I joined a gym this week. Not for a summer body (mine is semi-functional in all four seasons), but because I need to build up my strength and fitness very slowly. Very, very slowly.
I’m approaching it with some trepidation; when I think of gyms I think of the people I see on Instagram; the tanned, toned, trim girls in gleaming fitness centres with colourful, perfect fitness wear and more hashtags than I could invent if my life depended on it. These girls are also invariably made up more than I am for my work Christmas party, and, crucially, not sweating. I am on the other hand, wearing an Adidas vest that I’ve had since I was at university (it was black at one point, but barely in my living memory), my ankles, calves and knees are covered in kinesiology tape, I’m practically translucent and the act of pressing the ‘quick start’ button on the cross trainer kicks my sweat glands into gear. Also, helpfully, when I get out of breath, I go slightly purple.
The gym has always been a temple for the aspirational; associated with wealth, health and beauty. However, the health phenomenon has elevated the gym above the nice place you go to get fit, it is now fashionable, and for some lucky Instagrammers, a career opportunity. Green juice is the new latte and for some (myself firmly excluded), it’s the new Friday night pint.
In many ways this is a great thing; young people are binge drinking less, exercising more and are more health-aware. Anything that promotes body confidence and makes us feel good about ourselves is grand with me. However the ‘there is no excuse not to do [X exercise] every day, everyone can do it!’ mantra is difficult, and can make some of us (especially those with a disability, chronic pain, mental health difficulties or a whole host of other things) feel excluded. It can make already anxiety-inducing environments seem unfriendly, almost hostile. Try cycling slowly for five minutes, getting of the bike and leaving the gym and watch the reactions of those around you, then log on to Instagram and browse the ‘#fitisthenewskinny’ feed. It’s not the greatest of confidence boosts.
I’m not suggesting that anyone using Instagram to record their fitness journey is promoting something damaging; I know they are a great source of inspiration for many, and I see that a community of people getting fit (virtually) together can be a wonderful thing. I’m just pointing out that there IS an excuse for many of us not dragging ourselves out of bed for a HIT workout, and anyone who can’t see that is very lucky.
I’m also lucky in that I spend much of my life not in pain, and that I am able exercise steadily. There are many who have much more to deal with, and whose day to day lives are more affected. I’m trying to relish my daily five minutes on the bike, and for the first time in my life, trying to not give in to the pressure I put on myself and overdo it.
We need to start considering how we can make these environments more inclusive and less threatening, and showing understanding that health is lots of different things to different people, is a good start. In the meantime, if you frequent the gyms of East London, please politely ignore me as I (very probably) fall off the cross-trainer.