Tanya Sweeney: Where it all went wrong between exercise and me
Broadside: Starting a new regime yanks us out of our comfort zones and is genuinely tough
“My first week of training, I wept in front of my coach as I pounded joylessly on the elliptical trainer.” Photograph: Thinkstock
’Tis the season to indulge and imbibe, but not before a hefty dollop of contrition. It’s likely that by now, you’ll have noticed a glut of “drop a dress size” or “eek, time for that party frock” headlines, beseeching folks (well, women) to spare a thought for their soon-to-be violated waistlines.
While we spent billions a year – €632 billion worldwide at last estimate – looking for shortcuts and ways to shock, short-circuit or simply outwit our metabolic systems with food, many of us are happy to give exercise a wide berth. Many of us can rattle off the properties of the 5:2, Aktins or paleo diets, but relatively few of us can recall with as much vim how many calories a 30-minute jog can burn.
That said, the fitness industry is expanding at a rate of knots in Ireland, and part of me wishes I was part of it all. Apart from aesthetics, there are many benefits to exercise: psychological wellbeing, better physical health, protection against depression, longevity, energy, boosted self-esteem, better sleep and a release of life-giving endorphins and serotonin. So why, for the love of Jane Fonda’s leggings, do I hate it?
It wasn’t always this way. Last year, I found myself tottering around the edges of fitness fanaticism, before falling headlong right into the zone. In my first week of training I wept in front of my coach as I pounded joylessly on the elliptical trainer. Above all else, it was hard work. It was boring. Damn, I was tired, sweaty and heaving. Not the best version of myself, by any stretch. But gradually I got stronger, fitter, faster.
I never enjoyed it: exercise never stopped feeling like a torment or a duty, and I never stopped resenting anyone who could stay lithe and energetic without having to schlep to a gym daily. But, eventually, rewards were yielded. I could survive an hour of exercise without feeling murderous. I could run for a train without embarrassing myself. But then the willpower vanished. The excuses to avoid the gym became ever easier to conjure out of thin air.
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It wasn’t always thus. Keen to keep us out from under her feet, my mother had my siblings and me enrolled in a slew of activities as youngsters. Rain or shine, I don’t recall a single lazy afternoon when we were left to our own devices: we were continuously on the move.
A friend is even more adept at talking herself out of the gym than I am, which means she is nearing Olympics standard. She abandoned a rowing machine after two minutes because she didn’t really know how to work it. She peered in the window of a yoga class, then turned on her heel because it looked as though it had already started. She did a few half-hearted lengths in the pool before retreating to the sauna for a restorative half hour. Not just me, then.
Hearteningly, the Wall Street Journal reports that some people are just hardwired to hate exercise. One explanation focuses on how people interpret their body’s sensations during and after exercise. The University of Iowa also theorised that people have a different capacity for exertion – push beyond that and one puts one’s body under stress.
Other commentators have pinpointed another phenomenon that makes the fitness centre a place we’d rather side-swerve: “gymtimidation”. People are said to baulk at the noise, the steel machinery, the gimmickry, and the people who always seem to be fitter than we are. We tend to forget that they too have had a first day of heaving, panicked exertion when they initially joined up, too.
But perhaps the answer lies closer to individual mindsets. Were I to pinpoint the co-ordinates of where it all went wrong, I’d pin the tail on 1992. When I reached secondary school, runs around the hockey pitch were doled out liberally for disciplinary infractions (and there were plenty). Little wonder I associate physical exertion with negativity and torment.
There’s probably more to it than that, however. Starting a new regime yanks us out of our comfort zones. Getting used to it is genuinely tough. And if you feel terrible after a workout, it’s likely you won’t stick with it.
There’s something in those seasonal headlines, too. The media prompts us to seek out ways to look trim and fit while doing as little as possible; worse, we often believe it is possible. If you’ve ever cast an eye over a women’s magazine, you’ll be familiar with various iterations of “Lose 10 pounds by doing nothing. . . and you can still have cake!” It’s the destination we’re programmed to be interested in, not the journey.
Perhaps there’s a trick to incorporating exercise into one’s life on a long-term, sustainable basis. Surely it’s best to do it little and often, and enjoy the process of getting healthy without focusing too keenly on the end goal. It’s time we stopped worrying about party frocks, and realise that the side-effects of a get-up-and-go lifestyle are reward enough.