Fitgirls get a lot of flak. Ordinary jealousy aside, I don’t think this criticism is entirely undeserved. Scroll through a random fitgirl Instagram account and you’ll see all the cliches: green smoothies, tight abs, fancy workout gear, sunny locations and an endless array of motivational hashtags. Not all of it is fake, I don’t doubt that most of them actually put the hard work in behind the scenes, but to the uninitiated these tanned creatures live in a technicolor dreamworld that’s unreachable for us mortals.
Flashback to my PE lessons back in high school. This was before we had smartphones, Instagram, and green juice. Hard to imagine for today’s youngsters, but phones with internet and cameras were still novelties. No problem, we didn’t have much to share anyway. I recall how PE lessons always happened at 9AM on a Thursday morning, in the rain, on some soaked field, and always involved balls (not that kind, you jokers) and lots of running.
I did not like PE and therefore I assumed that I did not like sports.
Flash forward ten years and I’m happy to admit I was wrong. I do like sports, I just like some kinds more than others. I hate team sports, detest any sport that involves balls (…no comment), and I don’t like being forced to do things I don’t want to do. In hindsight, it’s no surprise that I used to position myself as far away from the action as possible, only to miss the ball if it did come my way.
Unsurprisingly, I was always the last one left when we had to pick teams.
That all changed when I moved to a city where I didn’t know anyone and, on a whim, signed up for a karate class. I’d been fascinated with martial arts for years and with no friends and too much spare time on my hands I thought I’d give it a go. Little did I know that that one session would turn into an obsession. It’s been five years and I’m now working towards my brown belt.
Things briefly went haywire when I ploughed through an enduring case of tonsillitis a few years back and was left with the stamina of an eighty year-old. Annoyed with my ability to negotiate ordinary staircases without taking breaks to breathe, I remembered the yoga classes I used to take when studying abroad, and wondered whether now was the time to give them another try.
There was one problem. If you’re a bit of a misanthrope, gyms are the worst places on earth. I wasn’t looking forward to spending hours in a sweaty and/or over-airconditioned room to get my exercise fix, so instead I elected to practise at home with Yoga With Adriene videos. Can’t remember how I found her, probably though some blog about cool free stuff on the internet.
Fast forward to now; I can hold a crow pose for at least twenty seconds, on a good day.
And then I discovered running. I’d been working on my stamina with Fitnessblender videos for a while (another great free resource), but when I moved to a first floor home with fragile-feeling floors I decided jumping around inside was no longer an option if I didn’t want my neighbours to break down my front door with an axe. Enter Couch to 5K. Within nine weeks I was able to run for half an hour without taking breaks. This was less than a year after the tonsillitis bout, less than a year after feeling so unhealthy that I couldn’t even walk for 30 minutes straight.
I’m banging on about this to prove that exercise, in real life, is nothing like the fitgirl image. It’s a reality of kicking yourself off the sofa, putting your grimy shoes on, and returning back home an hour later covered in sweat with a beetroot-coloured face. Incidentally, I don’t understand how fitgirls always manage to look like they’re just hanging out on a beach while they’re cracking on with the weights. After a good workout I look like I’m badly in need of a shower, because I am.
Although fitgirls claim to be inspirational, and probably are for some people, seventeen year-old me would just have been intimidated by these goddesses. Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed that I too was capable of running, stretching, and head kicks. The This Girl Can campaign is doing a whole lot of good to offer a more realistic image of what exercise is really like for real people, but I still think more needs to be done.
And then there’s the aspect of not liking sports. I disliked PE lessons because I was never given the opportunity to explore sports that suited my body and personality. If it wasn’t for that first karate class I would still be a couch potato. I always tell people that I’m the living proof that even the biggest gym hater can get fit, if only you take the time to figure out what works for you. Which may not involve gyms at all. I personally can’t stand them, so I won’t go near one. Don’t need too: there are plenty of alternatives.
What keeps me motivated most of all is how much better exercise makes me feel compared to sitting on my bum. I hate lazy just-get-some-exercise responses to depressed people as much as the next person, because exercise isn’t a magical solution and doesn’t work for everyone. But for me personally, it’s caused me to feel more at easy in my own skin, both literally and figuratively. I’m turning 28 tomorrow and I’m fitter, in better shape, and happier than I was at 17. If doesn’t motivate you to get off that couch, I don’t know what will.