Me vs. exercise

rowing machine in gym

January is the time of year when gyms are full of amateurs.

People who don’t go enough to know how every machine works, or have a regular workout, or feel comfortable in lycra.

People like me.

Finding exercise I enjoy has been a life-long challenge.

I don’t dispute the benefits of exercise, but sports have never featured in my hobbies.

It’s hard to admit this because being sporty makes you a well-rounded individual. That’s why the hobbies section on a CV (which I loath) should feature sports. On dating apps many men specify that they want ‘a woman who looks after herself’. I think this is a euphemism for either: a) goes to the gym or b) brushes hair (?) Everyone on Instagram apparently does yoga, lifts weights or runs marathons.

But not me.

Analysing my relationship with exercise takes me back to school days. Games or PE was my nemesis. People often suggested I should be good at sports because I was tall. I wasn’t.

Team sports, like netball, meant captains choosing their teams. I’ll never forget that painful popularity contest. There we’d stand as the names were called, hope waning. I would be in the last to be chosen without fail, along with the other girls who were too quiet, or too geeky, or simply un-athletic.

But at least netball was no contact. Games unleashed competitiveness than could lead to violence. I lived in fear of hockey, with those wooden sticks and their proximity to my shins. I hid in the corner.

My school got wise to equal opportunities and decided the girls should play rugby like the boys. During the scrum in a freezing, muddy field, a battle raged. It was a great way to punch people, pull hair and generally be obnoxious. I vowed to get a sick note to skip Games.

Sports Day was an event straight from hell. The forced competition, the mandatory nature of taking part, the parents watching. It was all awful. My strategy was to volunteer for something easy and unimportant like relay. Yet one day a teacher nominated me to run the 1500 metres. I tried to refuse, but it was for my class, the team. And I was tall, so I must be a good runner.

It was a hot sunny day and all the pupils were in attendance, spectating. I tried my hardest, but I had no stamina and my pace was plodding. Coming last, I retired from Sports Days.

At sixth form college and university no one made me do sports, thank god. The money I didn’t spend on gym membership went on vodka red bull and chips. What a joyous time.

But later, I felt I was missing out.

Friends reported actually enjoying sports and meeting others through them. What alchemy was this?

So I tried gym trials, feeling like a fraud in their air-conditioned chambers full of lycra. I had to distract myself from the boredom by watching TV or music videos. I once tried to read a book whilst on an exercise bike. I would attend less and less, until I realised I was spending £20+ per session. Then I quit.

Perhaps classes were more my thing. I tried most of them: Aerobics, Body Pump, Boxing, Yoga, Pilates, Spinning, Zumba, TRX, Street Dancing…

A highlight was the Clubbercise class. Jumping around to Boom Shake the Room holding glow sticks felt more like fun than exercise.

I’m still waiting for my Yoga awakening. I’ve tried a few variations, but to me it seems stressful. I always manage to exhale when told to inhale.

The one achievement I am proud of is completing the Couch to 5k running app a few years ago. The brilliant thing is the low barrier to entry. All you need is a pair of trainers.

I recently read Bella Mackie’s Jog On, which tells her story of running as a cure for anxiety. She talks about never having done much exercise, until a dark time following her divorce. She found running helped her mental health and it became a daily hobby.

The book reminded me that exercise has mental as well as physical benefits.

Swimming always helps to calm me. It came into its own during an anxiety attack last year. I couldn’t stop thoughts of doom running through my brain, but in the water everything felt better.

When I swim, the lumbering weight of worry fades into determined lengths as I make my way from one end to the other. I’m not racing or competing with anyone. I can feel my limbs extending, knots and tension fading.

Swimming is my therapy and exercise combined. I’m back in the gym again too.

Maybe that Sports Day trauma can be out-run.

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