‘Oh god, have you been at the gym again?’ I arrive to dinner with friends carrying a tell-tale sports bag, and inwardly wince at their reactions. The joking ‘you’re obsessed’ comments, the well-meaning but misplaced concern that I’m doing too much, and even worse, the implication hanging in the air that somehow my attendance at a spinning class makes them feel bad, or a bit lazy. I’m aware that even mentioning these reactions makes me sound exactly like the type of attention-seeking person you’d label with the tag of ‘gym bunny’. But I wish they didn’t notice; I feel like shouting ‘NOTHING TO SEE HERE!’ and quickly change the subject. How do I explain my sudden dedication to 6am alarm calls, even on the darkest, coldest morning? Or my stubborn refusal to cancel an early morning gym classs for weeknight drinks, like the old me would have done? It’s not for bragging rights or Facebook likes, it has very little to do with physical gains and I definitely don’t do it to make anyone feel bad.
Growing up, I was never sporty. At school, it was the typical story of dreading PE and being picked last for teams. I didn’t blame the selectors; I had the hand-eye coordination of a drunk toddler and was more likely to run away from a ball than attempt to kick it. Then, in my early 20s, I started running – very, very slowly – and realised it was something I could do purely for myself, nobody watching or judging, only I would know if I stopped to gasp for breath every 100 metres or took a shortcut.
Gradually I got a little better, a little faster, a little more confident. I remember the elation after my first-ever 10K race – like I’d climbed Everest, and I was on a high for days. Running became a bigger and bigger part of my life and at some point, I began to think of myself as ‘a runner’. Running gave me a quiet satisfaction and I came to rely on the feeling of calm and control it gave me – lacing up my trainers even when I didn’t feel like it, talking myself into leaving the house, sometimes hating it, sometimes feeling like I could run forever, and always, always feeling better afterwards. There have been periods when I haven’t run for months at a time, but I am always drawn back to it. A week after my 30th birthday, I ran the London marathon – an awesome experience that changed my perception of what my body and mind are capable of over six months of training.
Then, a year or so ago, my relationship with fitness changed. Almost overnight, my life became a lot more stressful and suddenly I was struggling to cope. For months I felt very low; I was tearful a lot and anxious – normal day-to-day life had become too much to handle. Sure, I’d let running slide a little, but I was still plodding around the park at weekends. When the opportunity came up to join a gym, I decided to go for it – for all the usual reasons, tone up, get fit etc, never thinking about what other effects it could have. I didn’t even expect to stick to it, but I surprised myself by enjoying each visit more and more, and soon I was signing up for classes most week days. Initially, I didn’t notice any difference – it was my boyfriend who pointed out after just a few weeks of a regular exercise schedule that the almost-daily bouts of tears had subsided, and I was more like myself again. He was right – the change in my anxiety levels had been swift and drastic.
It dawned on me just how important exercise was to my mental health. Whereas before I had been vaguely aware that a run or a gym session would help me unwind, suddenly I had come to totally rely on the sense of personal achievement a hard workout brings, just to be able to get through the day feeling OK. When people ask how I get up at 6am in the dark and cold to go to the gym before work, I shrug and say it’s not so bad. The honest answer is it’s never easy, but every time my alarm goes off and I consider staying in bed, my very next thought is to worry about what would happen if I turned over and two hours later had to face the day on a little more sleep, but without the bolstering knowledge that I’d sweated, pushed myself, achieved something that’s entirely within my control in a world I feel can be totally out of control. It’s like a shield that protects me against the stresses of the day. And the fear of facing life without that shield is what makes me get out of bed every time.
Working out isn’t something I do to show off, get skinny or make anyone else feel bad about themselves. I don’t instabrag about my workouts, or tweet every time I finish a run. I definitely don’t take gym selfies (although if that’s what you’re into go for it, just don’t include my red sweaty face in the background). It’s also not something I do purely because I think I have to either – I genuinely enjoy it. Most of all, I’ve come to see it as a crucial part of my mental health coping strategy. Just like you can get physically ill if something is off-kilter: you’re eating badly, getting too little sleep, drinking too much. You’d take vitamins and make soup, have a few early nights to feel better. Mental health can also tip over from being OK to not OK if your balance gets out of sync. Everyone is different, and what works for me could be totally wrong for someone else. But going through a tough time helped me find my version of the right balance. Now I rely on breaking a sweat several times a week just as much as I rely on time spent with my loved ones to feel OK. That’s why I exercise. And it’s worth so much more to me than a number on the scales.