchmittens Emily



Gregory D. M. Potter, Debra J. Skene, Josephine Arendt, Janet E. Cade, Peter J. Grant, Laura J. Hardie

About Deep Sleep:  20th Feb 2017.  Extracted 28th July 2017  https://www.tuck.com/deep-sleep

Sleep Health (From the US Sleep Apnea Association) Extracted 28th July 2017 https://www.sleephealth.org/sleep-health/

Charles L. Nunn, David R. Samson, Andrew D. Krystal