The Cut has a semi-regular column called Turns Out It’s Pretty Good, where people write about the things that surprised them by actually being pretty good. A lot of them are discoveries made during the early days of lockdown, simple things like waking up early, working at a desk, or going outside. All wholesome things that your mother probably told you to do as a kid. These articles have a sweetness to them, a sort of gratitude that the author has found something wonderful. There’s no disappointment or anger that it took them so long to have this realisation.
My Turns Out It’s Pretty Good is exercise but unlike the grateful, bitter-free people who wrote those articles for The Cut, I am furious every time I realise how good it is. Turns out exercise really does give you more energy and improve your mood, just like all those scientific studies said. It really does help you sleep better. Turns out exercise is really powerful. I am angry at exercise. I am angry at all the happy, sporty people who ever raved about the power of exercise. I am angry at the scientific studies.
I am not and never have been a sporty person. I’m not competitive and I don’t like the aggressive spirit that seeps into anything to do with sport. I had asthma as a child which meant exercise often left me gasping for breath but even then I still loved swimming and riding my bike. As an adult, most of my hobbies involve sitting down. I like reading and writing and going to the theatre. I watch a lot of tv. I set up a Dining Club with a group of friends which made going to restaurants a legitimate hobby.
However I have slowly realised that if I do some exercise, I will wake up the next day feeling better about the world. It might not be a huge shift in positivity. It’s like the happy feeling that you get when the sun comes out after three days of non-stop rain. You’re surprised that the weather can have such an effect on your mood, but everything just feels a little easier that day.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt a “runner’s high”. I have laughed hysterically in many aerobics classes because I don’t know my left from my right and I’m always out of sync with the rest of the class. The same thing has happened in Pilates when the instructor shows us some impossible move and I just lie on my mat and laugh because there’s no way my body can do that. I’m not sure that’s the same thing. Immediately after exercise I usually just feel sore and sweaty but I also feel smug. I’m delighted with myself and feel a sense of accomplishment and a secret delight that I exercised!
Sometimes I feel a vague disbelief that I actually did it. Even after I do exercise, I have trouble seeing myself as someone who does exercise. Sometimes I have to trick myself by finding things that don’t feel like exercise but still manage to give me all those happy, feel-good benefits.
Doing yoga at home on my own feels like physical meditation. It connects me with my body, makes me more aware of it as a living, moving, changing creature. You have to concentrate of your breath and your balance. Unlike in ordinary meditation if your mind starts to wander, you will start to wobble. I’ve been doing yoga on and off for a long time. It helps me de-stress. When I make time for yoga, especially when I’m busy or anxious, it quietens my mind and helps me sleep. In the early, locked-down days of the pandemic when we were all staying home and staying away from people, yoga helped me get out of my own head and away from my phone for a while. It helped to steady me. I barely think of yoga as exercise but it does all the good things that exercise does. If I do yoga in the afternoon or evening, my body feels better able to carry me up the stairs at the end of the day because I stretched it out and made it work a bit.
Walking barely feels like exercise but still delivers a lot of the feel-good benefits. I often try and go for long walk on the last day of the Christmas holidays, when I’m feeling a bit anxious about going back to work after the holidays. Getting out during the few daylight hours and wearing my body out – not hard to do after 10 days of sitting on the sofa drinking Baileys and eating chocolate – means that I’m more likely to get to sleep quickly and not lie awake for hours dreading the return to the office. It’s not really exercise, I’m just redirecting my anxious energy so it doesn’t keep me awake at night.
Even though I know exercise is pretty good, I still have to remind myself of all the good mood benefits and try to see it as a gift that I can give to myself, rather than something I should do. Exercise is a way to be kind to my body. I am doing it a kindness to move and stretch and get my heart-rate up, making my lungs work a bit harder and a bit faster. It makes my body a better place to be. Even my small, barely exercise activities can give me that feeling of joyful lightness the next day.
Can you imagine how good I’d feel if I got really into running or starting doing a boxing class three times a week? We will never know because I keep forgetting that exercise is pretty good and just keep thinking of it as something that makes me sweaty and sore, and I’d much rather sit on the sofa and watch tv.