I can’t remember the last time I signed up for an exercise class, proper. It might have been back in the 90s when the hard fact of a long London winter stuck in a pokey flat watching Eastenders was what kicked you out into a drafty community hall just to get moving. That was the decade of aerobics and sunbed tans, toweling wristbands and cushioned footwear – and 50 stomach crunches to end.
But when you live and work on the land (in my case, a couple of sloping acres), getting in the car to head into town to exercise seems either indulgent, or a sign that you’ve got your priorities all wrong. So, it just doesn’t happen. Not when there is always something to do outside: weeding, pruning, lifting hay bales, digging, wood stacking, fence fixing… the sort of exercise that make things happen in the garden while your shoulders bulk. Combine this with good home cooking, though, and the waistline has a tendency to square and thicken while you age. Muffin top exercises were so named for a very good reason.
This year, while writing more and getting outside less, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart. Being slumped in a chair reading, at a desk writing, or just sticking to garden work, doesn’t do much for your flexibility – or hips, which is where women often lose strength first. So I’ve found barre – a cross between yoga, pilates and ballet – and on town days I go to “sessions” instead of classes.
Here, I get to imagine being a young girl again back at ballet, except you don’t have to dance. In fact, dance flair is discouraged. The barre is a prop used to balance while doing exercises. Not what you’d think (high kicks or arabesques) but repetitions of small miniscule movements. There are also hand weights, resistance balls, and a bit of controlled air-punching to take out your frustrations.
Two things I like especially: you go barefoot and wear a T-shirt and leggings. Yes, it’s classy, old school. I also like how the emphasis is on being healthy, supple and strong rather than losing weight. After just a couple of weeks I’ve found muscles in between muscles that I didn’t know I had. Somehow, just knowing them makes you feel fitter. On top of that, I’ve got more stretch.
It just happened to be all women in the first Strength and Flex session. As we stood on mats, backs to mirrors, about to begin, one woman started talking in a gorgeous Irish accent.
“Before we get started, do you mind if I interrupt?” she asked. “I’d just like to wish everyone a happy women’s Christmas. It’s what we do in Ireland on this day every year. All the restaurants are full of women because they’ve got the day off.”
We all smiled, laughed, and wished each other a happy women’s Christmas in January, hoping that it might catch on here. Without having even stretched a muscle I felt better. This group of women, all so much fitter than me, many with grown children, some with grandchildren, inspired me to improve my own health. They sang along to the music, were silent when it came to concentrate, laughing when they couldn’t, chatted about life, about coffee after class… Apparently there is one man who comes but he’s currently climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. I was starting to see how exercise is never just about the exercise.
So I’m on the way, now. Week three: barre attack, strengthening my glutes. Not ballet, but like it. Already I can hold a rubber ball behind my knee and lift it, or squeeze it between my legs without it being too hard to walk the next day. I can tie myself up in elastic rubber bands and stretch. I’ve learnt how to stand while at the same time strengthening my hips. How just being aware of a muscle can help you work it without working it, and how there’s even a word for it: proprioception. Through all this, I share a laugh with women who are all strangers to me.
We may well measure ourselves by how much we see ourselves in others. As we get older we also get set in our ways and all the clichés about comfort zones are clichés because they’re right. Jumping out of your zone – even if you think you’re already active – can surprise you and, I think, also lead you to take up other things.
I may well go mountain bike riding at the swish new track at Hollybank just up the road, or start hiking to the top of Mt Direction or Mt Arthur more regularly. I might yet get to play tennis at the community hall down the road that I can see from my studio window, or start skipping… But I haven’t yet.
Fitness has its fashion fads. One year we’re wearing trainers that are practically Elton John platforms, the next it’s all about “natural running” in sneakers designed, in minimalist style, like a Fred Astaire slipper. Barre sessions may well be a trend, but it’s the right one for me, for now. Finding that something that gets you off your butt and active again is hard, especially when it’s so much easier to make excuses. Now I have Di to urge me on: “Whatever you do, don’t stop – keep moving!” Believe me when you find your own fad it’s worth it. If you don’t, well, it’s just that the time may not be right, and you only have yourself to blame.
First published in Tasweekend, February 7 2015
If you are in Launceston, Tasmania, contact Di at www.healthseekconsulting.com for more details.