I’m a former gym junkie, but after 100 days ‘gym free’ I might never go back
Anna Magee found relief in the great outdoors when her gym closed in lockdown The
The moment they announced the gyms would close, I stood up (we were still allowed in the office back then) and let loose a barrage of expletives about how: This. Cannot. Happen.
I loved my adrenalin-pumping morning gym workouts. They were my crack cocaine; my 60 minutes of escape. I was convinced the sweat-fuelled sessions were essential to both my body’s shape and my mind’s ability to not freak out at life.
Five times weekly, I would run on the treadmill for 25 to 30 minutes before doing 25 to 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training. Think jumping on and off boxes, punching bags (boxing had become my latest obsession), skipping, squatting, push-ups, lifting dumb-bells and kettlebells, and throwing balls off walls – you get the idea.
I was not going to survive this with my sanity and dress size intact. And yet, nearly four months later, I haven’t gone mad. Not only that, but I’m the same size, I feel a little stronger and I enjoy my workouts more.
In fact, when I heard the government announcement that gyms would reopen on July 25, my first thought was: “Do I even want to go back?”
In the meantime, here are seven things this gym junkie learned from 100 days without her fix.
The data can still add up
According to my Fitbit, I used to burn around 2,500 calories a day, between the gym, running around the office and commuting. But working from home and not working out, I was burning around 1,000.
After putting on a few pounds in the first few weeks of lockdown, I was headed straight for #quarantine15. I considered starting to run, as it torches calories. But runners were lockdown’s most hated people and after witnessing an old man attacking one with his cane for not distancing, I feared for my safety.
I did some maths. There were studies that reported brisk walking for an hour, five to six days a week, was associated with weight management.
I loved walking; it cleared my head and felt doable. An hour before breakfast burned around 400 calories. A 10-minute walk around the block mid-afternoon, and a bit of running up and down the stairs, meant overall I could hit my daily 2,500-calorie burn.
You don’t need fancy gear
I couldn’t get a kettlebell for love nor money, so weight workouts were out. I have a friend who swears by Pilates and ballet barre classes, and looks great, so I gave that a try. I didn’t hold out much faith, having been repeatedly told by trainers that lifting heavy weights was the only way to build strength.
But lifting heavy loads in the gym made me so sore I often needed a couple of days off to recuperate. So I bought some cheap equipment – resistance bands, slides, a Pilates “magic circle” (amazing for inner and outer thighs) and a little Pilates ball. These innocuous little bits fitted neatly into a corner of my front room, but they helped tone my body like nothing else.
Pilates and barre classes are used by dancers to build strength and athleticism without muscle bulk. After a few weeks, I started to see these changes in my body and loved them.
My 30-minute workouts were tough: the moves worked the small, internal muscles as opposed to bigger ones. My posture, too, improved immeasurably thanks to having stronger core muscles which seem to hold everything more upright. I’m a convert and I won’t be going back to lifting heavy in the gym.
The gym is not the only way
The more I read, the more I realised that the gym wasn’t the only passport to fitness, especially as we get older.
“Many fit middle-aged people don’t spend a lot of time locked up in a gym; they’re more likely to have an active life overall,” says Dr Flaminia Ronca, a sports scientist at University College London.
“The secret is to practise less sedentary behaviour such as taking breaks from your desk, walking to work, getting a standing desk and having an active lifestyle because you enjoy it, which includes playing sports with friends.”
Know what motivates you
Getting to the gym, parking and getting changed takes precious time. So I saved about 30 minutes in faff time every day by not going. But I got bored with constantly being in my living room and often wanted to skip it. Yet I made myself do it, thinking about my wardrobe of beautiful clothes I couldn’t afford to replace in bigger sizes.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a gym but having a different location to work out in helps most people stick to it, while staying at home can be demotivating,” says Dr Ronca, who studies the interaction between the brain and body during exercise. What helps motivation is having what she calls a “locus of control” – the degree of control you believe you have over your life.
“Also called ‘intrinsic motivation’, it’s where people have an innate sense of motivation and get fit for their own personal interest [in my case, about 80 per cent clothes, 20 per cent sanity] and continue to exercise wherever they are,” she says.
“Some people have an external point of reference, known as ‘extrinsic motivation’, and they need to be told what to do. For those people, a gym or class environment might work best.”
Online portals can help
Another thing that helped motivate me was online portals. I used FIIT TV, which costs £10 a month and comes with a heart rate monitor that links you to the portal so you can compete with others, and register your calorie burn, personal bests and rep range.
It features top trainers and plenty of HIIT, Pilates, strength training and combat, and you can choose no or minimal equipment. For yoga, barre, meditation and more Pilates, I love glo.com which at £14 a month has a huge library of classes for all levels and features the best teachers in the world.
Nature drives creativity
In the absence of a gym, one of my old gym buddies and I started going for long hikes in the forest near her house.
Powering up and down hills while chatting away, we solved our problems and those of the world. It was such fun.
“Simply walking outdoors boosts your creativity,” says Dr Ronca.
When life gets stressful now I just think “go for a walk” and always come back with a solution. Exercising in nature helps to maintain regular sleep patterns and just 10 minutes in a green space can increase emotional well-being, research has found.
I don’t miss the environment
Pre-lockdown, I was a fully paid-up member of the gym junkies’ club, so this is tough to admit. But the gym environment feels a bit two-dimensional; almost too sleek. Stylish interiors, perfectly made-up faces, selfies and Lulu Lemon-clad buttocks. I have always rolled out of bed and hit the gym with no make-up and a top knot.
Being away from what felt like a factory production line of physical aesthetics and Instagram-worthy body parts got me back to the real reasons I work out – because I just adore the feeling.
Fitting into my clothes is one thing, but sweating, puffing and using my body to feel strong, agile and fit; to do things? That’s priceless. And, it turns out, something I can do anywhere.