Why I used to hate exercise...


Whenever anyone asks me about why I became a personal trainer and just assumes I've always been into sports and fitness, I always respond with I used to hate exercise, and people get surprised. It's true, though, growing up I hated P.E. although I had never really thought about why until recently. This last week I spoke to a client about P.E. at schools and how I used to hate it, and listening to her own opinions made me think about why I didn't like exercise when I was a teenager.

I've always said the way P.E. is taught in Spain and England is probably different. I have these images of girls being encouraged to try different sports by both teachers and parents, and I don't know, maybe I've seen too many films (for some reason I'm just now thinking about the hockey match in the film St Trinian's). Whatever the reason, I started remembering scenes from my childhood and figured out the reason why I would always try to get out of P.E. whenever I could.

I remember having to run for 30 minutes non-stop (I was terrible and out of breath), doing the one minute challenge for sit ups (I was even worse) and press ups (don't even get me started on those), and stuff like throwing a medicine ball (I was quite good at that, for some reason), but mostly hating the second part of the class in which we were just left to play either volleyball, or dodgeball (the girls), or football (the boys). And so you get a full picture, I used to be picked the last.

I never really understood why we had to run for 30 minutes or why we had to do as many sit ups as we could in one minute, I mean, what was the point of that? What really dawned on me last week is the fact that we didn't even trained for those, it was more a matter of practising a bit, and then doing a test to see how good we were. So if you were bad at any of these exercises, or very unfit, nobody really helped you get better, you just endured the embarrassment of doing a poor performance a couple of times in front of all your classmates.

Looking back, and bearing in mind that I probably have some massive gaps in my memory, I realise that it would have been better if someone had explained to me why we were doing sit ups and press ups, what we were trying to achieve with those tests, and what sort of training I needed to do to get better.

If you've never done a press up in your life and I suddenly ask you to do as many as you can in one minute, chances are that not only you won't be able to do many (if any at all), but you will also hate every second of it and not like me very much... and possibly end up with lower back pain and/or faceplanting.

Now if I tell you that it's going to be a test to see how many we can do, so we can then train and get better, and test again to see our progress, it starts to sound a bit more interesting. Even better if then I tell you the muscles you need to train to get better at press ups, and how to modify the exercise to get started, how to progress it, all that. Then you wouldn't feel lost as to how to get better. From my own experience, the advice of in order to do press ups you need to practise press ups is a bit weak and disappointing, and generally, you know, poop. I've been feeling that when trying to learn how to do pull ups!

So now we know how we can get better, it doesn't sound as daunting... but the question remains...

Why on earth are we doing this exercise?

One could say the reason is to have a strong upper body, or because it looks cool to do a bunch of press ups, or similar kind of answer, but let me ask you this, would a bodybuilder, a marathon runner, a javelin thrower, or a boxer, have the same motives to do press ups, or any other exercise? Probably not.

There I was, a nerdy, unpopular, teenage girl who liked writing and reading, and who didn't see why I needed to be able to do press ups or sit ups, or why on earth I would ever need to run for 30 minutes straight (little did I know that many years later I would end up running for even longer than that, but that's a different story). So my options at sports were press ups and sit ups, volleyball, dodgeball, football (if the teacher was mad enough to actually allow for a mixed game), or something along the lines of ballet (because that's what girls were supposed to do...). And then people wonder why I didn't like to exercise.

I think it would have been better if they had taught us about good posture, about core stability and core strength, about back problems and how to fix them. Maybe it would have been different if they had told me that aerobic fitness is important for your health and 30 minutes of exercise at a moderate or higher intensity, five times a week, is great to keep a healthy heart... but I didn't know any of those back then, I was just told I had to start running, do a certain amount of laps around the court in a certain time, and then be classified as top of the class, average or unfit. Ouch.

When I train my clients, I think it's important to know their goals not only so I can programme exercises that are tailored to them, but also so I can explain to them why I've chosen those exercises. So if someone wants to run faster or more efficiently, I might give them core and glute exercises, I will look at how they run and then see where they are strong and which muscles are weaker. If someone wants to lift heavier, back and core will help being able to remain injury free, for example. If your goal is to take part in an obstacle race, maybe we need to focus much more on upper body, so you can climb ropes and master the monkey bars.

Fast forward to not that many years ago, and I joined a bootcamp and a running club. Me, the girl who hated exercise and wouldn't run to catch a bus...

I remember that first run, I struggled so much. The first part I ran with a pacer who basically didn't understand the fact that I was very unfit and couldn't run fast, or long, and she just kept pushing me. Just as I was thinking I was never coming back, a different pacer stayed behind and after a brief exchange in which the first one made a comment about how slow I was, the second one decided to stay with me instead. She was the complete opposite of the first girl. She was encouraging and fun, she was understanding, even when I had to stop or walk, she would tell me it was better to keep jogging, even at the slowest pace, but she understood. Having to take a shortcut on that first run around Clapham Common so I would finish (roughly) at about the same time as everyone else felt a bit embarrassing, but this girl told me it was normal, and everyone had to start somewhere, and told me I did amazing, and then we all went for pizza.

Somehow, the following week I was there. And the week after, and the one after that. Every single run I struggled. Every single run I had to walk way too soon. Every single time I had to take a shortcut. And one day I said, sod it, and I started off at my own pace, much slower than everyone else's, and somehow I lasted just a little bit longer. I learnt that I need to start slow and pace myself if I don't want to run out of energy too soon. So I showed up at the next running club meeting again, and again, and again...

One day I managed to reach a big tree that had been bothering me for ages. I would always run out of steam way before getting there, but on that day, I reached it and passed it, and then I stopped to walk... And it got better.

By the end of the summer, I ran my first 5k distance without stopping (possibly because I was dressed as a superhero), and a few months later, I ran my first 10k. No stops.

I look back at where I was, and how it all started, and where I am now, teaching four classes a week, lifting weights, running half marathons, snowboarding...

My goal as a PT is to make sure everyone enjoys exercising, and that no one leaves a session feeling defeated or that they're unfit. Sure, there will be exercises that are too hard today, but that's why I'm here, to help others train smart and break things down for them so what feels impossible today will be their warm up tomorrow.

And on that motivational poster style note, I leave you now. So tell me, did you like sports when growing up? Do you like them now? Have you ever had someone who actually took the time to learn what motivates you and helped you train better?