How to Get Back into Exercise After a Long Break
I’m sitting in my room in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in a chair that is almost too snug for me. It’s a little armchair – I’m sure there’s some architectural name for it – with a kind of bucket seat. The sides hug my thighs. In my current condition, it is perfect; it offers support for my lower back, which houses a permanent dull ache, more on the right side than on the left, a shadow of the sciatica I experienced about five years ago. I can place my arms on either side. I can sit right back, on what yoga instructors call my sit bones and relax my glutes, settling into a seated position. My feet are flat on the floor.
I know that one’s seat is always important – the seat from which we do our work, the seat from which we watch our stories, the seat from which we pore over Instagram captions. But right now it feels more important than ever. There are few positions in which I feel comfortable. Standing places too much strain on the glutes; sitting on a high stool only serves to emphasise the pain in my calves. If I flex my feet too much, I feel a twinge in the corresponding hamstring. I point my toe and my quad contracts. It is not a pleasant sensation.
The crux of it is this: I have returned to exercise. Yes, this was a giant fake-out. “In my condition.” LOL! Imagine! A little American bébé! Please hear me saying that à la Catherine O’Hara’s Moira in Schitt’s Creek. If you haven’t already watched it, please, do so immediately – before you even consider returning to (or beginning) exercise. Priorities, priorities.
The break I took from exercise – if it can be called that (in a relationship, it would be a break-up; Rachel would not have had a leg to stand on) – was accidental. As I explained to Chelsea, my very muscular, smiley, blonde coach at Velocity Barbell, during an early-morning consultation, “I suffer from depression and I went through a bit of a down phase… and a bad break-up.” My therapist has noted, more than once, that I tend to give the more important piece of information at the end, as if it were the aside, rather than the crux of the matter.
I went through a bad break-up
It was not a bad break-up in the way that people go through bad break-ups involving shouting and crying and hearts, torn apart by anger and disdain. It was bad in the sense that it was sad and it was protracted and it was unexpected – not, perhaps, at the moment of impact, but way before that, when I was making plans and imagining the future we would make together. I could not, then, have expected what was to come.
A previous bad (unexpected) break-up I went through had resulted in my throwing myself into the gym with something approaching a religious fervour. I pedalled through my heartbreak on a stationary bike to a thumping dance track. But this time around, I did the opposite. I allowed myself to wallow. (I like to say, “I love a good wallow” because I do, in fact, love a good wallow.)
I did a lot of crying and I did some self-reflection. I cuddled my dog. (I did not do a lot of dog walks, for which I am sorry.) I ate a lot of takeaways. I went to my parents’ house more often than I had done since my teens, for dinner or for cuddles, whichever was on offer. Usually both. I also, grudgingly, at the urging of Lift Training Studios’ Niamh, my old trainer, former colleague and forever friend, went to the odd lifting class, breaking a sweat and feeling smug and happy, before heading home to order Bombay Pantry and cuddle my dog. Hashtag balance.
When inspiration strikes…
I firmly believe you can’t do something until you decide you have to do it. I felt like that about quitting smoking. I felt like that about quitting smoking each and every time I quit (I have been off the cigarettes, now, for three months; I am sure – as I have been before – that this is the last time). It is impossible to do something with any degree of enthusiasm because someone else tells you that you should do it.
I had, half-heartedly, been talking about training. I did one session on the Peloton (and promptly bought Peloton shoes, so I really should do another few sessions to at least convince myself that the shoes were worth it). I signed up for ClassPass and spent hours trawling through the classes on offer. Would a HIIT class be too much? Well, this sounds awful. I’m not sure my calves would be up to the challenge of Barre. Etc.
It wasn’t until I went to a mock meet, a weightlifting competition, at the behest of an American man* I’m dating, that the decision was made. I watched these people – men and women, of all shapes, sizes and abilities – doing the three major lifts (squat, chest press and deadlift, in that order) in an attempt to beat their own personal best and I thought, I wish I was doing that.
I’m not sure if I wished I was doing that – at least, the competition aspect, in front of an audience, with whooping and hollering and people shouting words of encouragement (Americans be American-ing) – but I found myself suddenly feeling envious of these people and their sweaty brows and chalk-stained thighs. I remembered how I had felt, once: strong. I saw people failing on their third attempt at a 120kg deadlift and I thought, I could do that. (I was not correct.)
It’s not like getting back on the horse at all
When I was in my late teens, I had to re-learn how to cycle a bike. I had been able to, once, as a child, but in the intervening years I had not so much as touched a handlebar, if you don’t count that period of stationary biking (which, let’s face it, you don’t). My parents bought me a bike to cycle from my student accommodation to university in Galway and I practised for hours in the apartment car park. It’s not true what they say about cycling; you won’t always know how to do it. It was only my pride that prevented me from adding stabilisers to the bike – it took me at least a week to figure out how to pedal and stay upright, simultaneously. It was another fortnight before I even attempted to cycle outside of the car park.
Weight training is a bit like that. Sure, you can get the technique down pat; you can understand, at least academically, how the moves are done. Break at the hips, bend the knees, lower the hips and glutes down, push back up, chest first, back straight. Your brain may remember, but your body forgets. My body, as it happens, has forgotten a lot.
Like cycling, the most important thing, when it comes to weight training (she says, with the benefit of hindsight) is: don’t stop. Keep pedalling. Keep training. As soon as you stop; as soon as you lose the momentum and slip out of the saddle, you stumble, you topple, you lose your balance and, eventually, you fall.
Starting over is never easy
I should know, she quips, I’ve done it often enough.
There is only one way to put it; returning to training felt intimidating. I was embarrassed that I – who used to be a personal trainer, who used to train six, seven times a week – was starting all over again, from scratch. I felt a bit like I was crawling on my hands and knees, prostrating myself in front of the coaches at Velocity and asking them to pick me back up again. There was a lot of ego-bruising going on, at least internally.
And I thought twice about it. Honestly? I thought three times, maybe four. I tried to come up with excuses not to do it. It’s a waste of money, I told myself. I should just use the Peloton – not to mention the $200 dumbbells I’d bought from Amazon, so that I could offer personal training sessions to my sister from her home. I should start going for walks, or runs. Sometimes, I see people running along the street at dusk, in short shorts and vests, with baseball caps shielding their eyes from the setting sun. I should just do that, I thought. That’s free.
Not to mention the fact that none of the above would force me to face the fact that my body, which had once been fit and lean (ish) and strong, was now unfit and neither particularly lean nor particularly strong.
The fitness industry doesn’t make it any easier
I’ve written about this before, but the fitness industry doesn’t do much to help. The “just do it” and “no excuses” attitude that seem so pervasive among fitness enthusiasts entirely dismiss the fact that, for some of us, fitness is not a fun, essential part of our lives. “I’ve never played any sport,” I told Chelsea, feeling – not for the first time – as if this very fact means that I don’t belong in this world. I’m not a fitness person. Fitness people play team sports and drink two litres of water each day without even thinking about it and would never, ever reach for a second donut.
I know I’m not alone in having gone through long periods of time planning to join the gym, but feeling as though that goal could only be attained once I’d lost a certain amount of weight, or achieved a certain level of fitness. Exercise, at least gym-based exercise, was for people who were already fit, not for people like me, who were overweight and unfit and (worse!) entirely uncoordinated.
There are two essential parts to getting over this deeply held misconception. Firstly, the industry needs to do better. Gyms and gym owners need to start using inclusive imagery – you know, imagery that includes differently abled bodies, fat bodies and thin bodies, rather than focusing solely on images of fit “perfection”. Fit people, who have always played sports and whose bodies are highly functioning, need to be more understanding when someone tells them “I can’t do a box jump – it really hurts my knees” or “I don’t feel comfortable doing a burpee.” For a lot of women, especially if they’ve given birth, a weak pelvic floor makes burpees not just uncomfortable but downright embarrassing.
The second thing is that we all need to push past our discomfort – at least a little bit. (I’m not usually a “push past your discomfort” type, because I think, a lot of the time, we feel uncomfortable for reasons beyond our control, and I hate the idea that the onus is put on the sufferer to be braver somehow.) When it comes to fitness, and finding a place for yourself within an industry that feels exclusive, nothing will change as long as the differently abled people and the fat people and the unfit people are staying at home, shying away from going to the gym because they feel like it’s not for them. We need to carve out a space for ourselves – and yes, the industry needs to make a little room too, but if we’re not showing up, why would they bother?
I didn’t in any way “get over” my discomfort at returning to exercise. I just showed up. I showed up to my first session and I showed up to my second and I showed up to my third. And when I had finished my three personal training sessions with Chelsea and was, to all intents and purposes, “on my own”, I showed up for myself.
I drove up to Velocity this morning at 9am and, seeing four cars parked outside, I thought, I’ll just go for a coffee instead. I drove past the entrance. And then I thought, let’s just get this over with.
I don’t think I’ll never be the “just do it” type. In fact, I think I’ll always be the “let’s just get this over with” type. I don’t think it really matters which type I am – what matters, to me, is that I showed up and I lifted some weights and afterwards I ate creme brulée French toast and I felt strong and smug and satisfied. And tomorrow, I might just go and get this over with all over again.
*I should have written “the” American man I’m dating, because there is only he, but “an American man” sounds glamorous, as if there are many American men, so I am leaving it as is