No Pain, Stay Sane

Not everyone likes hanging out in gyms. Don’t despair says Gareth Mason, there are better (and cheaper) ways to get fit...

One of the features of Western society is its creation of successful institutions that serve little useful purpose. McDonalds, the stock exchange, public relations, young Tories, reality TV and toilet attendants, all fit this bill. In recent years, the gymnasium too has carved a lucrative niche in modern life. But is it worth building up your arms and legs if membership costs you one of them?

For many of us owning a gymnasium would be a better investment than joining one so rarely would we visit it. If our exercise bikes had meters fitted, measuring pence per revolution, we would soon break our moorings and ride straight out the door.

The secret to the gym’s brainwashing is the appropriation of perfectly natural, healthy activities such as running, walking and cycling minus the quaint old-fashioned part in which you arrive somewhere at the end of your journey. Just look at the regulars. The men range from braying, jelly-brained jocks bench-pressing PBs to the guy that hangs around the shallow end flexing his pecs for an age before swimming one length of front crawl really, really fast.

And you’re missing little in the changing rooms. Men with superfluous muscles glance contemptuously at less sculpted peers while preening themselves in the mirror lovingly. Just one sign that a healthy body does not necessarily lead to a healthy mind. The women may be subtler in manner, but if you look carefully, you can catch the obsessive glint in her eye as she gags at the sight of someone else’s cellulite. Much of all this exercise is directed towards complementing stomachs with boob-tubes, and bums with barstools, rather than making oneself feel any better. So, what’s the thinking person’s alternative to a healthier life?


A sporting chance

Why shouldn’t you enjoy getting fit? You can, of course, with a little imagination. Sport tops the list. Few people spend their leisure time playing badminton, football or hockey because they feel obliged. It makes them happy and a by-product, a mere symptom of this, is that they get fit too. Genius!

As a child, cross-country running made me fit, but it lacked the thrills and spills of the sports I really liked which usually involved hitting a ball with myriad forms of wood. As adults, we can make that choice and banish the memories of all that pain in the rain under the gimlet eye of a sadistic sports teacher. You could be taking up martial arts to just say no to muggers, touching your toes through yoga, or combining your divided love of self-defence and dancing with Capoeira.

Running may seem a drastic Route 1 to fitness but before you dismiss it cast out the images of joggers staggering red-faced through the park. A little and often is the key – swimming is even better without the stress on the joints. Ironically, exercise, like drink and drugs, can be addictive, and it’s not recommended to overdose on your first week. Entering a 10km run on January 1st may not kill you, but it may create the kind of phobia for running that you would get for whiskey, if downing a half-bottle was your first drinking experience.

Building up exercise slowly increases fitness relatively painlessly if your body isn’t pushed too far too soon. Setting small achievable goals makes it all seem worthwhile as you can see regular progress. Even Paula Radcliffe gets through her gruelling mileage by working on one small aspect of her running such as stride length, or varying the speed or distance she runs. You could try running for a certain time rather than over a certain distance. And you don’t even have to go the extra mile. Walking a few hundred metres to the next bus-stop would do for starters. And in your lunch hour, the scenery and people-watching in the park make a more colourful backdrop to the calorie crunching than the space above your boss’s head. If you’re too shy of exercise to look it straight in the eye, fine, there’s always fitness by stealth. Little changes to your routine can, by degrees, transform your physical life without feeling you’ve sold out to the sanctimonious health freaks.

And it’s much easier to kid your inner slob into an active life if mix up your new sporty habits. Try listing and losing all those 21st century labour-saving devices that have gained you time to nurture your belly in front of the telly. Why not take the stairs instead of the lift to your office? A couple of weeks on and the idea of preserving your legs before you sit down for nine hours will seem absurd.


Health through hedonism

Finally, for those rejecting all forms of organised physical activity we’re left with the ‘accidental’ kind like walking home from the pub instead of getting a cab or going to the shops instead of perusing a catalogue or surfing the internet from your armchair.

Dancing is the ideal form of accidental exercise, like sport, but with less rules. If you still want some structure to your efforts, you can always learn to Salsa, Jive or Tango first and free-form it later. Alternatively, just head for somewhere that plays the music you like and go with it. You’re getting fit with a smile on your face, not a rictus of pain! And finally, don’t worry how you shape up on the dance-floor next to the gym-addicts. They will be home with their mirrors by midnight...

Women’s Health magazine 2004