After a lifetime of insisting she would NEVER enjoy exercise, Discoco co-founder Isabel transformed into a fully-fledged fitness bore, and all it took was a pandemic…
Talking about exercise is so boring.
Runners are especially boring. They talk in kilometres instead of miles and they ooze so many smug endorphins and all you feel like saying is, “Oh, so it’s like walking, but a bit faster?”.
Gym chat is so tedious too. Especially if you have no idea which is a tricep and which is a bicep and can’t imagine caring. Ever.
Except now I do care. Last year, something happened to me, and it’s been happening upwards of six times a week ever since: I transformed from the world’s laziest woman into a fully-fledged fitness bore, and if that isn’t personal development I don’t know what is.
There’s an exception to the “exercise chat is boring” thing, of course, and that exception is the Olympics when, for a couple of weeks every four years, we all suddenly become GRIPPED by the sight of men skidding in sand and women hurling large objects and people running really fast or really long or both.
So I’m going to grab this once-in-four-or-actually-five-years opportunity by both barbell-calloused hands and run with it. Literally. Because have I mentioned that I like running now?
My “I hate exercise” story probably began in the womb, but became part of my identity in 1992 or thereabouts, when I was 11 and awfully self-conscious about my sprouting boobs and the sturdy thighs spilling out of inappropriately tiny polyester gym knickers, and my PE teacher (let’s call her Miss Roberts because THAT WAS HER NAME AND SHE WAS A TERRIBLE HUMAN) pointed at me while dividing us into teams to play short tennis, and said:
“You go and stand at the back with the other chubby ones.”
Was I chubby? Yes. Did my pubescent self need a woman in her thirties highlighting this fact in front of the whole class and turning it into a reason to “stand at the back”? Not so much.
So, I whacked her in the shins with a hockey stick, screeched “I AM A STRONG CONFIDENT SASSY YOUNG QUEEN WHO PASSIONATELY BELIEVES IN THE BODY POSITIVITY MOVEMENT”, flounced out of that musty sports hall in an under-performing Cambridgeshire comprehensive and went on to win the Olympics.
Or: I said nothing, skulked to the back, pretended I knew what short tennis was, cried in secret when I got home, and then basically didn’t exercise for 30 years.
Fast forward to April 2020. I am 39 and I am trapped. I am working from home – regular Discoco readers know I hate that – and my two tiny, demanding children are there too. All. The. Time.
(Yes, Miss Roberts, somebody actually had sex with me. Twice).
I have been dabbling with swimming and a bit of gymming for a year or two, in a half-hearted “I’m done having kids so maybe I should do something for myself” sort of way, but it isn’t a habit and it definitely isn’t an addiction and anyway, now they are SHUT.
EVERYTHING IS SHUT.
Joe Wicks is lovely and all that (isn’t he though? Swoon) but HE IS IN MY HOUSE AND SO ARE MY CHILDREN AND MY HUSBAND AND MY CATS AND I JUST WANT TO BE ALONE FOR 45 GODDAMNED MINUTES IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK.
I am friends with lots of runners, my husband has run the odd half-marathon too, and I have always said “Never in a million years will I run, my boobs are too big and my knees are too creaky and I hate being hot and YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!”.
Do you know who could make me, though? Me! And also Jo Whiley, who was my voiceover of choice when I, out of sheer desperation to do absolutely anything but fester in my house, downloaded the Couch To 5K app. You probably know what that is – you do a bit of walking, a bit of running, then a bit less walking and a bit more running, and before you know it you can run 5K (translation for non-athletes and non-Australians: that’s just over 3 miles) in half an hour. Or 39 minutes, which was my time when I completed it at the end of May 2020, as pictured below.
Did I stop there? No, like a veritable Forrest Gump but in a Panache sports bra (basically armour; highly recommended if you’ve got a bit of a rack) and some overpriced but flawless Sweaty Betty leggings, I just kept on running. By June I was up to 10K, this time spurred on by the urban, 21st century incarnation of Miss Roberts, a white van man who, as I huffed and puffed for five miles or so through Catford, shouted out of his window:
“Keep it up fatty!”
People are wonderful, aren’t they?
In August, the gyms were open again. When mine did an Instagram poll asking if anyone fancied a free PT session, I spontaneously hit “yes”. Which is how I met this guy, Javen:
It was his impressive fitness credentials that drew me towards him, promise.
With very little actual fun happening in the world to spend money on, I signed up to his programme (he mostly does online coaching, but because I was local, I had in-person sessions too). I have always been someone who swears by accountability to get things done – it’s why I hate working from home, and it’s why Discoco wouldn’t exist if I wasn’t doing it with one of my best mates – so having Javen telling me what to do and then making sure I’d done it really worked for me.
Also, it turns out exercise is addictive and makes you feel really good – who knew?
I won’t go into the details of my exercise regime – we have established how very boring that would be – but I will say I got really into it and, even when the gyms shut again, I bought the shoddiest weights £40 can buy in Argos, and stuck to my routine at home and, later, in freezing cold, dark playgrounds with Javen. Maybe one day I’ll look back fondly at doing squats on actual ice, but right now I’m very glad that gyms are back.
What I can smugly tell you a year or so since all this began is:
I had been on medication for high blood pressure since having my son in 2015. I’ve now been taken off it.
At 40, I am in early menopause (family trend, not much fun) and when my GP analysed the state of my hormones, she was amazed I hadn’t come to her sooner but put it down to me managing my symptoms (mainly rage, tbf… I thought it was just the pandemic making me break stuff) with exercise.
The other day I successfully removed a really jammed lid from a jar that nobody else could manage.
I am running a half-marathon in a couple of weeks (you can sponsor me if you want. Especially you, Miss Roberts) and I’m pretty sure it will be absolutely fine.
I look hot.
Also: I’ve now become someone who wells up when they see stuff like this:
I wonder if Miss Roberts would have told Emily Campbell to go and stand at the back with the other chubby ones too?
And that’s why I am writing this (well partly; it’s also just to show off that I can run 13 miles). We’re told there’s an obesity crisis, we’re shamed for being a nation of “couch potatoes” and yet we get belittled and heckled when we try to exercise.
We’re urged to “eat less and move more” as if it’s as simple as that – biologically, it might be, but psychologically it absolutely isn’t – and then when we eat less, we’re told that diets don’t work and we’ll put it all back on again, so we shouldn’t bother.
It’s almost as if the same people who hate us for being fat want us to be fat forever. It’s almost as if being absolute dicks to us makes them feel better about themselves.
I am a big fan of the new trend for “body ambivalence” – sometimes described as “body neutrality” although they’re not quite the same thing – where you can appreciate your body for the stuff it allows you to do, without absolutely loving or absolutely loathing every inch of it, until you get to a place where you barely think about it at all.
Admittedly, the white van men of the world make it quite the challenge, but body ambivalence is my goal because this new-found exercise addiction of mine has largely shifted my focus from the size of my arse to the size of my PB. And I’m pretty sure most Olympians feel the same.
Because if there’s one thing more boring than people banging on about exercise it’s people banging on about their weight.
And I say this as someone who once lost 5 stone in 6 months by not eating actual food and wrote a diet blog which is now buried in the darkest depths of the internet.
People and things which have helped me on my fitness and body image “journey” over the last year:
Dr Joshua Wolrich who debunks a lot of health stuff (“nutribollocks”) on Instagram and in his excellent book Food Isn’t Medicine, and who is the perfect palate cleanser (not sure if palate cleansers count as nutribollocks) for anyone who’s consumed a LOT of diet stuff, both via the mouth and the eyes, over the years.
Facebook groups like Run Mummy Run (don’t be put off by the name, there’s useful running advice and support for anyone, especially if you’re new to the world of moving your legs really fast).
Coach Bennett from the Nike Run Club app; when I finished Couch To 5K, I felt bereft without Jo Whiley in my ear, but his wonderful guided runs are what’s got me to 13 miles.
Alex Light and her warm, uplifting Instagram account focused on body confidence (with a weirdly compelling sideline in trying to curl her hair without the use of heat).
Strava, the fitness tracking app which means you can brag about your outdoor pursuits in a safe space and get kudos from your sporty cousins, rather than boring the whole of Facebook by posting stats every time you leave the house. @stravawankers on Twitter offsets it nicely when it all gets a bit too unbearable though.
The fabulously inspiring Meg Gallagher aka megsquats (“on a mission to get a barbell in every woman’s hands”), who’s especially useful to follow if you’re wanting to train while pregnant since she just squatted a baby out and was still deadlifting beyond her due date.
My very funny pal George, aka FullerFigureFullerBust, who’s been making me
buy clothes feel good about my body shape for years and is a big source of fitness inspiration (and she’s also currently training while pregnant).
And fitness trainer Tally Rye, who posts excellent reminders like this:
PS. We would LOVE to feature some online courses and workshops around body image, fitness and all that jazz, since it’s a bit of an obsession here, so please let us know if you know of any good ones via our Recommend a Course page.