A guide to making the most of the gym (for newbies)

You joined the gym. Congratulations!  Genuinely.  No sneering here (although I do reserve the right to harrumph when I can’t get on my favourite treadmill in the January crush).  I know from my own experience that walking into a gym, when unfamiliar, unfit or overweight (or all of the above) can feel intimidating.  There’s all this equipment, all these ripped looking people, too much confusing terminology.

This discomfort can lead to people quitting – or just letting the membership card languish on the shelf.

So if you have joined the gym this new year, here are my top tips for making the most of it – and getting through those first few visits.

  1. Take up the free session. Every decent gym will offer a proper induction to the site and the equipment, and many will offer a free session with a Personal Trainer too. Take these up, and ask all the questions. Make sure you know how to use the key pieces of equipment before you begin.
  2. Figure out what you want to focus on – and have a plan for your sessions.  You don’t need to worry too much about the technicalities to begin with.  But knowing your key goal will help provide focus; are you there to lose weight, to tone, to work towards a specific goal like run a race?  Chat to the gym staff about which are the best pieces of equipment to use in accordance with your goal – it’s their job to guide you.  Some gyms will offer a tailored plan, or a little research of your own will give you all you need.  Pinterest and YouTube are good places to start.
  3. Consider a Personal Trainer – just for a few sessions. If you are entirely new to gym based exercise, consider getting a PT. You don’t need to sign up (or pay) for a dozen sessions. Just book two or three and make it clear you just need some help to get you going. Then once you have a programme branch out on your own.
  4. Step out of the cardio zone. Many people, especially in the early days of gym membership, stay on the running machines, exercise bikes and so on. They are somewhat less scary than all those strange weights machines that need setting up and understanding. But you will have better results if you include strength and resistance work in your sessions (weight and body weight exercises). Google and YouTube is your friend here. You will find plenty of videos and instructions on how to gently and safely introduce some weights into your visits – and again, ask for help from the staff.
  5. Go to some classes. I know this is hard too. Everyone else knows the routines, and you feel like the class dork. But everyone there was new once. Resist the urge to hide at the back. Get a space in the room where you can easily see the class instructor. If you hate it, you can just say thank you and leave and never go back. Classes will push you out of your comfort zone and teach you new things that you can build into your own workouts. And after a couple of visits you won’t be the new person any longer.

Remember. No matter how uncomfortable you feel, no matter how out of place you think you look, no one is taking any notice of you.  They are there to do their thing.  They are focused, listening to their music, counting their reps.  Don’t worry about anyone else – just go for it.

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New Year, Same You

I do love new year. It is a time for me of reflection; thinking about the year that has almost gone, planning for the one still to come.  But this time of year can promote the unhealthiest of habits (no, not Prosecco).  The idea that at midnight, everything changes.  That somehow, with just a strong dose of willpower, the help of the latest guru or a bunch of promises to yourself or others, January 1st is the day.  New year, new you.

new you

It is of course, a heady mix of marketing and hype. After the holiday excesses comes the guilt trip. We can make it all okay, all better, all over again.  If we just buy more stuff and spend more money.

The problem with the new year, new you narrative is the underlying suggestion that there was something wrong with the old you. The old you ate too much, mediated too infrequently, failed to exercise sufficiently, didn’t detox and so on.

First things first. The old you is awesome.  You are not what you eat, how much you weight, how much you drink, the carbs you consume, the gym visits you undertake.

If you want to make a change in your life, by all means start at the beginning of the year. But please, don’t make a big long list.  Don’t try and change everything all at once.  It is too big, too scary, too much to deal with cognitively.  Those new white, clean trainers will never make it to worn.  Instead, think about this.  What is the single most important thing you want to work on for your wellbeing right now? What one thing can you do to support that?

And then do it. Keep doing it for a while, until you are happy with it, until it becomes a habit, until you are satisfied.  Then pick something else.  Whatever day of the year that turns out to be.

Change enough of the small stuff bit by bit. It will all add up to big stuff by the end of the year.

New year, same awesome you.

Don’t fall for the hype

Man in Santa Claus Costume

 

Somewhere, right now, there is a celebrity.

She (for it is ever thus), hasn’t had a mince pie this festive season.

Not a single Quality Street has passed her lips.

No pigs in blankets are on the Christmas lunch menu.

For this celebrity is on a diet. She’s been on a diet for a while now.  Low, low calorie.

She’ll have been spending some serious time in the gym. Supported by professionals all the way.

She’s lost the weight. She’s toned up all of the important bits.

And it is time for the paparazzi photos and the Boxing Day DVD to drop and all of the congratulations to roll in. Doesn’t she looks amazing?!

But she knows what is coming too, deep down.

That you can’t sustain very low calorie for too long. That real life gets in the way.  That wanting a life will get in the way.

That the industry will move onto the next quick fix and quick buck.

Those magazines that flaunted her new figure will line up to share pictures of any future weight gain. Any future dare to drop the façade.  Any sign of being human.

Spare a thought for this celebrity and her Prosecco free Christmas.

And don’t fall for the hype. `

One lamppost at a time

I love exercise. But I don’t love running.

I recognise the benefits it can bring me, and after I’ve run I feel a sneaking satisfaction, but it will never be my exercise of choice.

If I have a choice, I cycle or I go the gym. But as the nights are drawing in I’m not so confident on my bike, so in the last few weeks I’ve switched to evening running.  And oh, can my body feel how long it has been……  My longest ever run was a half marathon.  The whole way around my legs wondering what the heck was happening to them and when would it every end?  There’s no way I could do that right now.  So I am back to what I did when I first took up running.  Lamppost training.

It’s my very own form of fartlek. I run as far as I can, and then I aim for the next lamppost.  And then the next.  When I need to stop to walk a little, then it’s just to the next lamppost and no further.

The more I run, the most lampposts I tick off, the strong and faster and better I become. The only way to get better at running, is to run.

There’s no shame in being slow and steady. In walking a little when you need to.  You don’t need special equipment or a fancy running watch.  You just need to get out there and do it.

One lamppost at a time.

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Autumn Feels

I love to exercise outside.  When there’s no time to drive to the gym or a whole hour for a class, outside is easy.  No fuss or cost or timetables.  No noise nor conversation.  Just me.

For weeks and months now, my evening bike rides and runs have been filled with sunshine and warmth.  Those extra layers of winter clothing not required.  It’s easy to forget what winter brings.

But this last week or so, you can feel the change in the air.  Tonight, as I cycled through my local park, the leaves were starting to fall.  In a few more weeks the nights will draw in, and the light filled rides along the waterfront will stop…. for a little while.

It is harder to get motivated to exercise when it is dark and cold.  But I do believe every season brings something a little special for those that brave it.

leaves

Autumn. Crunchy leaves.  All the colours.  The smell of bonfires and fireworks.

Winter.  Crispy, cold, bright mornings.  Bundled up in your extra layers.  Breath fogging in front of you.  On the run up to Christmas, passing the fairy lights and the decorated trees.  Feeling like you’re a little bit badass because everyone else is indoors and you are in the streets.

And then to spring.  There’s that first evening you get home from work and there’s still plenty of daylight.  Flowers and trees waking up, seeing the change day by day.  The promise of warmer days just around the corner.

But from here on in, for a little while, its freezing noses all the way.

Bring it on.

I see you

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She’s new, I think.

She seems unsure. A little uncertain, especially around the big machines, the gym hardcore elite.

The weights don’t sit neatly in her hands… just yet.

She looks around, but doesn’t make eye contact.

She hangs out only in the deserted areas of the gym floor.

She is dressed like I did, when I first started out. Covering up as much as possible.

Nervous laughter.

She has someone with her. From the corner of my eye they are doing all the right things.

Starting slow. Demonstrating technique.  Encouraging smiles.

I see you, I want to say to her. I see you and I feel you.

Stick with it, I want to tell her.  A few weeks from now you will feel stronger and more confident.  Just stick with it.  Keep coming.  Listen to your guide.

Believe in yourself, I want to cheerlead for her.

The stuff you are doing today can be your warm up in the future.

You got this.

I see you.

And I know I’ll see you soon.

Ready to Run?

running

On my long slog back to fitness, there is one thing that I have been avoiding.

Running.

I always had a love hate relationship with running. It’s something that many runners know well. I liked it and I didn’t, often at the same time.  There are good bits and not so good bits of it.

When I first started out running, I used to run to my local supermarket and back. It was less than a mile in total, and my goal was to be able to run all the way there and all the way back without stopping.  It took me a while but I got there.  A couple of years later I ran for two and a half hours without stopping in my first half marathon, a feat I would never have believed I could achieve that first, sweaty, difficult time.

The thing about running, is that to get any better you just have to keep going. Yes, other stuff matters.  Having a decent pair of trainers, fuelling your body appropriately, learning a little about form…. But mostly it is about just running and then running some more.  There are no shortcuts to become a good runner.

I have this tension going on. I am glad I am out there, putting one foot in front of the other.  But I am also constantly reminded that I am not as good at this as I used to be.  I am all too consciously incompetent.  I don’t like the way my body moves right now, or the ragged feel of the breath that I just can’t regulate properly.  Yet.

I know that my only choice is to keep going. To keep putting on my running shoes and just simply go.

It will take time but I will get better.

If I just keep running.

Bottom Envy

I have a confession to make.  I have been looking at the bottoms of other women in the gym.  In a sideways, hope they don’t notice me staring kind of way.

Not just bottoms either. Calves, abs, toned arms.  The way that they rock their lycra while I look like an over stuffed sausage in mine.  I have body envy.  In particular, I have bottom envy.

I want their bottoms. Not their actual bottoms. I am not quite that weird.  I want one of their bottoms for myself.  I want my bottom to look all pert and dimple-free.  I want to have the sort of bottom that makes women like me wish they had one.  I want my bottom not to look like two planets colliding in a pair of pants.

I know that answer is, among other things of course, squats. The don’t call it a squat booty for nothing.  Which is fine if your knees work properly but mine don’t.  The last time I attempted a set of squats, I couldn’t get up the stairs at work for a week.

The answer to a better bottom also relies on other forms of exercise, and indeed, a better diet. I’m writing this sat down whilst sipping a latte.  That probably won’t help either to be honest.

So ladies, if you see me looking at your bottom in the gym, please don’t call security. I just think you rock.

Exercise, mental health, and me

It’s a Friday afternoon in June 2016. The end of a long week of business travel, including flight delays and lost luggage. 5pm could not come soon enough.  I went home expecting an ordinary kind of evening but instead my marriage ended.

A few weeks later I moved out of my home, taking almost nothing from the dozen or so previous years.

Then a few weeks after that, my dad got diagnosed with cancer.

Then a few weeks after that, my mom got diagnosed with cancer.

Then my wonderful boss left meaning my job changed over night.

And then my brain stopped working.

Rewind.

It’s April 2016 and I am doing my first ever triathlon. Not a bad achievement for a former fat girl.  The following, my first half marathon – the longest I had ever run.  Then in June, before the night that changed everything, my first Tough Mudder.  Two and a half hours of gruelling running and obstacles.  I loved it.

I was at the peak of my mental and physical health. I felt amazing and I was confident in how I looked, possibly for the first time in my life.  Exercise was everything.  My diet was focused, I was totally committed.

Back to August 2016. One night I went to bed, packing my gym bag for the morning as usual, laying out my kit.  My alarm went off at 5.30.  Something wasn’t quite right.  I didn’t get up.  All day.  I told work I had a stomach upset.  Because what else do you say? I told my girlfriends something wasn’t right.  A few hours later, on my doorstep, Julie. With food and wine.  She slept on the sofa and watched me.

I didn’t know then but this was the start of a dark period in my life. Depression and anxiety.  One of the worst things for me during this time was that my desire to exercise disappeared over night.  That thing that was part of who I was, wasn’t.  I went from exercising twice a day to barely moving off the sofa. I lost a lot of things during those few months, and exercise and fitness was one of them.

When you are depressed, people tell you that exercise is a good thing. And it is.  But wanting to do it, finding the energy and the motivation to do it….  That’s something else entirely.  What I wanted to do every day was sit.  Or lie down.  Not run or swim or cycle or lift some heavy stuff.  But for the love of a good man, I might never have moved off the sofa again.

Fast forward.

It’s the Spring of 2018. The Black Dog is mostly vanquished.  The anxiety looks to be a permanent addition to who I am.  The good news is that the exercise is back.  Not at the level it was before, simply because time is more of an issue now.  But if I could I would.  The simple joy of moving, lifting, stretching, cutting through water.  The feeling you get when you put on your kit, get the bike out of the garage, accelerate from a walk into a run.

I read an article this week that said research shows that resistance training weight lifting can be good for your mental health. That is certainly the case in my own experience.  I can’t lift heavy but it makes me feel great all the same. And when the days are difficult, it takes the edge off.

I miss the fitter, thinner, stronger me. I lost her for a while.  But she is in there somewhere.   I did it once and I can do it again, older and wiser this time.  And this time, the exercise isn’t just about getting physically fit but its mental health benefits too.

See you in the gym.