Confessions of a reluctant exerciser

24 May

This morning, I ran almost 10km from my flat in Islington down through the West End and to Whitehall, curving back round along the Victoria Embankment to Blackfriars before looping St. Paul’s to add a few more steps to my count. My feet were leaden by the time I puffed back up Farringdon Road; my lips burned with a mixture of suncream and sweat. But I had enjoyed the run, listening to the history of Chinese food in New York and a BBC documentary on shootings in Chicago.

Yes, I enjoyed a 10km run. And yesterday I enjoyed a 50 minute workout that left me gasping and jelly-legged. If you had told me some years ago that I’d one ay be a committed exerciser, I would have laughed.

Like many people, my experiences of physical education at school left a lot to be desired: mainly delivered by middle-aged sadists in shell-suits who generally regarded me as a waste of space. The only PE slot I really excelled at was country dancing, receiving a coveted A+ for the term, perhaps because the only person who would partner with me was the mushroom-haired teacher herself. Running, jumping, throwing, hitting – all the skills of ‘games’ eluded me. Frozen hours on a crunchy hockey field, staying out on the wing as much as possible, were the antithesis of fun.

Perhaps it’s the establishment’s endless obsession with competitive games as morale-building that pushes some PE departments in this direction. I’m sure times have moved on. Nevertheless, an education in avoiding the netball hardly set me up for being able to take care of myself.

However, I did find one thing I could do. Every year, for Sports Day, I volunteered to run the 1500m. It was the most dreaded event, the one everyone wanted to avoid. Perhaps I realised that in picking it, I had already ensured some sort of victory, even if I wasn’t very good at the running itself.

Which I wasn’t. The first year I competed, I came in dead last. My strongest memory is of the comedian Josie Long, a few years ahead of me in school, screaming encouragement for me to finish. And I did make it across the line, unlike a number of my peers who flaked out halfway through. I’d found the magic of the mental success, if not the physical.

Fast forward some years (skipping over my brief, BRIEF, rowing moment), to the day I realised I was going to look fat in my sister’s wedding photos. I’m afraid the ultimate motivation for getting off my backside was vanity. Five years of teaching had done me no favours whatsoever. Finally, once out of the system, I could find time for exercise.

My reintroduction to it was a personal trainer at the gym below my office building. In our very first session, as I slogged my way through a session on the cross-trainer, he told me about his friend’s death, his own subsequent descent into addiction and the breakdown of his relationship. “I don’t see my daughter as much as I want, but she’s my world,” he said, stroking the huge tattoo of her name down the side of his neck. It was slightly surreal, but to his credit he was an encouraging trainer.

In a few months I had a simple regime, supplemented with running (for which I first used Zombies, Run!). In a few months I also slipped into a mental health crisis. If you have any experience of talking to doctors about mental health, you’ll know they go to exercise straight away. Are you running? Are you working out?

Exercise is not a panacea, and for me it’s not enough on its own to stop me tumbling from time to time. But I cling to the words of one GP, who told me that if I can run 5km three times a week, there’s not much wrong with me. Moving and using my body are proof to me that I’m alive and well.

The pandemic has given me more time to exercise and more incentive to use it to discover my city. I love running by the river, although some stretches can get busy. I’ve run through the empty and forlorn streets of Soho and up to Marylebone. I’ve crossed the bridges and skirted parks. Often I simply run over to my old office and back.

Workouts at home I keep fairly simple. I use a lot of PopSugar, with my absolute favourite trainers being Jake DuPree, Christa DiPaolo and Raneir Pollard. I can also recommend HASFit, Coach Kel and Tanju. I try to mix up strength, core/toning (like pilates or barre) and a bit of dance. My only equipment is a pair of 5kg dumbbells and a yoga mat.

Exercise doesn’t need to be a competition, an obsession or a grade. I find that keeping to the habit is much more important to me than breaking records. My body changes very slowly, like most women; I’m never going to be tiny, and I’ve come to accept that. I have become much more muscular, over time. But exercise is also not all about losing weight.

I like exercising now for the same reason I got a rush from the 1500. I’m not and never will be a natural sportswoman, but I can move. I will move. Little by little, I will be strong.

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