Old friends get you doing the strangest things and so it was that, after a fish supper in a beachside café in West Wittering between lockdowns, I found myself catching one friend as she fell off the other friend’s stationary training bike in her spare bedroom. The falling friend is a ceramicist and, like me, does not identify as an exerciser. When the pedals started going faster than her legs, she screeched, her eyes widened, and then she toppled sideways.
“Exerciser”, I should add, is a term I’ve coined myself. It describes what I am not and, in order to see off things I don’t want in my life (pandemic-induced anxiety, panic about finishing my new book), what I am now trying to become. An exerciser.
It’s going quite well, as it happens, thanks to a lightbulb moment that shed light on why I stop-start with exercise. It’s because I don’t – how to put this politely – have an affinity with exercisers. Ripped men who jog topless, women with cartoon biceps, they put me on edge. I have an affinity with people who sit about and say, I shouldn’t have another one but yes please, which is how me and my old school muckers ended up straddling a stationary saddle in the wee small hours.
The friend who owns the stationary training bike is a postie. She walks all day on her lithe legs, comes home, walks her two dogs on the beach, then gets on the exercise bike. You what? It’s the intensity of the cardio work, she says. Without it, she feels anxious.
A few days later, I got an email from road racing cyclist Peter Kennaugh, the Olympic gold medallist, as you do. Actually, he didn’t email me himself; the former British champion has teamed up with Bang & Olufsen and Canyon bikes and I was being offered training on an indoor bike using the Zwift app.
It coincided with low-level, barely audible-to-human-ears anxiety that had been humming away in the lead-up to lockdown 0.2 and was now akin to a whirring blender, no off switch in sight. So I said yes.
The joy was not having to leave the house and I arranged to borrow the bike for longer as part of a spontaneously hatched a six-week experiment. The aim? To see if exercise could move me away from feelings of dis-ease and being overwhelmed to being motivated again, as well as pin-sharp and able to prioritise the things I love. Feeling hopeful, according to the late positive psychologist Charles Snyder, is about having goals and believing you’ve got what it takes to achieve those goals. Fitness is achieved through setting yourselves goals and I wanted, like so many of us, to get my default feeling of hopefulness back that the pandemic has done its best to erode.
So, the indoor bike stayed, I also signed up to weekly personal training and dynamic pilates on interactive wellbeing platform Ponzu Fit, and got myself some Crossropes. I would have got myself a new pelvic floor, too, but I couldn’t find one online.
Forty-two days later, I’ve now squatted for Britain while my Ponzu trainer Claudine Camp says, “Yes, Genevieve, you can do it!” or Pilates instructor Susan Altay laughs as she counts down from some agonising leg hold. I’ve lowered myself on to and off the sofa on only one leg (yes, all right, using the armrest as a cheaty prop). I’ve sniffed enough dust during attempted press-ups and plank holds to fill a vacuum and I’ve done star jumps with unmuscular abandon – remembering too late my WFH neighbour at his window desk across the street.
I’ve done EFH at least four times a week thanks to booking these online fitness sessions that provide instructors to guide you. My usual non-exerciser excuses – no time to get to a class, too much work on – don’t wash when someone is waiting for you. The key to my continuing with the exercise into the new year, says midlife health and mindset coach James Davis of themidlifementors.com, is to change my habits. “Often our subconscious will push back against new behaviour because it wants to keep us stuck in the familiar (not exercising). So, first, commit to the new routine, schedule it, and, even when you don’t feel like it, at least start it.”
What kept me getting back on the bike was something Peter Kennaugh said during his virtual training session: “It doesn’t matter if you only exercise for 30 or 40 minutes. You’ll be achieving more with this than you would in an hour or an hour and a half out on the road.” Thirty minutes, I can do that, I thought, and chose a 30-minute programme with pleasing inclines, but didn’t join in with the virtual community of cyclists or give people Ride On’s, whatever they are. Neither did I turn up the programme to make the cycling harder. I turned up the music though – 80s disco anthems, some 70s punk (perfect for raging against the machine) – and went for it, ideally at 6.30pm. This trick of time broke a cherished habit: having a glass of wine and tuning into Front Row at 7.15pm as I rustle up supper. When you’re hot, sweaty and half dead, water wins out over wine. Who knew!
The other thing about doing flutter kicks or cycling in your spare room, going nowhere, not even sideways, is that you get to zone out while your endorphins make merry. Zoning out, I have on good authority, boosts creative thinking. In a study published last year in California, scientists looking at creativity in physicists and writers found that both have their “aha” moments during mind-wandering and not when they were “on task”, to use a terrifying expression. Meanwhile, Austrian scientists looking at the relationship between regular exercise, heart rate variability and the generation of creative ideas found that the exercisers were big on spontaneous and associative ways of thinking. The sedentary lot only managed mental effort. Exercise regularly, and you’re a creative spark; don’t, and you’re a plodder. Hmm. Maybe I should start identifying as an exerciser. Maybe I should change. Maybe I have.
Tips for reluctant exercisers by James Davis
1. Start by shifting your habits and priorities. Schedule your new routine, and stick to it, even when you don’t feel like it. In this way you are reinforcing to yourself that this is your new behaviour.
2. Make your workout sessions non-negotiable and, if you can, schedule them for first thing in the morning. As tiredness kicks in you are more likely to be tempted to skip them, plus you’ll reap the benefits of the mood-boosting endorphins through the day.
3. Self-sabotage is a product of our old self-identity pulling us back to the familiar. The subconscious mind always seeks pleasure over pain – the path of least resistance. Change is risky and so the subconscious will resist it.
4. Moderate alcohol intake. The body recognises it as a toxin, prioritising metabolism, moving your food down the queue, meaning it’s more likely you’ll put weight on. Plan the evenings you’re going to drink. Without a plan it’s all too easy to reach for a glass. Drinking is often habitual, so another tip is to replace the behaviour (drinking wine) and the reward (feeling comforted and relaxed) with an alternative. This could be a herbal tea or a fruit cordial with sparkling water. Also ask: what’s the consequence of me drinking the wine? Is it still worth it? Notice the emotional triggers that lead to you to grab a glass. Awareness is the beginning of change.
5. Get out there and run! Even a gentle 3k – building up to 5k – two to three times a week will pay dividends. Running aids the creative process as our mind focuses on the sensation and opens up the imagination. It’s like a moving meditation.
6. Finally, remember that exercise doesn’t have to take up a lot of time. Even a 15- to 20-minute session can and will give you results.