I will always remember my first school cross country race. It is a landmark occasion in my life because it is the first time I ever thought I was going to die while exercising. I was nine years old and, up to that point, I do not remember struggling with physical activity. Sure, I did not like it. I would prefer to be exploring the world of chapter books and watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on a loop, but I had never experienced discomfort while moving vigorously.
That was until I found myself at the back of the pack struggling to complete this unnecessary, compulsory race. The finish line teased me, withdrawing as I closed in on it. Desperate questions were flying through my head. Why was my chest burning? Why was a knife stabbing me under my rib and where on earth was my drink bottle? Eventually, I did finish. (A long time after my best friend, as she kindly pointed out. So much for sticking together.) After this traumatising event, I realised I did not like running. In fact, I hated all sport. It was nothing but uncomfortable and embarrassing.
Today I want to tell you about how this out-of-breath nine-year-old embarked on a journey towards gym-tastic achievement. It was a journey that saw me trade in my gypsy pants for activewear, despite my ever-present fear of underwear lines, and willingly attend gym classes. My journey began when I was 21. My best friend invited me to power walk around the park with her after work. While this was only mild exercise, I was surprised to find the experience strangely uplifting and addictive. I felt happier afterwards, because just like Elle Woods says: “Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, happy people just don’t kill their husbands.”
I thought that walking around the park was as far as my exercise journey would go. I had found my bliss, however, little did I know, things had only just begun. A year later, my sister made me go to the gym with her. In the name of throwing myself in the deep end, she took me to a spin class. I sometimes wonder how she got me to do it because I had no desire to be yelled at by a super hot, fit Nike model. I could not “just do it”—my sports slogan could not be condensed into a mere three words. It was more like, “Get off your ass, shoehorn yourself into skin tight clothes, bite your lip, don’t cry and move as fast as you can, just short of vomiting.” The embarrassment I felt about how my body looked and performed had been stopping me from entering a gym for years, but having my sister there with me gave me the extra confidence I needed to go through the door. As I entered the gym, I self-consciously pulled down on my top to disguise my rolls and cover my ass because I was convinced my stripped undies were showing through my pants. I thought I was a fraud and my fellow gym-goers would call me out, “You don’t exercise hard enough to wear Adidas!” or ask, “Where is your thigh gap?”
I am not going to sugar coat it. My first time at spin was next to impossible. The whole experience was overwhelming for many reasons: everyone’s sheer determination to get through the workout, the instructor’s unfathomable energy, dealing with gym equipment and etiquette, etc. And of course, the challenge of actually completing the class. But despite the fear, I had unlocked a new achievement and I found myself going back on a regular basis. Spin did not become easier, but I slowly got better. I became addicted to the benefits, particularly its positive impact on my mental state. Regular exercise helps me deal with my stress and anxiety by always putting me in a better mood than I usually am pre-work out. Exercise has also changed my attitude towards my body. Instead of being frustrated and embarrassed, I am in awe that it can manage to carry me through a workout and, week by week, keep improving.
I recently moved cities for a graduate job and one of the first things I did was sign up to a gym, and willingly designate a part of my pay cheque towards it, an action that would have been unthinkable a year ago. Now that I work at a desk, the gym has become even more important to me; if nothing else, it forces me to get out of that hunched-over position that I’m in for most of the day. While I can no longer exercise with my bestie or my sister, exercise continues to be social for me, as I practice yoga with my new co-workers. Let me tell you, nothing bonds people faster than witnessing your superiors attempt downward facing dog.
I have not told you about my journey from religious couch potato to an almost-gym-bunny to gloat. Instead, I am hoping someone like me stumbles upon it. Someone who is uncomfortable in their own body, but sick of feeling so; someone who wants to go to the gym but is too afraid of being judged, or the idea of seeing themselves in Lycra is too much to bear. If you are that someone, I hope this will encourage you to contemplate seeing exercise differently. Just do it (or, if you prefer, “Get off your ass, shoehorn yourself into skin tight clothes, bite your lip, don’t cry and move as fast as you can, just short of vomiting.”) Make the brave decision (I say this with no sarcasm because it is brave) to commit to improving your physical and mental health.