Following yesterdays announcement that gyms will reopen on the 25th, it felt like a good time to share this piece I have been mulling for a while on how my relationship with exercise has changed and also how making time to sweat has saved my sanity as well keeping me (relatively) fit.

  • It’s a hot July day, the sun is on my back, there is grass up my nose and the murmur of encouraging cheering in the background. That was me – the kid who stacked it doing the sack race

  • The kid picked last for PE.

  • The kid who was awarded some kind of made-up prize for ‘enthusiasm’.

  • I don’t know whether I decided I wasn’t a sporty kid or it was decided for me. From my memory I was always up for giving it a go, even if that ‘go’ wasn’t very proficient.

  • Or perhaps, my lack of progress in sport was because I was creative and back then you were either a ‘drama sort’ or a ‘sports sort’.

  • Exercise was pretty non-existent until around the end of school/beginning of university when I realised going to the gym could make you lose weight.

  • And that was it.

  • For the following years exercise specifically the pursuit of burning calories was part of my life.

  • Which sounds good on the one hand: raising your heart rate definitely is a positive, but my motivation was whack. I’d spend what felt like hours on a running machine telling myself how much I hated my body. 

  • The formula was simple if I stuck with this punishing routine combined with the latest fad diet (aitkins, cabbage soup, fasting, 5:2, you name it I’ve done it) then I would get into a smaller size of jean or get to an ‘ideal’ weight and life would be great.

  • The irony was my body didn’t need changing: I was healthy and fit, but I couldn’t see it – I was so far into diet culture that I was absolutely convinced that if I could shrink down and achieve a mythical ‘beach body’ then I’d be infinitely happier. Not just happier, I think I believed it would make all my other issues disappear.

  • So the cycle continued. Exercise for aethics: go hard at it for a week or two. Weigh myself every day. Be disappointed not to see a quick shift, feel sad about it. Lose motivation and, worse still, feel even more loathing for the exercise because it wasn’t giving me what I thought I wanted, in the quick fix time frame I thought was possible or that beach body fit regimes in the press had sold me. 

  • And what’s really maddening is that even though I knew I should know better…

  • I knew that there was airbrushing going on in magazines, I knew that no one could live on cabbage soup forever or I knew that sticking electronic pads to your tummy isn’t going to miraculously give you a six-pack.I knew all that and I still got suckered in. FOR YEARS.

  • So that was my relationship with exercise up until my mid-thirties: I had shifted from a non-participant to someone who did it out of obligation but had a long way to go…

  • That was until 2 years ago when I stepped into my local CrossFit gym: The Yard, Peckham. 

  • I was 5 months postpartum with my third child (and first daughter), during their ‘Strong As A Mother Class’ they offered a baby-holding service while Mum’s trained. Sounded like a dream, even if I didn’t enjoy the exercise, at least I could have a window of me-time.

  • My ambitions were also realistic. Given that she was my 3rd baby I had learned there was no such thing as ‘snapping back’. My body tends to hold on to baby weight for as long as I breastfeed and I was ok with that. Crucially, it meant I wasn’t showing up to those classes with the hope of getting into my old jeans, quite the opposite because she was my last kid I was determined to enjoy those elasticated waistbands for as long as possible.

  • What’s this got to do with exercise? Well, it meant my motivation for going to the gym was, for the first time ever, to do with my head, not my body.

  • I wasn’t fixated on physical results, I was there because of how it made me feel. I soon learned that working up a sweat was a sure fire way to shift my mood, however tired and hormonal I was if I could just drag myself through the door at The Yard then the outcome would be positive. No matter what I always left feeling better than I arrived. And that is powerful.

  • It didn’t stop there; once you frame exercise as an act of self-love (for want of a better phrase) rather than punishment then suddenly it becomes something you want to do, rather than have to do!

  • Throughout school and uni I never trusted those ‘sporty types’ – why on earth would they choose to spend their Saturdays playing sport? When they could have been doing, well, anything else.

  • Now I get it. In fact I feel sad that I missed out on all  those years.

  • A year ago I graduated from ‘Strong as a Mother’ to regular classes as my fitness improved and also my baby grew into a very ‘spirited’ two-year-old.

  • What hasn’t changed since I started is my desire to ruthlessly prioritise getting to a class. When you enjoy something that is good for you, why wouldn’t you put it top of the list? 

  • The key is finding your ‘thing’. Crossfit is constantly varied functional fitness which includes, cardio, gymnastics (not my forte) and weight-lifting – which I adore. 

  • I am shamelessly goals-orientated and so the challenge of trying to learn and improve at so many different skills at once suits me. Pull-ups, double-unders, more efficient burpees, toes-to-bar there is always a project I am working on, but at last, that project isn’t my appearance – which is lucky because rumour has it I pull a particularly unattractive face when squatting with a barbell!

  • It’s a relief to be in a place where I am fixated on seeing numbers grow as I lift heavier weights, rather being stuck believing I need to weigh less to feel good.

  •  Plus, the community structure of Crossfit is important: doing the same workout (WOD) with people of different abilities all of whom are committed to trying their best is inspiring.

  • It’s also been a saviour over lockdown. The Yard have been putting on daily zoom classes, which I drag myself too religiously (easy when it only involves rolling out of bed). At 38 I know myself well enough to know that routine is vital for my sanity, especially in times of unknown.  

  • It’ helped keep a few demons at bay too. The first sign that I am not coping well is that I default to being critical with my body. The moment the words ‘you are looking fat’ or ‘you’ve put on weight’ pop into my head, it means that my mind is actually struggling to control a situation

  • And if 2020 has taught us one thing is that we aren’t in control of much at all. Which is really really hard. BUT what helps me is taking charge of things within my control – which means continuing not to drink booze, trying to stay off my phone, getting to bed at a good time and most importantly making time to sweat.

  • Sure I am a little bored of doing burpees so often, but I also know how much harder this experience would have been had I not kept moving.

  • As I write this ‘ode to exercise’ I am chuckling to myself -who have I become? Probably I haven’t ‘become’ anyone, I am the same person I always was, it just took 36 years to figure it out.

  • I often wish I could go back and tell 8-year-old Clemmie, the one flat on her face during Sports Day, not to worry. Sure, sack-race might not be her thing, but being picked last for PE does not mean you can’t enjoy exercise.

  • The important part is to keep going. I don’t mean keeping going at something you hate: keep going until you find something you love. Street dance, mountain biking, judo or trampolining there are so many options out there, so many that I believe there is something for everyone.

  • Whether you are in your teens, twenties or even seventies please don’t count yourself out, instead keep trying as many ways as possible to break a sweat until you find the thing that makes your head and heart feel good and then keep doing it.

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  • Reply Sally Good July 10, 2020 at 6:57 pm

    Great list Clemmie. I was the chubby kid like you and PE teachers had no empathy with being self-conscious and not actually being very fit. Every year my school report said ‘She tries her best.’ So disheartening when I had to bare my soul every week. My family wasn’t sporty or even that active. I am role-modelling being active for my son, so that he thinks it the norm. I love being active for him and in so doing, active for myself too. x

  • Reply Amy July 10, 2020 at 8:21 pm

    I love this!!! As a mother and a Crossfit lover!! Joining my local box has been one of the best things I have ever done! It’s never a chore (even when I am blowing out my arse 😂) love the Crossfit community and all it has to offer 💪🏼👌🏼❤️

  • Reply Holly Piper July 13, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    Yes Clem! If you were last to be picked then I was the penultimate. Turns out us chubby kids make strong women. Although I’ve been on medication for 20 years it will never do for my mind what exercise does. I still am a long way off having a healthy relationship with food and my body but know that I’m at my most grounded and happy when out on a run.

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