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.

36 responses
  1. Kristen Fairgrieve

    this is exactly what i’m going through right now! my husband and i have been working out together for over a month, and i still hate it but i’m feeling better so i keep at it. i’ve lost a bit of weight, still waiting for the jiggly parts to stop being so… jiggly. i guess that takes time. ah… good thing my word for 2013 is perseverance then!

  2. Marianne

    Love you. Love this.

  3. kerin rose

    ha ha!…you are forgiven, love!

  4. Malini Parker

    I’m smiling as I write this :) I was just telling a super fit ex-athlete friend of mine yesterday how much I HATE any kind of group exercise, all gyms freak me out, and really just anything that makes me puff makes me want to not do it. I’m slim, but I’m middle aged and parts of my body seem to be responding more to gravity than others. And of course there’s the health thing. So I loved your post! And I’m hoping one day to be able to say, “yes, yes, that’s how I used to feel about gyms too!”

  5. Chantal

    Great post! I’m ‘almost thirty’ but found exercising through the same route as you: eating healthier, feeling healthier made me want to do something more. Feeling all that energy inside your body just by eating the right food just makes you wanna do something equally healthy with it! I downloaded a podcast for a beginners running routine workout and I’m almost finishing it! I’m so proud of myself :)

  6. Roxanne

    Love this.

  7. Ninie Pouce

    Hello Susannah, I have so many digestive problems. How did you find it was gluten ?

  8. kira

    In my 20’s I said “my favorite activity is to sit and smoke” Now in my 40’s I am in awe that today I find going out for a two hour bike “fun”. I ask myself all the time, “when did this happen?” As you said, I work out to be strong, healthy and the best me. Plus for me, mental health. I tend to get a bit crabby if I don’t. The points you made about making it for you are spot on. Good luck making it to the gym today.

  9. Ricarda

    This post just motivated me to drag my butt out of the door and go running. Thanks. :)

  10. Alexis Zinkerman

    This is a great post. I totally relate. I average two to three times a week at the gym these days. would like to be better but life gets in the way. I do mainly weights, mats and the spinning bike. Sometimes we go for a swim when Im not on the rag.

  11. Alexis Zinkerman

    oh and and lulumon has the best gym clothes.

  12. Alexis Zinkerman

    the last line is great too.

  13. Zarina Ávila

    you are in the road!!! Congratulations!!

  14. Nicole

    I love this! As always it’s refreshing to read your funny, true insight about something I also struggle with. Another thing I’ve found is that for a while I will have figured out a workout plan I like, and I’ll be sticking with it and feeling good, and then all of a sudden I’ll get bored. I used to just force myself to keep doing it and feel guilty as I kept lapsing. Then one day when I was beating myself up yet again about not wanting to work out, a new thought occurred to me: I could just do something else! And I asked myself, “what would I like to do for exercise today?” And something else came to mind, and I felt so happy and relieved to be able to keep my commitment to exercise and not have to slog through the same boring routine again. This is probably such an obvious concept, but for me it was a big light bulb moment.

  15. Brandy

    Good luck Susannah! Once you find your groove, which it seems you have, exercising becomes a labor of love. This is coming from another anti gym gal. I fell off the horse after getting too big and pregnant and now I’m struggling to get back on. I find having a gym buddy helps me, so I show up and it’s a good way to catch up with a gal pal too.

  16. Jay

    Hmm, self-care is something I’ve become increasingly bad at, the nearer I’m heading to 40 (only a few more months, eek!) the worse I’ve got, go figure?! You have given me a little bit of motivation/inspiration…I know it will make me feel better instead of sitting on my butt :) xx

  17. Alexis Zinkerman


    You are forty, flirty and fabulous!

  18. Laurie

    This sounds like the story of myself – tall, thin, not exactly healthy, never exercised when I was younger. Then I hit my late forties and menopause which changed my body in so many ways. I still don’t like exercise but I walk everyday. Maybe someday I will be brave enough to join a gym. Thanks for the inspiration.

  19. Anne

    Same, same, same!!! Even your last line and apologizing for it! Haha. My body did an about face when I turned 42… I didn’t recognize myself. I hate the gym, but getting a trainer was without a doubt one of the turning points for me. Having said that, I didn’t lose the weight until my husband and I moved from Canada to Costa Rica. We now tend to a 35-acre hobby farm and I realize it’s the day-to-day outside work that is doing the trick (and being truly happy). I’m working my body without feeling like I’m ‘working out’. It’s just… well, life. I love that! I’ve lost over 20 lbs and feel great. I’m also a 75% devout (oh, com’on, it’s the best I can do right now) Paleo follower. The northern hemisphere bought into ‘low fat’ diets in exchange for fake manmade ingredients. I eat fresh churned butter, fresh eggs from free-run hens, all the cattle in Costa Rica is grass fed, so bonus, and fresh trout and I’m not just keeping away from gluten, but from grains in general (I admit that’s the hard part)… and sugar (which happens to be my poison). If you’ve not heard of Paleo (also called caveman diet) you might find it interesting. They don’t advocate exercising your body too hard. Anyway, it’s working wonders for me and as a writer, I sympathize with the whole sitting at your computer for hours at a time. I need all the help I can get… so I just thought I’d share with a kindred. Good luck! Love you blog

  20. sue

    I turned 49 in April, and in May started belly-dance classes. I was the only person in the class who had NEVER done ANY kind of dance. Mostly I flail around and look nothing like the graceful, tiny little things who have been dancing since they were two … it’s much harder than I thought it would be, and much more fun than I had hoped. Plus, it has forced me to adopt a stretching routine, which has led to even more healthy movement. I think the key is finding something you enjoy, even if it’s not “conventional.”

  21. Tracy

    Susannah, thanks for sharing. I, too, was thin for most of my life, but decently athletic. In the past if I did gain weight, I just upped my work-out frequency and it all came off pretty well. Until now. Now, at almost 43 (Sept), my body is hanging on to whatever it can and spreading out. It’s so shocking, and sometimes depressing. I’m still exercising (swim, spin classes, walking, yoga) but have to completely re-think eating. And even when I do eat well, I don’t necessarily see ‘results’. Thanks for sharing what works for you, as it inspires me to mix it up more and see what other options I have.
    Also – my word for the year is ‘listen’, and in listening to my body, I’ve discovered I want more play in my life too. Actually physically playing more, have a more carefree, playful attitude and looking for the fun in life.
    Thanks for all you share here! You are amazing.

  22. susannah

    hi love, yes, i’ve been reading up on the Paleo stuff. There’s definitely something to it — and i’m very anti low-fat foods :) I really do believe sugar is the problem!

  23. susannah

    I’d actually love to try a belly-dancing class! *heads to google*

  24. Marthe

    This gives me hope, Susannah! :)

  25. Latifa

    You are so funny…..and wise :D I’ve been on the heath train for a number of years now with diet (but can always be better), and my next BD will contain a BIG 0…so exercise is my next big horizon to meet. I’m just vey inconsistant…and I have to say a bit lazy….sigh

  26. Lucie D'Alessandro

    Cheesy but so true. And so cool that you’re sussing out what makes you feel good and all the little ways that contribute to the bigger picture.

    I’ve been on/off with exercise all my life, finally figuring out that – for me, anyway – there’s much flux over the years with what feels right for right now. Loved the gym in my 20’s, hated it once I got close to 30, probably because I put on a little weight and felt super self conscious. Lifelong love affair with walking [it’s 3rd only to breathing and eating] and yoga in various forms for years. But honestly, after reading this I’m starting to mull over the benefits of a trainer again! Yay for doing what feels good and is good for you x

  27. Cora

    Susannah, I love your humour. I’m not a gym person either so I’m glad there is hope for me :)

  28. ShanLeigh

    Ha! I just read this and LITERALLY went and bought running shoes, a sports bra and a cute tank and shorts today at lunch. I still refuse to go to the gym, mind you, but I will be taking a walk around an outdoor track while my son plays his football game. It’s been 10 years since I’ve owned athletic shoes. 10 years!

  29. Genie

    When I need to go to the gym but am finding excuses not to go, I always ask myself, “How will you feel in an hour if you go vs. if you don’t go?” No brainer! My response always makes me go!!

  30. Tamara

    Wow, that post could have been written by me, it’s exactly my life at the moment. I’m turning 40 in 10 weeks (eek!) and last week was my first week at the gym. I’ve got myself a personal trainer to whip my arse into shape hopefully in time for the celebrations (where bikinis will be worn!) I’ve never been able to stick to gyms in the past, but I’m hoping that going to one so close to my home where I can walk, and having a personal trainer will do the trick, at least to the point where it becomes somewhat more of a habit. I’m definitely taking a visit to the Sweaty Betty website after reading your advice (in fact I just received their catalogue in the post this morning) as I’m currently wearing gym clothes that are a few years old, and just show off my slightly expanded nearly-40 body a bit too much to be comfortable. The plan is that I’ll fit back into them soon enough, but in the meantime, I need all the help I can to keep up the regime. So wish me luck! :)

  31. Tamara

    Oh, I should also say that my trainer has been talking to me about the Paleo diet too. Seems there’s something in it. And as a gluten-intolerant myself too, I’m half way there anyway!

  32. Connie Knapp

    Love this. I’ve been a “gym rat” all my life and I have never been able to see “the other side.”
    I am so happy for you-there is nothing like a good workout (okay, almost nothing :) ) to make you feel comfortable in your body.
    Thanks for posting this-I know that there are women who need to read this-I live with one!

  33. keishua

    lol. i’ll take your word for it. i so need to be more intentional about exercising. i do find that prepaying for something you might be right. :)

  34. ERIKA

    As someone who can be very disconnected with her body, I appreciate this. I was sort of forced into waking up and taking care of my body due to chronic illness… and while it seemed like a curse at the time, it’s led me down a path of self-care that I ultimately think is the best thing to have happened to me. That said, I still am not the biggest fan of exercise and it takes a lot to get me to move. But I’ve found what works for me more than anything else — yoga — so I’m trying to stick with that and go from there. Like you said, I’m not looking so much to lose weight as much as to feel good.

  35. Maria

    Sweetie you just wrote about me too!! And you are right about the clothes! ;) Good luck!!

  36. Aline

    This post really encouraged me to start!
    I really need to read this.
    I wish to found blogs like yours here in Brazil! :(
    I can’t find anyone with such generosity to share things like you. :)
    And my english is horrible! I do not comment so much, but I always read your posts.
    Today I had to go back on this one!
    Thanks for sharing!!!

    google translator helps me a little! :P

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