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Don't Fear The Gym, We're Not In High School Anymore

Posted Jun 08 2013 4:00am
Image credit: Microsoft Clipart
As a teen I would marvel at the enthusiasm of my somewhat thinner and fitter classmates in P.E lessons. They loved competing in sports and running laps around the track. Meanwhile I'd awkwardly stand around in the playing field after self-assigning myself the role of fielder during the hundredth rounders game of the term. 

It's not surprising that many people hated P.E lessons at school,  if you don't like competing with others or playing sports, you're automatically sidelined.  

The most traumatic experience of my entire high school experience was during a 3000m sprint around the school's track. My teacher pulled me aside and 'advised' that I wear a "proper sports bra" as my over sized breasts were "bouncing too much and distracting the boys". I was too ashamed to admit to her that I was in fact already wearing two sports bras that day.  From that day, the only running you would have got me doing was the running away from a P.E. lesson. 

I have some good P.E lesson memories, these involved dance or gymnastics, probably explaining my love of Zumba and Yoga classes now, but these lessons were rare. For years after the age of 16 when P.E was no longer compulsory,  I avoided exercise like it was toxic. I feared a workout would be a repeat of them lessons, the feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, embarrassment.

In them lessons I always felt like the obese one, but looking back I was a perfectly healthy weight, I'd just hit puberty far earlier than the rest of my classmates. However, due to my fear and avoidance of exercise, I became obese quickly during the years of A Levels and my first degree. It took buying a Nintendo Wii (now replaced by my Xbox 360 Kinect) to get me to exercise, in private, in the comfort of my own bedroom. No one could look at my 'distracting, bouncing boobs', or laugh at me for running too slowly, or for failing to hit the ball with the bat, or for failing to get the ball in the stupidly high net. I actually enjoyed the fitness games on the Wii and Kinect, I got a kick out of the calorie burns, no matter how small, because I'd managed to do something somewhat athletic without the criticisms of other people.  

Eventually, after changing my diet around drastically and losing some of the weight I needed to, I made the very brave move of venturing to the swimming pool, where I figured I could dash from changing room to pool within seconds and hide my body in the water for a whole hour and just swim. It worked, no one ever noticed my obese body. Instead people would comment in awe at the number of lengths I could swim of a 25m pool within an hour (100, if you're wondering). For the first time in my life I felt like I was excelling in a fitness activity. I've always had the annoying character trait of having to excel at something in order to keep doing it. That's probably why I'm doing a masters degree, ever the academic type, it was a guaranteed source of achievement. 

Eventually, swimming twice a week lead to my first ever group workout class, Aqua Zumba (yes, Zumba in a pool, genius idea!) where I realised that even if my body were not hidden by the water, no one would have been the slightest bit interested in what I was doing (or the mistakes I was making). No one stared, no one laughed, no one judged. In fact they were all very friendly and a joy to be around.

A few months later I made the brave move of joining the gym. I even declared that I wanted an 18 month membership, knowing that I was not giving up (ever the stubborn woman if nothing else!). I started with what I was comfortable with: Zumba classes, as I'd played the games on the Wii and Xbox and by this point I'd stopped tripping up over my own feet and crashing into furniture.  Again I noticed that the atmosphere was nothing like a P.E class, people smiled instead of glared, they encouraged instead of sneered.  

Building up my confidence further in these classes and at the pool, I decided to test out some of the other classes. This lead to Body Balance, in which some of the yoga poses already felt familiar thanks to the Wii Fit. Once again, everyone was so busy focusing on their own form (or holding their farts in, I can never tell which) that no one paid any attention to what I could or couldn't do. I also ventured into a Body Combat class, and fell in love with the mixed martial arts nature of it, I'd pretend I was roundhouse kicking and punching my high school P.E teacher. 

A few months later, I discovered the class which has put me on a totally different path altogether: Body Pump. For those who haven't taken this class, it involves lifting weights. Each muscle group gets worked for each track, so it's high rep and very high intensity. I didn't fall in love with it at first in all honesty. At this point I was more fussed about the calories burned so classes like Zumba and Combat and my swimming sessions took priority. What I did like about this class was that it allowed a complete novice to weights to lift them in a safe environment where the basic exercises and correct form could be learnt. It was certainly less intimidating than the weights area of the gym, packed with men every evening who would glare at any woman for having the nerve to venture away from the cardio machines. 

Eventually I realised that I wasn't lifting heavy enough in Pump to be making any difference in strength. It's very easy to do in Pump classes as most attendees are women and women seem to fear heavy weights. I'm not sure if its the burning sensation they fear, the risk of injury, or the risk of embarrassment for not being able to lift the heavier weights. A wonderful instructor (and far stronger than all of the others) changed my strength workouts in just one class with her, by simply saying that if my muscles didn't burn by the end of a track and the last few reps didn't feel impossible, the weights were not heavy enough. She taught me to not fear the risk of failure, but to carry on until I reached it. This way I could identify my limit and then beat it in a future workout with the help of good food, rest and regular training. 

So I increased my weights in following classes and continued to do so for every muscle group for each time I didn't feel that satisfying burn (not to be confused with pain!). This method, combined with a diet rich in protein but not low in calories or carbs (more on this in a future post) has served me well. Frequently I find myself lifting the heaviest weights in a whole class of 30 people, often I'm lifting more than some of the men in my gym! I've even been accepted as 'one of the very strong women' as there's a small number of them at my gym (we're good friends, yet we'll fight to the death for the heaviest sets of hand weights as our gym has so few of them!). It's the first time I've ever felt accepted in a fitness environment and I'm actually good at something that requires gym kit! 

Recently, I've been hoping I'll bump into one of my previous P.E teachers in a gym class or in the weights area. I'd love to see their face and prove to them that although I completely suck at rounders, netball and running, pass me a bar and a pile of iron and I'll show you my inner Super Woman! 

My bottom line to all of you fearing that working out as a adult and thinking that going to the gym will be anything like high school P.E lessons, it's a whole different world. Make it your life's mission to find some sort of exercise that that you love doing whether it's sports, running, walking, swimming, dancing, lifting weights, martial arts, yoga, whatever. Just keep doing it, if you love it enough, it'll become a very enjoyable habit rather than a dreaded chore. You will improve in it, you will feel proud of your achievements and as an added bonus, people will admire you and congratulate you for it. 

Pretty much everyone I know at the gym hated P.E lessons at school, that's the very reason the gym is so different: we're all P.E outcasts and none of us are there to judge you.  


See this post for tips on finding the perfect gym for you.
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