The joy I denied myself for decades
Guess what?! Exercise is not just for people who are already good at it.
If you’ve followed me for a while on Instagram, you may well have noticed that I *quite* like my Peloton bike. It’s as close as I’ve come to joining a cult. I love the fact that I roll out of bed and do a fitness class, without needing to make myself even slightly presentable to leave the house and get to a gym. And no matter how embarrassing it is to admit this, I really like the over-the-top ‘American-ness’ of all the instructors (yep, even the British ones) and their motivational mantras. The ‘be your best self!’ kinds of phrases they shout would have me rolling my eyes if I saw them on an Instagram tile. But when Jess Sims, in her gruelling bootcamp classes, says ‘We don’t have to do this. We get to!’ it really does get me every time. I think it’s because I have a cousin who was the most active one of the lot of us until a surgery accident made her a quadraplegic. Since then, I have never taken what my body can do for granted. But it wasn’t always the case.
I didn’t have any body confidence, and certainly no fitness confidence, until I was about 32. Ironically, I found that confidence thanks to the personal trainer, Matt Roberts, arguably the most intimidating fitness coach in the country. He looks like he stepped straight from a Men’s Health magazine cover and has a roster of high end clients that includes supreme athletes and gorgeous celebrities. By the time I was invited in for a couple of complimentary sessions - when I was the editor of Glamour - the only running I’d done since I’d left school was the occasional bath.
I often joke that the Australians had a meeting and, as I don’t tan and I can’t throw a ball, it was decided that I should be asked to leave the country. No idea what it’s like now, but the sports shaming was very, very real when I was growing up. My god they care about it and it starts at school. Where I was puny, and had the hand-eye co-ordination of a blind newborn foal. The emphasis, in almost everything, was competition and winning. So you’d often hear my classmates fighting over not having me in their team (‘Nooooo, that’s not fair sir, we had her last week!’). My school seemed absolutely bloody obsessed with cross-country running - usually on the kind of summer days that would melt the thermometer. I could manage maybe about two minutes of that before that stabbing stitch would settle into my gut. By the time I’d left high school, I had forged my mother’s signature on so many ‘get out of PE’ notes that if she ever did genuinely sign something, they thought that was the fake.
Don’t worry I really don’t need a cuddle over any of this. I could see that for others at school this was where they shone, where they found their confidence. I’m not one of these people who wants to protect everyone from competition, or failing at things. It’s just a sad fact that my early experiences bred in me someone who got the message loud and clear that a) all physical activity is horrendous and b) it’s really only for the people who are already good at it, and look great while they do it.
Reaching my mid-20s, I knew it was bad that I did absolutely no exercise. Going for a jog was out of the question; my self-consciousness about anything sporty rendered that impossible for me. Of the handful of occasions I braved stepping inside a gym, I spent the whole time feeling intimidated and exposed, convinced I was the least capable one in the room and looked the worst in my kit. No amount of telling myself that everyone was far too concerned with how they look to look at me, worked.
This is where I will dutifully check my privilege. I have always been thin, so I didn’t feel pressure to exercise for weight management. But as I’ve written before, this has never stopped me from having body image issues. Being too thin, looking scrawny and weak, is what stopped me exercising in any public space. I knew being thin wouldn’t protect me from health issues that come with being unfit, but I still couldn’t summon the courage to do anything about it.
So when Matt invited me in for those sessions, it felt like a calling. I was getting older. I realised I was curious about what I might be able to achieve if I actually, for once in my life, tried to be fit. How would I feel? Would it help with stress as the gym evangelists always said? Would I sleep better? Would I actually feel better if I was fitter? And yes, I wanted to see if it could make me look better. Wow that feels brave to admit these days! I think it’s absolutely right that everyone be allowed to feel confident enough to exercise and that it not be all about working out to achieve a certain weight or look. But I also think it’s fine that I’m proud of my toned arms, actually. Why not? It’s great that my body looks better now than it did in my 20s and you know what? It deserves to, I’ve worked hard.
I felt comfortable enough to go to Matt’s gym because it was small and private. You can’t just walk in, you need an appointment with a trainer. There were never more than about ten others in there at any time and having one-on-one instruction felt like a bit of a security blanket for me. I also knew that my attitudes and insecurities were so embedded that really, the only way I was going to commit to this was by having a formal appointment that would be rude to cancel, and having that person stand over me and just tell me what to do, for every minute of an hour session.
Obviously I sucked at first. On the first day Matt asked to do as many push-ups as I could without stopping. I think I managed five. And I got in early with plenty of self-deprecating jokes about my unfit body as well as my dire gym clothing. I was too self-conscious to turn up in anything remotely form-fitting, so it was usually old track pants and one of my husband’s big T shirts. And through it all I remember his kindness and his encouragement and his lack of judgement - considering he looked like every intimidating, trophy-brandishing kid I loathed in my PE classes, this astonished me. Which says more about me than him.
So after a couple of good experiences, I signed up to keep going. I went to his gym, two or three times a week, for around 14 years. If it wasn’t for Covid muddling my entire routine, I probably would still be doing that. But I will never be able to thank him enough for giving me a new kind of confidence it’s no exaggeration to say has been life-changing.
Exercise is as important to me as eating and sleeping now. And while I’m still not the kind of person who would leap at the chance to be seen being active out there, in public, that no longer feels like a fate worse than death to me. In fact, this week, I am doing something that younger me would have faked my death to get out of: I’m going to a fitness retreat. Four days of hiking, cardio, yoga, plant-based eating and no alcohol. With strangers (I think I know one other person going but that’s it).
Striving to maintain and improve my fitness is now something I know I will do for as long as my body will allow me. Have you seen Joan? She eradicated a barrage of health issues when she embraced fitness in later life. She’s so inspiring, pumping iron at her age. If my body will let me, that’s going to be me. I once read years ago that elderly women tend to lose their independence if they don’t maintain a decent level of upper body strength. I think about that, and my mum’s battle with bone density issues, every time I lift weights. A few years ago, I ended up in an ambulance (long, embarrassing story) and the paramedic looking after me said, ‘Wow, I can tell you’re fit, your resting heart rate is excellent.’
A brilliant thing in our modern times is there are now so many online exercise classes you can take in the privacy of your own space - that would have made all the difference for me when I was younger. I know I am very fortunate to able to afford and house a Peloton bike. But equally I’ve enjoyed loads of Joe Wicks’s free Youtube workouts and my daughter loves Move With Nicole and Emi Wong, who apparently does bed workouts. The point is, go online, there will absolutely be something you can face.
I don’t always want to put myself through a workout, but I never ever regret doing so. It’s a gift I’m sad I denied myself for so many years.
These days, I even wear proper, nice, gym gear. But I’ll leave you with this. The self-conscious, embarrassed by her own reflection me of my 20s would not believe I’m showing you this. It’s me, yesterday, after a 45-minute bootcamp session with that hellbeast in lipstick, Jess Sims.
My Goodness! From Jo Elvin is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.