The Yes Woman: A shock changes my mind about the gym

I quickly overcome my prejudice and find that the toil empties my mind and sates my anger

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

 

All minds contain a pocket of bigotry, into which people toss all the bilge of unfinished thoughts, unevidenced beliefs and fears. My bigoted patch is as squat and smoky as a windowless medieval cottage, just like everyone else’s. It contains several prejudices that I probably shouldn’t ever express aloud, but among the less dodgy are an immovable distaste for any manner of spicy food and a suspicion of athletic people.

The last one is rooted in my own sense of physical inadequacy. Almost always the smallest person in any room (although not necessarily in width), I have a feeble body and a devastating lust for potato-based foods. Hardly the recipe for an Olympian.

The sort of people who tweet photographs of protein shakes should be forced to colonise the moon, I reckon. Of course, my irritation with strong, limber people says far more about me than about them.

 

Physical struggle 

When we began to suspect a couple of months ago that my mother had very serious cancer at only 57, I decided I needed to get my body in order. It was partially because her youth and previously good health made me more conscious of my own health. Mostly though, it was because I was angry. Murderously so. Without a physical outlet, that anger began to feel too intense to control, and for the first time in my life I volunteered for physical struggle in the hope that fatiguing my muscles would provide the outlet and the sense of control that had been taken from me.

Each day I walk or bus past Raw Condition Gym. For months, I’ve glanced at the place, and the people going in and out, wondering what possessed them. Eight weeks ago, I found myself standing inside the gym in my training gear, feeling like I’d turned up to a funeral in a wedding dress, and suspecting that at any moment one of the gym’s enormous members would come up to point out that I am a fraud and should leave for everyone’s sake.

That didn’t happen. Instead, I had my first session with Raw co-owner and personal trainer Anthony Lynch, who challenged my bigotry. Here was a fellow with all the physicality you’d expect of a trainer, but who was sympathetic to my discomfort and sense of displacement.

Over the weeks he has managed to combine challenging me as much as possible with encouragement and kindness. He has taken no nonsense – lack of effort isn’t tolerated – but he has a keen instinct for what is intensely difficult as opposed to what is too much. The exercise is too intense to focus on anything else. My mind empties and the anger is sated.

 

Gruelling training

Lynch has disabused me of my ignorance. Slowly, week by week, each previously frightening machine in the gym has lost its mystery. He has introduced me to Zuu, a gruelling form of cardio and strength training based around lifting your own body weight. I have grown used to the burly men, who are generally quiet and polite when they’re not over in the corner lifting the equivalent in weight of a Land Rover. There are impressively strong women, too. They stalk the gym floor looking imposing, and frighten me entirely, until one will catch my awed looks and give me a reassuring smile. Athletic people, it turns out, are just people.

My aim is to get stronger and to be healthier. Taking up less space doesn’t particularly interest me, and strength training results in loss of centimetres or inches rather than pounds. It doesn’t make you look like a balloon full of marbles; large, toned muscles are much harder to build than that. Yes, after eight weeks I can see my body changing; it is a little less softly sprawling and more defined. Mostly, it feels different to live inside. It doesn’t get breathless running for the bus. Its knees feel eager for steps and hills, and it can do things that it couldn’t do the day I first walked into Raw. That is success.

 

Yes to . . . strength. No to . . . complacency

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