When it comes to fitness, I’m hardly a sofa sloth. As a reformed gym-phobe, I’ve found that keeping active has become an important part of my routine, helping me find structure, feel good about myself, and take care of my mental health. Although everyone’s exercise needs are different, I find that squeezing in three to five sessions a week — combining yoga with weight training and cardio — is just about manageable.
But in spite of my well-meaning habits, I’d recently seen a number of articles advocating working out every day. Seemingly overzealous gym-lovers were suggesting replacing my rest days eating pizza on the sofa with gentle exercise to achieve a new level of fitness. I felt stuck in a bit of an exercise rut and was keen to challenge myself. Could working out every day for a month be the shake-up I was looking for?
Although I often start off with good intentions, my willpower can be lacking — I needed some accountability. Fortunately, my lovely editors at The Everygirl were on hand. I ran the idea past them and laced up my trainers. Here’s how things panned out:
I start off with boundless enthusiasm about my new fitness journey. I’m going to exercise every day! I will look like one of those girls who wears crop tops and looks like they know what they’re doing in the gym! My butt is going to look great!
Unfortunately, I time my first gym session terribly and the circuit training that I had all planned out proves impossible due to almost every bit of equipment being taken over by more serious-looking gym types. I manage 20 minutes on the rowing machine and dive on the stairmaster as soon as it becomes available. 30 minutes of cardio seems like an OK start and I even remember to stretch afterwards. I’m feeling preemptively positive. I’ll have abs in no time!
Day two of my challenge lines up nicely with my usual Monday gym-night. I take back-to-Zumba and a circuit classes and then reward myself with a gin and tonic back home (it’s all about balance, after all). By Tuesday, I’m squeezing in early-morning yoga, and I even manage a quick go on the weights machines afterwards. I’m at work by 9am, ready to boast about the new me and my pre-work gym routine.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm doesn’t last long. By day five I’m snoozing my alarm and end up missing my planned workout class. I replace it with a post-work spin session, but can feel that I’m not putting in much effort, and I catch myself pretending to turn the resistance up on my bike a couple of times. I manage to battle to the end of the first week with another couple of sessions and a yoga class, but I find that I’m starting to dread walking through the gym doors. I’m surprised that I’m feeling fatigued by my new routine so soon.
My roommate and I decide to tackle my workout malaise by heading to the gym together. She plans a partnered HIIT routine and it ends up being quite good fun — having a friend spur me on certainly ups my game and I’m sweating by the end of the session. Perhaps a more sociable style of exercise suits me better? On a post-workout high I book a spate of exercise classes for the remainder of the week and get an early night ready for the bootcamp class that I’ve signed up to in the morning.
I put my all in at bootcamp and am an exhausted mess by the end. I high-five the instructor and head towards the changing rooms — only to spot my irritatingly good-looking, gym-going ex heading for the weights section. He’s freshly arrived and looking predictably great whilst I resemble a particularly sweaty beetroot. I try to dive out of his eye line but he’s already giving me the awkward acknowledgement nod especially reserved for people that you’ve slept with. I pretend not to have seen and scurry for the showers.
By the next day I’ve decided that I’ve had enough of the gym, and ex-gate has left me balking at the thought of another run-in. Instead, I drag myself up at the crack of dawn for a run. Outdoor running has always been my nemesis, and although I’ll occasionally shake things up a bit by venturing for a few laps around the block, I only tend to manage a light jog before stopping off at the supermarket on the way home to reward myself with a massive bar of chocolate.
I moved house not long ago and now live close to a river and lots of fields, so I figure that this could be a great opportunity to flex my very rusty running muscles. Things start off quite well, and I manage 20 minutes of feeling quite smug, jogging smugly alongside the river and nodding smugly to other equally smug-looking runners. Things take a turn when I bound into a field of long grass and my allergies immediately start kicking in. I end up limping home sniffling with eyes so red that I don’t dare to put mascara on afterwards for fear of further inflaming them. I decide to save outdoor running for winter and sheepishly pack my gym kit for the next day.
After another evening session I feel like I would rather walk over hot coals than spend another night in working out. One of my friends at work asks me if I want to go out for an impromptu drink.
“I can’t,” I wail “I have to do a stupid workout because I was too lazy to go to the stupid gym this morning.”
I’m considering quitting and feeling extremely guilty. I’m not even two weeks in and failing — what does this say about me as a person? How can I expect to achieve anything if I can’t even manage to workout for two weeks straight? Why can all of those glossy shiny people in the gym manage it but I can’t?
“You need a day off,” my friend tells me, so I ditch my gym plans and go out for cocktails.
“I’ve failed,” I slur to my roommate when I get home, a few too many mojitos down to be having a serious conversation about my fitness goals. We decide that I will add another day onto the end and power through, but I’m increasingly aware that although I was hoping that this challenge would improve my health, I’m feeling like the way that I’m approaching it is beginning to feel pretty unhealthy.
I’m away at the weekend visiting friends, so I pack my gym gear and cram in a workout at the crack of dawn before I leave. We have a big night out and I force myself to go for a hungover run (or more of a slow stumble) whilst my friends all sleep off the alcohol the next day. I have no idea how some people manage to fit in so much exercise and maintain a social life. Whilst I’m normally fairly relaxed about skipping a workout, I’m already scheduling plans for next week in around classes. I also have two jobs, so I’ve calculated that if I’m actually going to stick to next week’s plan, I can fit in approximately one evening of socializing, if I manage to get to the gym the same morning. I’m exhausted just thinking about it and stuff myself with two hangover-curing bacon sandwiches to cheer myself up.
I have a lunchtime walk scheduled in with some work friends, which we usually manage to do about once a month to stave off the eating-at-our-desk blues. We head to a local park and I tell them how horribly under-enthused I’m feeling about the 45 minutes I have scheduled in on the treadmill later.
“Doesn’t walking count?” one of them asks.
I consider it. Then I consider how badly I don’t want to go to the gym later. I decide that walking probably does count if it’s particularly brisk, and we speed walk around the park another time and then head back to the office.
I have a date lined up for the next day so I’m planning to get to the gym before work. I wake up early and blissfully comfortable in bed and seriously consider staying there. I could go to the gym tonight instead, I reason. I could easily cancel the date, after all. Fortunately, my judgement and desire not to become a complete hermit gets the better of myself, and I drag myself up and into my workout gear for a spate of interval training.
Later that night I end up complaining about how grueling I’m finding the routine to a bemused-looking man over beers.
“So you’re not really an exercise person?” he asks when I’ve told him how much I’m hating the gym at the minute for the tenth time.
“No, that’s the thing, I am,” I insist “I normally love working out.”
I can see that I’m losing him and change the subject, but the fact that I’ve clearly come across as such a gym loather gets me thinking. What do I normally enjoy so much about working out, and what’s changed? It’s not as though I’m particularly achy and feeling like I physically can’t work out anymore. It seems like the shift is much more mental — normally I feel like exercise is a great way of working through stress and making me feel grounded. It’s a kind of self-care, a way of feeling in control, a reminder of the capabilities of my body. I do it partly because I feel like I should, but mostly because I enjoy it. By setting myself this challenge, I’ve turned exercise into a chore.
It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that rest days are important not only for your body, but for your mind. But although I’m starting to understand their value, I’m also determined to complete the challenge. So I get up the next morning with a slightly sore head and head to the gym — but this time without a set routine in mind. Instead, I mooch around doing my favorite weight machines (not the ones that make me feel like my thighs are on fire) and settle in for a long stretching session at the end. And I find that I quite enjoy it.
I’m feeling confident enough to give outdoor running another shot, dose up on allergy medication, and head out. It’s a gorgeous day and I actually find myself thoroughly enjoying myself. I take my time and even stop to enjoy a particularly scenic secluded spot next to the river. Perhaps it’s because I’m nearing the end of my challenge, or perhaps it’s the subtle shift in my mindset, but by the time I get home, panting but happy, I’m eager to give it another go tomorrow.
The day afterwards I head to a yoga class — my favorite kind of exercise. My workout plan had included a quick blast of cardio afterwards, but I’m feeling happy and relaxed once I finished and I’m not really in the mood for working up a sweat. I decide to embrace my new mentality, listen to my body, and go home for a large glass of wine and plenty of carbs instead.
As we tuck into pasta, my and I housemate discuss how the challenge has been so far. It’s definitely been interesting to see how far I can push myself both physically and mentally, but I’m not sure that I’ve really gone outside of my comfort zone. In fact, I’ve been doing more or less what I’ve always done — just much more frequently.
“What would you like to try?” my housemate asks.
I know straight away. Although I’ll happily do simple strength workouts, I’ve always wanted to try the big free weight racks at my gym — yet I’ve never even been in that area. I’m terrified that I’ll look like I won’t know what I’m doing, and you can sense the testosterone radiating from the massive guys who dominate that section a mile off. We agree that we’ll tackle it together, and book in a gym date in a couple of days ready to give it a go.
In the meantime, I cram in another outdoor run and a long walk. By the time that weights day rolls around, I’m raring to go. We choose a quiet time of day and my housemate and I spot each other. We both end up having a great time — I’m thrilled that I’ve managed to do something new that I’ve been scared to try and I feel strong and confident. My elation is only temporarily, dashed by a mansplainer who spies me stretching and tells me that he’s concerned about my posture (not whilst doing the weights, which I might have expected, but just more generally). I consider asking him frostily if he’s a doctor or personal trainer before deciding that my pride is too wounded to argue. I leave the gym feeling slightly deflated in spite of my triumph.
Fortunately, my confidence isn’t knocked for long, and by the next day I’m feeling more positive. In fact, I’m excited to give the weights rack another try. I even go on my own at a busier time, and this time no one comments on my appearance.
My challenge is coming to an end, but rather than feeling exhausted, I’ve found the renewed enthusiasm for working out that I was hoping for. It just didn’t quite come in the way that I expected. Rather than relentlessly pushing myself, I’ve found a balance between doing the exercise that my body needs and listening to what my body wants. And it feels pretty good.
As I pack my gym kit for the final day of my challenge my housemate pours me a large congratulatory glass of wine.
“So what will you do with your first day of freedom?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I might actually go to the gym.”
And I’m only half joking.