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.