LTaking a look around the streets and parks of the UK, or scrolling through #fitspo workout selfies on social media, it can sometimes feel like everyone is working out: running, lifting weights, swimming wildly or competing in Ironman triathlons. Actually, 12.4 million of us are inactive. But why? It’s often a combination of reasons: time, money, health, feeling unsure where to start, mobility issues, being intimidated by gyms, or even scared by physical education lessons at school.
Then came covid. “Our latest Active Lives survey found that activity levels are now beginning to recover after the disruptions of the pandemic,” says Sport England’s Kate Dale. “But the pandemic exacerbated existing lower activity levels for certain groups of people. Women, low-income households, people of black and South Asian origin, and those with a long-term health condition or disability are even less likely to be active. In difficult times, it is essential to improve our health and well-being through movement, whether it is walking, swimming, jogging, dancing or in a gym class.
But taking that first step can be overwhelming. According to Olympic swimming and Paralympic cycling champion Sarah Storey, “People are still struggling to access the activity they trust; We still have to find a way to allow people to have that trust to begin with.” So I asked some experts and recent converts for advice: Lycra is optional.
Find out how you’re talking yourself out of exercise
Guilt for taking time away from family; the belief that it is too late; the mentality of “I can’t train yet because I’m not in shape”: the coaches have heard it all. “Identity is a very important part of it,” says Robbie Thompson, a coach and trainer who has worked with Northumbria Police and Deloitte. “If he’s spent his entire life inactive, how he sees himself and how others see him is based on that identity and it’s a big change to start pulling at those seams.” Men in particular, he says, have the expectation that they should be strong by now. It’s a sentiment shared by my friend Simon, who says, “There’s often a feeling of ‘the other guys are laughing at how little I’m lifting’.” For Thompson, it’s often about persuading men to “start where you are. Focus on what you can do, make small changes — they make a huge impact when you do them consistently.”
“There are trainers who say, ‘We all have the same 24 hours a day,'” says Hannah Verdier, who started working out in her 40s and is now a personal trainer in south London. “We have not made it!”
Thompson agrees. “People have families and jobs and they don’t sleep well,” she says. “Training is a stress: a positive stress, but a stress. It’s a good reason to start sensibly in terms of how you throw intensity.”
do a littleregularly …
“No one is motivated all the time,” says Sarah Scudamore of the Mumology Movement. She tries to do little and often: “It’s easier to make a habit of doing something for five minutes every day than it is to spend 45 minutes three or four times a week.”
“There is no scientific reason why we exercise for an hour,” Verdier recalls. Look for something short online, from 20 minutes of yoga for absolute beginners with Adriene to Couch to Fitness’s five-minute “small” sessions.
… but let yourself go
“A lot of Instagram influencers say, ‘You’ll never regret a workout, there are no excuses.’ I don’t believe it”, says Verdier.. Sometimes life will get in the way, and that’s okay. “I don’t want people to think, ‘I have to do this three times a week,’ because I just don’t,” she adds. “If you’re going to do it for the next 20 or 30 years, what does it matter?”
bridge the ‘enjoyment gap’ …
To really exorcise the specter of school cross-country racing, find something that you find fun. This Girl Can classes are “designed to address the enjoyment gap,” says trainer Lisa Brockwell. “We’re looking at people who haven’t exercised or haven’t exercised for some time; We already know they don’t feel comfortable, but we’re going to try to make it as fun as possible.” The nine-week “small” class format gives participants the opportunity to try many different things (boxing, yoga-based stretching, circuits) in a relaxed, pressure-free, non-judgmental environment. Instructors are trained to be empathetic and adapt to all levels of mobility and fitness, Brockwell says. “That’s really important, that ability to say, ‘Okay, just come in, let’s see how we can make this work for you.’ And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter!”
… but don’t expect to enjoy every session
People who exercise are not a separate breed that really wants to go for a run in the rain. My friend Robbie, an apparent exercise fanatic, surprised me by saying, “A central truth about exercise is that, almost universally, no one wants to do it.” Thompson agrees: “In no way am I motivated to race today. Most days I don’t. Don’t think about how you feel beforehand, think about how you’ll feel afterwards.”
Take advantage of specialized resources
“The challenge for people who have long-term health problems, physical disabilities, or visual impairments is knowing where to start,” Storey says, adding that this is particularly true for older people. “Only in recent times has inclusion been advocated.” She recommends using the Parasport site to find activities in her area. For cycling, Storey says Wheels for All centers are a great place to start. “The support staff will help you get into the right rhythm and will also help you find the right equipment.”
do it from home
One advantage of the pandemic has been the explosion of online exercise options – Joe Wicks was just the muscular tip of the iceberg. The free online Couch to Fitness The site offers a nine-week program of 30-minute sessions that combine elements of cardio, strength, and flexibility. Amanda Oliver is a convert: “You don’t need a lot of space. There are not too many jumps to disturb the neighbors below. It’s on-demand, so there’s no travel time (or cost!) or waiting for a class to start, and you don’t have the barrier of having to be outside in the pouring rain.” The classes also offer three trainers that perform three different levels simultaneously, meaning there’s always a modified option: “You never stare at the screen thinking, ‘That’s impossible.'”
measure your progress
“People convince themselves they’re not making progress, but they don’t have a point of reference,” says Thompson. “Most of my training is pointing out what’s already happening to people who are too hard on themselves: A lifetime of not working makes them think it won’t work.” Observe and record your progress. That doesn’t have to be running longer, building muscle, or losing weight; it could be having more energy, being more patient with your children, or improving sleep.
Recruit a friend (or two)
“If there are two of you, you are more likely to go,” says Brockwell. “And you will laugh.” Verdier agrees: “I teach a group of women, and in the morning of class, the excuses will come out, but someone will say, ‘Oh come on, it’s sunny! We’ll have coffee later!’” Having a partner you don’t want to let down makes you come.
Or find your gang
For beginning riders, “it’s about creating that network of friendly faces and people who understand what you’re going through,” says Storey. She supports the She Can Ride campaign, for women who want to start cycling but don’t know where to start, or are intimidated by gear and busy roads. She Can Ride helps women find local cycling clubs and groups that can provide a supportive environment. Or go to her local bike shop: “a source of all knowledge,” according to Storey. “There may be someone in the store who is out for a walk, or they may point you to a local trail or track.”
Whatever you’re trying, put on some music. “Transform your mood,” says Verdier, who swears by “late ’90s rave” and Kylie to get people moving. Recovering from a bad bout of Covid and weak as a kitten, I tried Couch to Fitness’s Couch to Bhangra and Afrobics mini-courses: at nine or 10 minutes per session, they’re at my level, and the high-energy rhythms and easy choreography it made my hesitant steps back into motion appropriately amusing.
try to dance
Dance is absorbing and joyous – it can feel less like a workout and more like a good time. The Swing Dance Company offers free online or in-person trials for their Absolute Beginners course, which is suitable for people who have never taken a dance class in their life. The Royal Academy of Dance Silver Swans classes, online and in person, welcome older students who “don’t know their plié from their pointe”.
hit the park
Our Parks offers a range of exercise classes in London’s parks, and the famous parkrun attracts people from all over the UK and beyond every Saturday morning – both are free. Or use the Move the Masses map to find fitness trails and outdoor equipment near you.
take a look at the chair
The NHS has a sitting pilates workout on its website and many local authorities offer chair exercises or yoga classes. Joe Wicks also has some chair-based routines on his Body Coach YouTube channel.
Go for a walk
The best and easiest way to get started is to simply open the front door, walk outside and walk. “You don’t need a special kit, you can do it anywhere, and it’s great for your mental health,” says Thompson. “Just get outside,” Storey urges. “A 10-minute walk makes a huge difference to your health outcomes.”
“Your training is only as effective as your recovery,” says Thompson. “Make sure you have rest days where you allow your body to reset.” Scudamore recommends checking his sleep and energy levels before starting a new exercise routine: “If you’re already feeling absolutely gutted, you’re more likely to give up after a few weeks when exhaustion sets in.”