This is a post I didn’t ever think I’d have cause to write, particularly not on a bookish blog, but I suppose it’s been bottled up inside of me for long enough for me to need to get it all out of my system. And, as you will see by the time you (/if you, I wouldn’t blame you for not) reach the end of this post, this has been many years of pent-up feeling on the subject. As you can probably see from the title of this post, it is time for something completely different and a bit more of a self-indulgent personal post – it’s time to talk exercise. However, my thinking on this was inspired by a book which I (unfortunately) DNFed recently, Anna Kessel’s Eat Sweat Play. I didn’t DNF the book because it was a bad book – in fact, there were many interesting points raised by Kessel in even the little that I did manage to read of it in order to give it a fair chance. However, I found her way of talking about sport to be entirely at odds with my own view on it.
You see, I have a confession that might not be so surprising to anyone who knows the littlest thing about me: I’m not a sporty person, either in terms of participation or spectatorship. In fact I’d state that I have very little interest in it. I’m pretty much ambivalent towards football which unfortunately seems to be England’s preferred sport, I don’t get the point of rugby, I can tolerate cricket, I quite like tennis (bizarrely enough, I love Wimbledon when it rolls around), but the Olympics and Athletics Championships mostly bore me to tears (special exceptions made for Winter Olympics which are a whole different kettle of fish). So much for spectatorship… but when it comes to participation in sport and exercise, oh boy, this one’s a complicated one.
For me, exercise is something mainly relegated to some of the worst of school memories. Trudging unwillingly into PE classes, then the horror of the changing room, the constant embarrassment of knowing you weren’t ~good at sport~ so therefore you were put in the “mixed” PE group instead of the “boys” and “girls” groups… I could go on. Thankfully, some of my friends were also in my PE group so we stuck together and, whenever we were playing a team sport where they allowed the boys and girls to play against each other (i.e. non-contact sports), we had a couple of boy friends who would make sure we played against each other. The other girls in the group were… not nice to me, but I counted myself lucky because I heard horror stories from the “girls PE group”, of cattiness, bitchiness, and flat-out fights. When our PE teacher was off one day our group ended up being dissolved and we joined our respective “boys group” and “girls group” for a lesson – it was one of the single most embarrassing lessons of my life, we were made to feel like we were shit, and not given any kind of instruction from the PE teacher.
When it comes to my poor relationship with exercise, I’d place a lot of the blame on PE teachers, actually, because I can’t recall any teacher actually giving any constructive criticism that would improve my performance in their lesson. (Although I can still recall with alarming clarity a bit of feedback given whilst sprinting – “huh, your right arm does the sprinting action, but your left arm is funny” – which, to this day, ten whole years later, has put me off running for life.) Surely it must be the only class on the curriculum that is like this. We were nobly trudged by the PE teacher onto the sports field, come rain or shine, to run laps or sprint 100 metres or throw a javelin, but at no point did I ever get the impression that the teacher was looking out for people who performed well in order to recommend they pursue it further. No, instead their efforts were (perhaps understandably in this age of government-set targets and Ofsted reports) focused on getting us to just raise our heart rate for the allotted period of time and considering that a success.
I never learnt anything in a PE lesson, aside from that hayfever is well and truly a bitch when you have a 2-hour athletics class on a freshly-mowed sports field. I didn’t improve my fitness or health through PE, in fact I’d go so far as to say that my fitness and health went down as a result of PE lessons for one very good reason – they were humiliating and, at least in my experience, unless you were “good” at the thing (be it netball, basketball, shot put, cross country), you were pretty much completely overlooked by the teacher and just told to get on with it because they were the boss and all they were concerned about was making you do your requisite amount of running or jumping or throwing for 3 hours per week.
Talking to friends outside of my school, I get the impression that not everyone’s experience with sport and exercise at school was like this. Perhaps they were sportier, or more inclined towards physical activity, because (as a child, and as an adult to be honest) I’m more of an introvert, stay-indoors with a book, kind of gal. I will go to my grave saying that I don’t get how on earth anyone could find running “calming” or “stress-relieving”. But maybe that’s just because any time I contemplate running I hear that PE teacher’s voice saying “huh, your right arm does the sprinting action, but your left arm is funny” – that stuff sticks, whether well-intentioned or otherwise. I was never the child who did karate or joined a swim team or guides. Although I have never outwardly asked my parents why they didn’t encourage me to try martial arts or dance lessons or to learn how to play an instrument, now I look back, I know why; we didn’t have the money for that sort of thing. I think I had just always assumed that the reason I didn’t have talents or skills in extra-curricular activities (be it sport or music) was because I didn’t have a natural inclination for them when I was a child, so my parents had never looked into it because I was happy enough to consider being taken to my local library and picking out a stack of books to be quite enough extra-curricular fun for one week. Now I realise it was probably because we didn’t really have the money to pay for them. So, without an ability to join in activities or opportunities outside of school time, that left the sporting education I was getting 9-3 Monday-Friday at secondary school and, as discussed so far, that wasn’t exactly the most comprehensive or the most encouraging.
Now that I am writing this post I am 25. I have a lot better sense of self, body confidence, and relationship with sport and exercise than I did at 15 – but it’s far from ideal. It’s only in moving away properly to an entirely different city than my hometown that I saw the opportunity to join a gym without gentle “jokes” (but nonetheless, ridicule) from my dad about how weird that was that I, bookish me, wanted to exercise. He never meant it maliciously, but even a raised eyebrow from him when I bought an exercise bike after moving back home post-university was enough to make me feel so embarrassed of my (lack of) personal fitness that I stopped using it after 2 sessions on it. When I moved to Liverpool, with the encouragement of housemate Liz, I joined the local council-subsidised gym, Lifestyles. After a brief interlude when I fucked my foot up quite a bit (it turns out I have high arches and trying to run on a treadmill without arch support results in plantar fasciitis – the more you know), I got up the courage to use the gym facilities and even to join an exercise class. I will proudly say – I now regularly go to Zumba classes twice a week and I love being in that room with a range of women (and, sometimes, a solitary man!) of different walks of life all breathless whilst trying to keep up with whatever Latin-inspired dance routine we’re doing and trying (in vain, for me) to perfect “samba step” or the right “salsa rhythm”. I’ll never have enough coordination or rhythm to actually look accomplished whilst doing Zumba, but I can at least keep up with the instructor now and, if nothing else, I’m exercising.
I want to try other classes. I want to branch out. I want to join boxercise. I want to build up even a small amount of upper body strength. I want to try tennis. I want to swim. I want to exercise. If you’d asked 15-year old me if I thought I’d be thinking this, I would have laughed in your face. I guess it goes to show how much those formative school years really do build mental blocks which can only be tackled years after leaving that environment. But you know when people say “it gets better”? Maybe it can get better.