Why I'm back at the gym (and why I feel weird about it)

I remember once on a Saturday morning when I was living at home, my mum popped her head around the door.

‘Good morning, Caitie,' she whispered, putting a cup of tea on the bedside table and sitting herself on the edge of my bed. We started chatting and laughing and although it wasn’t a moment of particular note, (I can’t remember what we spoke about or the date or what else I had on that day,) I really remember the feeling of willing that time to last and to not have to get out of bed because once I did I’d have to go to the gym.

She asked me, ‘What are you doing today?’ and I replied ‘Ugh, I have to go to the gym’, pulling the duvet up to my neck.

I was fishing.

I wanted, so badly, to be told that I didn’t have to go. I just really needed, to mitigate the guilt of not going, for someone to tell me that I didn’t have to. In recent years, I have seldom felt more childish, sat there, in my mother’s house, tucked in my duvet as she sat at the side of my bed, in my pyjamas, begging, in my own implicit way for her to make it all better.

Tell me not to go if I don’t want to.

Tell me I don’t have to.

At least, tell me to go tomorrow instead.

It sounds so dramatic but such is the anguish of someone obsessed with their body, someone so scared of losing their grip on their exercise regime, someone whose worst fear is putting on weight and dedicates their life almost entirely to prevent that and whose body is desperately fighting back.

I don’t know what the outcome of the conversation was, whether I went to the gym or not, but that feeling and the fact that I remember it so well summarises how much I hated the gym.

And when I gave up dieting, I slowly but surely made a break with the gym too. I whittled my time there down from about five times a week (for close to two hours each time) to zilch. When I moved to Madrid, I didn’t join a gym, preferring instead to explore my new home on runs with my best pal and Pilates classes in the park on a Saturday.

I joined the leisure centre when I moved back to London but used it almost exclusively for swimming and exercise classes. I wrote about how much I hated the gym, how it was purely for aesthetics and how much of a boring chore I found it. I associated the space with being at the depths of my disorder, it was my sweaty little confessional booth, where I went to repent for the sin of eating.

At the time I meant it but recently, and I feel like a total hypocrite for doing so, I have found myself back in the gym. The main draw was that it’s been so hot in England that the thought of running outside fills me with dread (and lethargy) and these days, I like to exercise. I like the feeling of energy coursing through my body and getting a bit sweaty and the endorphin release at the end. And so when I’ve wanted to move, I’ve been gravitating toward the air-conned idyll of the gym.

And weirdly, I’ve quite liked it.

I think it’s because I’ve totally reworked my mindset about it. The gym, for me, used to be about perfectionism and basically, purging. I was there to do a strict and punishing routine, making sure I never missed a rep, to compensate for a ‘cheat day’ or eating a solitary biscuit on my tea break.

Now that I’ve made proper peace with exercise and only do it when I want to, in the ways I want to, I can make the gym a space for joyful movement. I’m no longer there for the battle to control my body. I’m there to work off the stress of the day, to move my body in a way that feels good, to have an hour away from my phone, to do best by my mental and physical health. I don’t have a pre-planned routine that I have to stick to, I just have a general idea of how I’d like to move and don’t freak out or stay for hours and hours if it doesn’t go that way. I don’t pay attention to what anyone else is doing or compare my body or workout to theirs, I just jog along on the treadmill, more often than not watching a subtitled re-run of MasterChef, I catch my boyfriend’s eye occasionally to see how he’s doing, I have three or four exercises in mind that I’d like to complete (I’m an indecisive old type so a general sense of direction means I don’t dither) and I go about them, judgement free.

As well as changing my mindset on a gym visit, I think this turn around is due to changing my perception on exercise in general. I used to think that you could only have a certain type of exercise you were into and you had to dedicate yourself fully to that. You were either a ‘runner’ or a ‘swimmer’ or a ‘gym go-er’ or a ‘yogi’ and you couldn’t deviate. You couldn’t enjoy lots of different types of exercise because then you wouldn’t be reaping the (no doubt aesthetic) results. I think that because I’d defined myself for the last year or so as a ‘non-gym go-er’, I felt I couldn’t relent on that. But these days I’ve come to acknowledge not only that exercise, for me, is not about aesthetic goals, but also that seasons and routines and preferences change. Regularly. Hugely. One day I’ll feel desperate to run for miles and the next I’ll want to do yoga or go to a combat class or just sit.

I’m just me and I like different things on different days and want to respect my body and my choices in doing what I feel like, whether that’s gym or swim or hours and hours on the sofa, and I won't feel weird about it.