When I moved to London in the summer, I wanted to join a gym that was close to home, reasonably priced, had a good variety of classes and didn’t make me feel like a garbage human when I walked through the door. The thing is, at most of the gyms I’ve been a member of, I've always felt like an impostor: I don’t know anything about weights or reps or rests, I don’t know how to deadlift properly, I think the crosstrainer is the 8th plague sent to try us and I don't even own a pair of Nikes. I would stick strictly to the treadmill, throw around some dumbbells in a way that hurt but also didn’t violate the 1974 Health and Safety At Work Act, and skulk off to the refuge of ladies' only room whenever I could.
Looking back on it now, I think that one of the main reasons why I never really felt too comfortable in the gym is because it’s not really a type of movement I enjoy. I like a dance. I like a run. I like a jump around the place. I think I got caught up in the societal ubiquity of a gym membership, thinking that this one type of exercise was the only type that 'counted'. I’d started to look upon exercise much more as a chore, a duty, an obligation. But recently, as I wrote here, exercise has become much less of an instrumental part of my life in the last year, and something I actually (most of the time), GASP, look forward to.
Enter: my local leisure centre.
Even when I was really into the gym about a year ago, it was actually just the fitness suite of the sports centre across the park from my mum’s house. Picture this: terracotta tiled floor, regional radio station blaring over the reception area, teenaged staff in Fruit of the Loom cyan polo shirts emblazoned with the local council’s logo. Along with kids waiting to invade the function room for an 8th birthday party and some OAPs getting ready for a Keep Fit class, the foyer also boasted a vending machine dispensing 2 varieties of Quavers, a chest freezer filled with Magnums and the type of coffee machine that has only four options: coffee, tea, hot chocolate and, weirdly, orange squash.
This time around, rather than continue to push myself to solely utilise the gym portion of my membership, I'm trying to explore everything the leisure has to offer, and lemme tell ya, it is pure joy to go there.
So far I’ve been to Aerobics, Pilates, Body Pump, Body Attack and probably a handful of others that were called some variant of Body + verb. In an extremely un-me move, the Body Combat class is my current favourite. Whilst I imagined a group of cold, intimidating, semi-professional female boxers, I was actually met with a warm welcoming group of women of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. We bop along the music occasionally throwing a right hook or an uppercut in amongst polka-ing around the squash courts. We laugh with each other when we get it wrong, we roll our eyes in unison as we struggle through the sit-ups, it feels like a tiny little community of women, united in our struggle. And when it gets tough, we’re never told to think of the calorie burn or the bikini or the pizza we’ll be allowed to eat, instead our instructor shouts ‘Recover when you need to!’ and ‘I don’t care what you do, as long as you’re moving!’. At the end, she encourages us to ‘Keep the fight, ladies!’, before giving a high-five to every member of the class, a round of applause for the beginners, and a promise to see us next week.
In fact, during my four months as a member, I have only heard weight loss talk once, when another attendee of my Aerobics class mentioned that, 'Soon enough we’ll al be wearing skinny jeans!’. Never have I felt more of a sense of belonging than in finding I was not the only woman to roll my eyes at this. Whilst of course, weight loss may well be the aim of some, and I shan't judge that, it seems to just be the unspoken rule of the leisure centre that we’re all here for a good time, whether the result of that is aesthetic gain or not, and we shalt not tarnish pure joy of jumping around by mentioning skinny jeans.
As well as the classes, sometimes I have a gentle swim in the slow lane of the centre’s swimming pool. I am occasionally overtaken by overzealous dudes in Zoggs (there’s a fast lane for a reason, bucko), sometimes I tut as teenagers disobey the no diving rule, often I see a group of men who can’t swim and just pull themselves up and down the sides of swimming pool, chatting away as they wrench themselves along. It's a scene that sums it all up: the meeting of different sets of people, different abilities, different interests, different aims, just all having a laugh down at the local leisure centre.