Cycling: stealth health for the chronic anti-exerciser

I bloody hate exercising.

I think I might be allergic to it.  I certainly spent my entire school career dreading gym class.  Netball filled me with horror.  When I realised I had to get fit in order to do the Lares Trek (for charity, and to support my mother), I begrudgingly joined a gym and could actually feel my precious life dissolving with each minute spent slogging away on the treadmill.

Some people love it.  I know I’m in the minority.  I recall the number of men who would put “going to the gym” in their dating profiles and my appalled realisation that they attended these muscle palaces not as a means to an end but a voluntary use of their time.  They considered it enjoyable.  I still balk at such claims.  I get that fitness is important.  I’m fully aware of how it will extend your life and the simple physical necessity of good health.  But exercise as a hobby?  A way to willingly spend one’s weekend?  Dear god, people.  I think I’m going to be sick.

It’s not even a laziness thing (ok, it partially is), but simply that there’s other stuff I’d rather be doing.  That is in fact the main reason I can’t deal with the gym.  I could be LITERALLY ANYWHERE ELSE ON EARTH and I’m convinced I’d enjoy it more.  I’d rather have a smear test every Saturday (for reals).  Plus, I just never got the rush that people mention.  I’m pretty sure I lack the necessary gland to produce endorphins.  Even when I honestly spent several sweaty hours attempting to reach said nirvana, the best feeling I could possibly account for was smugness and relief that as I collapsed, exhausted, from the StairMaster, there could be no longer time until I would be forced to return.

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So when I had to undergo a battery of tests recently to rule out a heart condition, I was terrified to discover that one of them would be an exercise test.  I froze.  I panicked.  My potentially dodgy heart definitely stopped working for several seconds.  I foresaw the Bleep Test.

Were you unlucky enough to experience this cruel and unusual punishment during your school years?  It’s simple enough: the class does a lap of the gym hall, then a series of exercises (star jumps, sit ups, squats etc) in the middle, then another lap; rinse and repeat ad (literally) nauseum.  Here’s the twist: each round must be completed before the next bleep emitted from a background speaker, and the bleeps get increasingly closer together.  Fail to beat the bleep, and you’re out of the race.  (This doesn’t make an awful lot of sense because it means that the unfit ones do less exercise . . . but I digress).  Everyone feared being the first one out, although I usually took the crown.  It didn’t make me want to exercise more, it made me want to sit in a corner mainlining chocolate cake directly into my veins, whilst my athletic peers sashayed around the course with ease and I reassured myself that I was a far more interesting person than those skinny bitches anyway (sadly, not actually true.  Most of them were desperately intelligent and fascinating individuals as well.  The perils of attending a deeply competitive, highly-pressured, top-performing private school shall be discussed on a future occasion).

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Fast forward some 15 years and here I am at Hammersmith Hospital, awaiting my exercise test which by now I am convinced will involve me scaling the walls of the building, racing an ambulance, and doing 300 one-handed press-ups on a gurney in the car park, whilst the cardiac doctors look on with disappointment and dismay at how poorly I have treated myself during the course of my young(ish) life.  Imagine my surprise when I enter the afeared Room Of Torture and discover a single treadmill, placed before a nice poster of a tropical island.  The two nurses kindly explain that I will start walking on the flat, and it’ll get gradually faster and steeper, and they’ll measure how my heart reacts.

They’re infinitely friendlier than my old PE teachers (christ, if those monsters with their twin tactics of fear and humiliation were supposed to encourage us into sports then it’s no wonder I now have a pathological aversion) but I remain terrified of their inevitably crestfallen reactions when I am outed as an exercise-phobic couch potato.

I step up.  It begins.  I move no closer towards the elusive sandy beaches.  A bit faster, a bit steeper.  I retain enough puff to crack a joke.  Gradually my asthmatic lungs (still recovering from a chest infection) begin to protest.  The nurses tell me I can stop whenever I want but I persevere.  Don’t let me be the first to collapse!  I will beat the bleep!  DON’T JUDGE ME MISS RICHARDSON, I’M GOING AS FAST AS I CAN, I SWEAR NEXT TIME I’LL CATCH THE BALL.

Finally, after 20 minutes (most of which was spent jogging uphill), I wave my hand to end it, and they bring me back to a slow, flat pace.  I know such exertion would be nothing to my marathon-running mates but I am beaten and I’ve probably failed.  Is it that sort of test?  Will I need to do it again?

In fact, they tell me that I did more than enough for the required results.  (My heart, it later transpires, is perfectly healthy).  But more than that, they casually announce that I have “a good fitness level”.

My legs are still a bit wobbly and I wonder if I’ve heard them correctly.  “Do you exercise?” they ask.  I shake my head.  Then I reconsider.  “I cycle”, I reply timidly, “half an hour to work and back again each day.  But you know, it’s all stopping and starting.  It’s not a solid 60 minutes of exertion”.

“You can tell”, smiles cardiac nurse number one.  He gestures towards my helmet on the chair.  “Actually, the stopping and starting works like interval training.  Raising and lowering your heartbeat is great for cardiovascular health.  Cycling’s a brilliant form of exercise, and it’s clearly working for you”.

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I am utterly gobsmacked.  I had entered the room anticipating a denouncement of my physical activities (or lack thereof) but instead I’m being reassured that actually, I have good fitness.  Me!  Good fitness!  Suck on THAT, PE teachers!

This is even corroborated by another test I have around the same time; an echocardiogram, during which the radiographer (?) announces that she knows I must exercise because “people who exercise have differences in their hearts to those who don’t”.  So it isn’t a blip.  My casual foray into cycling has made an actual, physical difference – and it can be spotted by trained professionals.

Now, I’m under no illusions: I can still do with losing several stone.  But I am proof that fat does not equal unfit.  Sure, there are other health risks associated with being overweight, but somehow, without really intending to do so, I have managed to boost my health, and get fit, and I never even tried.

Why is this?

Because cycling, very simply, has fitted in to my hectic, fun-filled schedule.

I like seeing people, visiting the cinema, going out for dinner, indulging in spontaneous trips out of the city far too much to dedicate huge swathes of my time to any of those time-hungry sports.  The gym is a black hole for happiness.  I hear “marathon”, I think “shame they changed it to Snickers”.

But cycling . . . cycling is different.  And it’s because it’s so bloody practical.  One of the things I enjoy most is that in terms of exercise, I do it without realising.  Unlike 45 minutes at the gym, I can spend 45 minutes on a bicycle and actually get somewhere at the end of it.  I’ve not only given my body a blast of fitness but also arrived at my intended destination at the same time.  Commuting by tube or bike takes the same amount of time and yet pow, with the latter, I’ve just burnt over 100 calories and got some cardiovascular work in without so much as a by-your-leave.  I pop to the shops and I raise my heartbeat.  I visit friends and I work out my thighs.  I take a turn around the park and I increase my lung capacity.  I head to south London for a Sunday roast and work off the Yorkshire pudding and gravy in the time I would have been moaning about the Northern Line.  But I don’t even notice.  I don’t think about it.  I don’t make the difficult decision to spend Sunday morning at the gym, instead of brunch.  I don’t buy special clothing.  I don’t feel I let anybody down when I choose not to do it, but I enjoy it so much that it’s not a chore.  I don’t struggle to make plans with friends because I have to fit in a 20km run.  Best of all, especially on some cross-city treks which actually take longer on public transport, I GET TO STAY IN BED EVEN LATER.  Oh, and it’s cheaper than the tube.  But mostly, I got fit because I didn’t realise I was doing it.

Kind of like when someone tries to teach me salsa.  For a minute or two, I’ll nail the footwork, and my body starts moving automatically.  But as soon as I consciously consider what my legs are doing, I freak out and lose focus.  I can’t get my head back in the game.  It’s gone; it’s over.  With cycling, I started doing it for a variety of reasons, but in all honesty, “I’ll be healthier” simply wasn’t one of them.  So I didn’t check up on it.  I didn’t keep a note, and had no means of comparison.  When my boyfriend said “you’re so much faster than you were at the start, and you don’t need breaks any more”, I dismissed it as him being nice.  When I overtook a road bike, I figured they were probably just slow.  And when I climbed a hill in sixth gear but didn’t need to rest at the top, I assumed that the wind was behind me.

And all this time, I was getting fitter, and I didn’t even know it.

So for all those people who are terrified of exercise and wrapped in the fear of embittered gym teachers, who don’t want to change their lifestyles but would, perhaps, like to be told by a doctor “hey, you’re pretty fit” – I can’t recommend cycling enough.

It’s exercise, but stylish.  It’s surreptitiously sporty.  It’s healthy, but not offensively so.  It’s strength with a side of silliness.  And it’s the first time I’ve ever participated in an athletic activity which I actually, seriously, unbelievably enjoy.

So yeah, I’m still fat.  I don’t own trainers, and I sleep in at weekends.  But screw you, society and your preconceived notions of health.  I’ve got good fitness, and a doctor’s note to prove it.

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2 Comments

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  1. Yaaaay! Go Robyn!
    I would love to cycle, but I have the road sense of a dead hedgehog so I am very afraid I’ll be killed… so I am totally in awe of you and your cycling prowess.

    I walk to work instead…which takes longer, and isn’t as good cardiovascular exercise BUT it gives me time to chat to Marc. (^^)

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