The exercise-hater’s guide to loving the gym


For the majority of my 40 years I’ve loathed any form of physical exercise — its just not in my DNA to move my body in a way that will create sweat (okay, there is one way, but my mum is reading this…) I was the least sporty girl at school, the one who always sat on the sidelines with her “period”. I was useless at netball and tennis, not the best swimmer and forget about any kind of gymnastic ability — a head-over-heels was about my limit.

In my teens, 20s and early 30s I was fortunate to have a slim-ish figure that didn’t carry too much weight, and thanks to never owning a car I’ve always done a lot of walking. But in the last few years things have changed. I remember writing the chapter in This I Know where I share my thoughts on my body — back in 2011 I was at my heaviest and the sedentary nature of being self-employed and writing a book meant I reached for carbs to give me “energy” (this didn’t work) and got through far too many jars of Nutella. Having never had any issues around food and weight, it was quite a shock to realise my body had changed. What I thought was a slowed-down metabolism and the effects of getting older was being exacerbated by my comfort eating and lack of movement. It seemed the 20-something who could eat whatever she wanted had gone forever.

In the book I squared up to the idea that this was how my body would look as a woman slouching into my 40s. But what I’ve discovered over the last year or so is this isn’t actually the case. That’s what I look like after 30 odd years of not consciously looking after my body. Being slim didn’t mean I was particularly healthy.

It’s all the rage these days to drink green smoothies and bang on about yoga/gluten intolerance/maca powder/etc, and there’s a part of me that wants to ignore the healthy-preachers and snack on a plate of fries. Yet the more I pay attention to my body and listen to what she needs, the better able I am to look after myself. All those years of digestive problems? Turns out I was gluten intolerant myself, I just didn’t know that was a thing. Now I’ve tried cutting it out the effects have been amazing. Nothing that you’d notice from the outside, but how I FEEL inside, how much better my body works, is changing my world (and I know that’s a big claim but it’s true).

So with all that said, I shall now become the annoying person who tells you how great the gym is.

Okay, that’s a lie: the gym is still as horrendous as I always feared it was, but I’m finding ways to learn to like it. Because now I’m feeling better internally, i want to feel better externally too. This has got nothing to do with losing weight (though fitting into my clothes comfortably would be aces) and everything to do with wanting to feel STRONG. Energised. Powerful. I want this body to last another 40 years and I’m accepting that in order for that to happen I have to put a bit of effort in to its maintenance.

Having tried, and disliked, all sorts of sweat-inducing activities over the years, no one is more surprised than me to discover that THE GYM is the place I hate the least.

Here’s how I make it bearable:

1. Wear the right clothes

This, my friends, was the real game-changer. Before I’d wear my saggy-arsed jogging pants (that had never been used for actual jogging) and a baggy T-shirt. I basically wanted to cover up and be invisible. Then one day, on a whim, i took myself to Sweaty Betty and bought a pair of proper exercise leggings and some running tops, all made of techy-sounding fabric that wicks the sweat away, holds you in, yadda yadda. This outfit, plus an extremely robust exercise bra, has made exercise so much more…. enjoyable might be pushing it, but I feel and look the part. And psychologically this has helped enormously.

2. Book a few sessions with a trainer

The first trainer I worked with showed me how to use all the machines and set me up with a fairly basic routine. We only had a couple of sessions and while it was enough to get me started, I soon slipped back into my old ways (read: not going to the gym). This time I’ve been having a single weekly session with Carrie, my new trainer. Each time she teaches me something new (she prefers to use weights and the mat over the machines, which means I’m learning stuff I can do at home, too) which I then incorporate into my other solo gym sessions. I can’t afford to train with her three times a week, but once a week for the next few months is keeping me motivated. She’s also hilarious, so while she makes me do stuff I don’t like, I’m laughing all the way through it. Winner!

3. Wear lipstick & waterproof mascara

I accept that an hour of working out is going to leave me a sweaty red-faced mess, but my lipstick and mascara give me the illusion that it’s not so bad when I look in the mirror doing my arm-curl-things… and when you’re surrounded by glowing 20-somethings, it really helps your 40-year-old self esteem.

4. Make killer mixtapes

I usually find the treadmill excruciatingly boring, but it’s fast becoming my new favourite thing thanks to my killer mixtape. I miss my old clubbing days so this way I get to dance/walk on the treadmill to some epic euphoric house — I also listen to it on the *way* to the gym, thus motivating me to walk fast and get there sooner so I can get home sooner. Finding new tracks to add to the playlist makes me — wait for it — excited to hit the gym and listen to them. I know!

5. Find the things you like and ignore the rest

The very last thing I want to do is take a spin class, so I don’t. On the other hand, I like using the free weights so I use them a lot. It sounds so obvious, but figuring out what I like to do is helping me do it. When I have a session with Carrie she also takes this into account.

6. Go at the right time

My gym is not very big so I tend to avoid the busy times and go when I know there’ll be less people there. Weekday lunch times and Sunday mornings are the best times for me, so that’s when I go. I can use the machines/mat space I want without having to wait, there are plenty of weights available and I get to share the air with a more diverse group of people. I always give a nod to the woman in her 70s who has a gentle walk on the treadmill, and am fascinated by the teenage boy whose trainer is 4 times his size, bless him.

Getting to the gym is by far the hardest part of the workout. Every single time I have to battle with my head and have yet to wake up raring to go. It’s always a struggle. But there’s yet to be a time when I get home regretting that i went. Usually it just feels like a little victory, and who doesn’t need a few of those?

I’m not trying to evangelise the benefits of a gym membership, and believe me, every time somebody told me I “just had to find the exercise I like” I wanted to punch them in the face. But I will grudgingly admit there’s some truth to that — forcing myself to go to a yoga class when I don’t gel with yoga was never going to work. Trying to jog round the park didn’t work either. The structured nature of the gym — go to a specific place, work out for specific amount of time, use specific things — seem to work best with my brain, the brain that’s usually filled with so many ideas (and so much clutter) it gets a break while I sweat my lumpy Lycra-clad arse off.

Historically, every time I’ve blogged about my new fitness resolve something has happened to bugger it up. But I felt compelled to share this because it really does feel like something has shifted. And it’s partly down to me turning 40 and becoming more sensitive to how my body is changing. But it’s mostly because I’m reaching a place where the best way I can show self-love and self-compassion to myself is to look after the body that so uncomplainingly ferrys me through this life. Moving my body doesn’t feel like the torture it used to: it feels like an act of love.

Eight years


I wasn’t going to write this post. If you’ve lost a loved one you might be able to relate. I wanted this day to be just another day in the long line of days that is my life. I’ve grieved all my grief and healed my pain, and he remains in my heart but as a friend of lifetimes. I miss him sometimes, and once in a while i’ll find myself wondering what we’d be doing now if he was still here. I don’t even know if we’d still be together. Perhaps not, who knows? But as it is, he and I are still in touch, through the dreams that have never left me. The feathers he lays in my path wherever I happen to be in the world. The books with his messages. The random things I find in impossible places. Eight years later and I’ve let go of all the anger and frustration i once felt towards him. I’ve learned the lessons of our relationship, and built a life around me that’s honest and independent and all mine. That I don’t share it with a significant other is less to do with my attachment to him (for I no longer am) and more to do with circumstances and fate.

I flew to New York last week for a few days, my 40th birthday present to myself. While there I got my new tattoo, the one I’ve  been planning for months. I’ve been searching for years to find the right artist, and when I discovered the work of Cris Cleen I knew I’d found my man. His style, his philosophy and the integrity I see in his work drew me in immediately, and when I saw his interpretation of a swallow, I just knew.


Swallows are a traditional tattoo motif — historically sailors used them to show off their sailing experience. From Wikipedia:

“Of British origin in the early days of sailing, it was the image of a Barn Swallow, usually tattooed on the chest, hands or neck. According to one legend, a sailor tattooed with one swallow had travelled over 5,000 nautical miles (9,260 km); a sailor with two swallows had travelled 10,000 nautical miles (18,520 km).Travelling these great distances was extremely difficult and dangerous in the early days of sailing, so one or more swallow tattoos denoted a very experienced and valuable sailor. Another legend holds that since swallows return to the same location every year to mate and nest, the swallow will guarantee the sailor returns home safely. A sailor would have one swallow tattooed before setting out on a journey, and the second swallow tattooed at the end of their tour of duty, upon return to their home port. It is also said that if the sailor drowns, the swallows will carry their soul to heaven. The swallow also represents love, care and affection towards family and friends, showing the loyalty of the person always returning to them. The bird also represents freedom and hope.”

To me, the swallow represents my independence and my freedom, a reminder of qualities I will always posess even if I fall in love again. She marks the completion of the healing journey I have taken, flying in the direction of my heart to show I will always return home — to myself and to my loved ones.

On a purely practical note, I placed her on my right forearm to balance the tattoo I have planned for my left arm. She’s my most visible tattoo to date and that feels right to me. I know tattoos aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but to me they are bold and beautiful, permanent adornment infused with meaning.

My love didn’t have any tattoos himself but he appreciated mine as they were a part of me. In the last eight years there have been many changes: my weight has fluctuated, my eyesight has worsened. My hair has sprouted grey in places and creases have formed where they weren’t there before… But this bird inked on my arm is the most radical change of all and it’s one he will never see — at least not with physical eyes. And that is as it should be, for this swallow will be appreciated by another lover one day, his fingertips tracing the outline that ghostly hands cannot.

And I welcome that day’s arrival with an open heart.

Self-care in the Real World

Self-care in the Real World | SusannahConway.com

 

“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” – Iris Murdoch’s protagonist in The Sea, The Sea

The quote above was number 27 on my list of 40 lessons learned in 40 years — I like it so much it’s even mentioned in my book. I’m a passionate believer in the wisdom of giving oneself regular small treats. It ties into my philosophy of showing myself kindness whenever I can. Because I’ve spent a lot of my life being decidedly UNkind to myself. Honestly, no one could ever say anything meaner to me than some of the rubbish I’ve told myself — still tell myself, on the bad days. But these days I try to do better by myself. I consciously try to be kinder. And it starts with the many layers of self-care.

The first layer: the quick fix

I have a tendency to spoil myself as if I were my own overly indulgent relative. If I want an almond latte I go get an almond latte. I spend an absolute fortune on books. I buy myself flowers and scented candles occasionally. I own a ridiculous amount of perfume. On really icky days I get out the big guns: new Spotify playlists (hours of fun!).

I know I buy myself presents to make up for the fact that I’m single (“I haven’t had sex in *cough* a long time — I deserve this Diptyque candle!”) When I’m no longer single I’m sure there’ll be other reasons to justify the presents. Self-care that involves spending money in this way is more of a quick fix, though one that’s certainly pleasurable in the moment. And I’m okay with the occasional quick fix — it always brightens my day.

The second layer: the reactive

The next layer of self-care is responding to how I’m feeling at any given time with a kind action. Sometimes I worry this type of self-care is simply laziness. When I stay in bed an hour longer… when I go to bed an hour earlier. When I take a long bath instead of dealing with my inbox. When I give in to the mid-afternoon chocolate craving… it crosses my mind that I’m far too lenient with myself, because somewhere inside me is this twisted notion that Hard Work is the only way (and this applies to everything, not just paid work). But experience has taught me that it’s better to attend to my needs rather than push through and ignore them. This means that if I wake up with a headache I’ll do the bare minimum needed in the morning then let myself have the afternoon on the sofa. If I’m feeling upset about something I’ll be extra gentle with myself, doing whatever I need to work through the issue (phone my sister, go for a walk, journal); often I just need to get out of the house and reset my brain.

The third layer: the self-investment

This last layer takes a bit more effort but the benefits will be felt for years to come. At the moment my biggest self-investments are my weekly sessions with a therapist, my gym membership (I’ve been 3 times, people! I’m going to make this happen!), and going back on antidepressants. I view all of these as the absolute best way I can take care of myself right now. Working with my therapist gives me space to unravel my head; going to the gym will eventually bring health and stamina (I hate going but the smug feeling afterwards is worth it); and the tablets are helping to bring me back up to the surface so I can function in this world like a normal person.

At this time in my life I am my own biggest responsibility which means I have the time and income to invest in self-care, but even when my circumstances change I hope I’ll be able to maintain this practice of attending to my needs — I know it makes me a more considerate sister, daughter and friend. To me, self-care is really self-kindness, and I find the more self-aware I become the more I recognise what I need. In my twenties and early 30s I was less clued in to how I felt, and as a result my self-care rarely went deeper than the first layer. These days my deepest desire is to feel calm, balanced and safe: my three layers of self-care help me get closer to this.

Hello 40

40 Lessons from 40 Years | SusannahConway.com

 

It’s my 40th birthday today. Entering a new decade of my life feels like a big deal, and while I feel exactly the same as I did yesterday, there’s something bubbling in me — the no more rules I mentioned last week. Forty sounds really thoroughly grown-up and I like it.

Rather than compiling a list of things to do before I turn 41, I spent a leisurely few hours this afternoon putting together 40 lessons I’ve sussed out in the last 40 years. Sidenote: I only wanted to do things I love today, and blogging was definitely on the list. Still so grateful to have this space to play in. Happy Nutella Day!

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40 LESSONS FROM 40 YEARS

1. Your relationship with your self is the most important relationship you’ll ever have. It forms the basis for every other relationship in your life, making you the mother, sister, partner and friend that you are.

2. On that note, there is nothing wrong with being ‘self-centred’. I’m a firm believer in putting your oxygen mask on first. If you can’t breathe you’re no use to anyone else. That doesn’t mean ignore everybody else — just don’t ignore you.

3. Only shop in shops with flattering lights in their fitting rooms. Life is too short to look like shit when shopping for a new bra.

4. Find the type of words you like to read. Doesn’t matter if it’s fiction, non-fiction, self-help, instruction manuals or comics — just find the pages you can’t wait to turn.

5. Anything anyone says about you or does to you is about them not you 99% of the time.

6. Invest some cash in a really fabulous handbag (men: find a really cool wallet) so no matter what you wear, you always looked pulled together. Ditto a good pair of boots.

7. Speaking of wallets, I bought a Fendi wallet 10 years ago. I’ve used it every day since and it still looks new = best £150 I’ve ever spent.

8. Take photographs every single day. Snap the things that catch your eye, the faces you love and the moments you want to remember. Records the bits of your day that you might forget — in years to come you’ll love this glimpse into your routine.

9. Play with digital and film. iPhones and Hasselblads. Canon and Nikon. Try everything to decide which translates your eye best. Learn a few rules so you know how to break them.

10. Always ALWAYS buy free-range eggs. Preferably organic if you can.

11. Figure yourself out. Investigate the Enneagram. Do the Myers-Briggs test. Get your tarot cards done. Get curious about yourself. Dig deeper!

12. On the other side of that, don’t bother drinking anyone else’s kool aid. Make your own concoction instead — it’ll always taste better.

 

 

13. Make the effort to protect your leather bags and boots with leather gel. Trust me on this.

14. Start a collection. It doesn’t matter what it is — buttons, cameras, art, first editions, model cars, retro lamp shades. When you collect something you’re more likely to keep your eyes open when you’re out & about in the world. You never know when you’ll find a treasure — life becomes a treasure hunt.

15. Learn how to enjoy your own company. Go on dates with yourself often. Watch this again for ideas.

16. Investigate poetry. Poems are like awesome word snacks that nourish your brain. Find the poets who transcribe your experience of the world. Then look for the ones who show you another side of life entirely.

17. Find the music that makes you get up and dance. Play it often, especially when you’re on your own.

18. If you’re self-employed, put aside more money for tax than you think you’ll need. I always save 40% of everything I earn. If your tax bill comes to less at the end of the year you’ll have a nice little nest egg to play with or enough to cover any earnings you “forgot” to save tax for. Either way you can’t lose and you’ll sleep better at night.

19. Everybody should get at least six months of therapy. It’s one of the best investments you’ll ever make in yourself.

20. “I believe that by being the best and most healed version of ourselves we can truly make a difference in the world. I’m not an activist or politician, and I’m not able to have any direct impact on the areas of the world where help is needed. But what I can do is make a difference in the small pocket of the world I call home. I can live with integrity and be honest about my feelings, even when they hurt. I can put my whole heart into my work and pay forward the generosity that was shown to me when my world fell apart. I can look after myself, knowing that by healing my own hurts I won’t be passing them on to anyone else. In a society like ours, filled with so many emotionally wounded people acting out their pain, this is possibly the most important work we could ever do—heal our hurts so we don’t pass them on.” From This I Know, page 271.

21. Slow down. Take a breath. Look again.

22. Your senses are the way back into the present moment. What can you smell right now? What do you see? What’s touching your skin? What tastes do you want to experience today? What can you hear? Pay attention. Give yourself over to this moment, right now.

23. Writing a book is exactly as hard as you think it will be. But it’s not impossible. Not at all.

24. Sharing your heart with people will make you feel vulnerable at times — most of the time, in fact — but it will help you feel less alone when you see that others feel the same. By hiding the truth about how we feel we isolate ourselves.

25. The camera is only a tool — it’s your eye that really matters.

 

 

26. You can’t THINK your way out of depression. If you’re an over-thinker like me you will try very hard to do this but it won’t work. Explore all paths to find your way through the storm. Be gentle with yourself.

25. Listen to your body. It will tell you what it needs, and it will tell you what it doesn’t need, too.

26. Try to remember that everybody is doing their best with the tools they have and life experiences they’ve had. You never know what happened that morning, that day, that month or that year. You never know when somebody is putting a brave face on something that’s making them crumble inside. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

27. “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.” – Iris Murdoch

28. Kill your expectations and assumptions. They are such a phenomenal waste of time. Most of the disappointments in my life were the result of expectations and assumptions. Keeping these in check is a life-long practice.

29. You can’t change anyone, no matter how much you want to. But you can lead by example. You can inspire them to want to change.

30. Celebrate your sensuality. Take hot scented baths and sunbathe nude in your garden. Buy lingerie that delights you and wear more silk. Take pleasure in your body.

31. If, like me, you can’t wear wool (itchy nightmare!) invest in a cashmere sweater every couple of years. If you look after them properly these babies will just get softer and softer and keep you warm for years to come. I like Brora.

32. Breathe in the sea air every chance you get.

 

 

33. It’s okay to protect yourself from the people who trigger you. Unsubscribe. Unfollow. Avoid. Make your excuses. Sometimes we just have to protect our hearts, and if there’s someone who makes you feel crap you don’t have to let them into your world.

34. Having said that, be sure to look at WHY they trigger you once you’ve filtered them out of your day-to-day. We can learn a lot from feeling uncomfortable — what’s the bigger message here?

35. When you look in the mirror, try smiling at yourself. Especially first thing in the morning.

36. Show yourself a little kindness every day. Find ten minutes to read a chapter. Listen to your favourite song in the car. Savour a cup of coffee in the garden. Lock yourself in the bathroom and do yoga on the floor. Whatever it takes.

37. Keep a journal. Write down your thoughts. Make lists. Draw mind maps. Stick in pictures that make you dream. Write when you feel inspired. Write when you feel sad. Write when you want to remember. Write when you don’t know. Just write it out.

38. Believe in something. Whether it’s science, nature, god, spirit, kindness, gratitude, politics, the universe, atoms or love, believe in something.

39. Believe in yourself. There’s nobody else in the entire world like you.

40. Go gently.