For as long as I can remember, I’ve hated exercise. I like moving, with a secondary purpose – dancing in a club, for instance, or walking around a new town – but running for no reason? Other than running? That is very boring to me. It takes great mental motivation and stamina to lift my arse up and out of the house, with no goal other than “possibly feeling good in a few weeks if you keep this up”.
In the past, the above was fine. But lockdown has changed things. Those of us who were previously able to “exercise” in a social setting are now spending great deals of time motionless, watching Drag Race or staring into space. You have to choose to physically move, or else you never will. Which is really important: studies have consistently shown that regular exercise massively improves mental health (a crumb of dopamine would be nice), while it can also reduce your risk of heart attacks, some types of cancers and gives you stronger bones and muscles.
For people who have always been “into” exercise, maintaining a routine might be easy and fun right now (who are these people?). But what about those of us for whom exercise has always been deeply unappealing? What if we want to move – to feel the benefits – but simply can’t be bothered? Is it possible to exercise properly, even if you fundamentally dislike the concept?
Fitness coach Tally Rye tells me that we need to stop thinking of exercise in traditional ways. It isn’t just running and push-ups and treadmills. Any movement is exercise. So it’s about finding what we genuinely feel like doing, in the moment. “A lot of people associate exercise with discomfort and something that’s going to be fairly torturous. But the way I approach exercise is about intuitive movement and really working with your energy and your body.”
“When my energy’s been lower, I’ve been really drawn to gentle movement like pilates, for example,” she explains. “It’s also about considering that all movement counts. Cleaning. Gardening. Walking the dog. All of those things are being active.” In other words, if you don’t feel like doing an intense online aerobics class, maybe just walk to a supermarket which is further away than your usual one. Or, as Tally points out, dancing around your room for a moment is still exercise. “It’s about finding the playful side, the fun side, of doing what you’re choosing to do,” she says.
Cairo Nevitt, another fitness coach, also points to daily walking and dancing as fail-safe ways to exercise when you can’t be bothered. “It reduces anxiety and you can choose pace and the distance,” he says. “I tell some of my clients to have a ‘one person rave’ at home if they hate running but love to dance, for example. It’s still a great form of cardio; they’re moving and enjoying at the same time.”
For Tally, we don’t just need to reframe what counts as exercise, but also why we do it. This can help when it comes to our aversions to it. “We’ve been brought up with the pressure that exercise must have a visible result. You must achieve a certain aesthetic for it to be seen as ‘successful’,” she says. “But I think we need to reframe it as something which benefits physical and mental wellbeing. There’s a great phrase from a psychologist called Kimberly Wilson which is like ‘Think of exercise as something you give to yourself, not something you do to yourself’. It can be an opportunity to move your body and switch things up from the monotony of the day to day.”
Essentially, thinking of exercise as something which might make us feel better in the moment, rather than something we need to work towards, can lift the pressure. Feeling good after a run, for example, means the run was worth it, even if you’re not mega fit immediately or didn’t go very far. Cairo says a similar thing. “A lot of people set themselves up to fail by expecting to be at the level of an elite athlete overnight,” he says. “Give yourself time to evolve; the beauty lies in the process of the journey not only on the outcome. Embrace it.”
Obviously, everyone has different reasons for not exercising. If you’re disabled, for instance, or have a body type that makes exercising difficult, then certain workouts aren’t going to work for you. Tally suggests finding online classes and apps which specifically cater to your needs. “Who are you following, can you relate to them, are they the right person for you?” she says. When it comes to wheelchair users, Tally recommends following people like “Sophie Butler, who does a lot of workouts for seated workouts”.
For people with bigger bodies, Tally says there are a bunch of workouts online, it’s about finding the right people. “Based in the UK there are people like Becky Scott who runs Missfits Workout online. She’s plus-sized and her classes are a plus-size friendly space. People come to her classes because they look like her, they relate to her, they feel safe and they don’t feel judged in that environment.” Elsewhere, there are apps like JOYN, “which is US-based but which is coming to the UK. They have a mix of seated, plus-sized, chair yoga, all sorts of stuff”.
Basically, exercise doesn’t have to mean buying expensive running trainers and flinging yourself around a park until you feel sick. It’s just movement, and that’s going to look different for different people. And if movement, for you, looks like literally doing star jumps for the length of one song, then that’s fine. Then maybe you can do that again the next day. Or maybe you can just watch Drag Race again, then do it some other time. It’s your body.