Want to do more exercise but anxious about getting started? Read on.

Last month, I wrote on this blog about the benefits that regular, enjoyable exercise has had on my own mental health and wellbeing and it’s fair to say that this is something I’m pretty evangelical about.  That’s before you get me started on the myriad potential physical benefits.  For me, exercise is such a big part of my life that I cannot imagine my world without it, however I know that this is not the case for everyone and studies have shown that most women of my age do not regularly participate in moderate physical activity.  As a personal trainer and someone who believes so passionately in the power of exercise to help the body and mind, I am always looking for ways of getting women to become involved in sport and exercise and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the barriers to getting started and how these can be overcome.

Fear of being judged

A study by Sport England revealed that 75% of women wanted to exercise more, but said that they were put off for fear of being judged on their ability and appearance. This is really saddening, but, I must admit that I don’t find it surprising.

I can’t do it

I think that many of us do lack confidence in our own sporting abilities. In fact, for plenty of women, the very word “sport” has negative connotations.  But where does this lack of confidence stem from?  A short while ago, I was chatting with some friends about this blog and what topics they would like me to write about.  One mentioned the way in which some women are put off exercise because they lack confidence and before we knew it, we were all piling in with our own anecdotes. Interestingly, for all of us, myself included, this started at school.
My friend summed up my own experiences when she said “the PE teachers focused on the sporty kids and the rest of us just stood there feeling awkward and on display in our hideous PE kit”.
For some, these early experiences of being labelled “not sporty” stays with them, and unless another, more positive experience happens which is powerful enough to turn this around, this can be with us for life, or at the very least, make it very difficult to find the confidence to try anything new without feeling like an imposter.  As one of my friends put it:
“I never really did any exercise until I graduated and felt confident in who I was and discovered forms of exercise other than hideous team sports at school. [A turning point] was realising you can run at your own pace and no one is watching you come last in a humiliating 800m in athletics at school.”

I don’t look the part

So, as women we might worry about how good we are (or aren’t) but also how we look.  I’ve lost count of the number of women (both in my work as a PT, but also friends, relatives, other mums) who have told me that they not only don’t like the way they look, they hate it.  They pinch their bellies, their hips, their upper arms.  Prod their thighs, saying “I want to get rid of this”, they say.  I can absolutely remember feeling that way too.  For much of my adult life, I cast a critical eye over my own body.  If only my thighs were thinner/bum smaller/tummy flatter or the scales would show a smaller number.  Then, I told myself, I would be happy and everything else would fall into place.  This peaked after I had my first son and this lack of confidence definitely stopped me going to classes and taking part in exercise, which I would previously have done without a second thought.
However, let’s face it (and if you’re reading this, you we probably know this already) but shrinking your body is unlikely, on its own, to be a shortcut to happiness.  So where does this idea come from? Unfortunately, the media, society and, more specifically, the diet industry, tells us life is better in a smaller body.  The thing is, we all need to remember that the diet industry is a money making machine which cashes in on our insecurities.  Look out for my views on diets coming soon on a future blog, but suffice it to say that if we all achieved everlasting physical perfection by way of a particular diet, there wouldn’t be much in the way of return business and the diet industry wouldn’t be anywhere near its current colossal size.
Diet culture is everywhere.  Much of the time, we inadvertently invite these messages into our lives via social media.  How many of us follow #fitspo accounts on Instagram, leading to feeds full of someone else’s ripped abs? If these pictures inspire you, fantastic, but for many of us, the reality is that these images can lead to negative feelings, fuelling our body anxieties and leaving us questioning whether this is how we should look and whether we are the ones who don’t quite measure up.  For most of us, it’s really hard not to feel negative about your body or at least be left questioning whether you need to change it in some way.

Let’s turn it around

If this all sounds rather negative, then there may be some light at the end of the tunnel, if only we can get our heads around taking the first step.  The irony is that these negative feelings of inadequacy, both in terms of our ability and appearance might be preventing us from starting the very thing that might well hold the key to improving our body image, self esteem and confidence, namely exercise.
If you are reading this thinking, I want to give it a go, but don’t know where to begin, here are some tips to help you get started.

1. Know you are not alone

If nothing else, hopefully you finish reading this blog and think “well, at least it’s not just me”.  Even instructors can still feel nervous going to a new class for the first time (I promise you).  Remember that appearances can be deceptive, and someone who might look “fit” or “sporty” might actually just have invested in some new fit kit to boost her own confidence and may well feel as anxious as you do.

2. Buddy up

If you can, try out a new class or activity with a friend, or club together for some joint PT sessions.  Making the “exercise” part secondary to meeting up together to do something active can really take the pressure off, plus you’re less likely to bail out at the last minute if you’ve both committed.

3. Do your research

It’s worth spending the time trying to find the class or personal trainer that is the right fit for you.  If you’re a beginner, find a class which is billed as suitable for beginners or for all levels (I know this sounds really obvious, I know, but it’s definitely worth checking).  Ask around for recommendations amongst your friends or in local Facebook groups.  Check out social media.  If you hear about a class you might want to try, or find a trainer online that you think you might want to connect with, then contact them and tap them up for info.  Ask as many questions as you need to ask – we don’t mind and love to hear from you. Any trainer or instructor worth their salt will want to put you at ease and equally if you come along to a class or have one session and they decide that it’s not for you then that’s cool too – remember it’s a two way street.

4. Shift your focus

From my experience, this can be one of the hardest things to do, but can be a total game-changer.  Instead of thinking “oh, I’m going to do X class because it’ll burn a load of calories”, focus instead on finding something you really enjoy.  Scrap that, actually.  Find something you love.  There honestly is a form of exercise out there for you.  Just because I love running, doesn’t mean you are going to.  You might find you love boxing.  Or swimming.  Or yoga.  Or dancing.  Or netball.  You won’t know until you try, but fundamentally, don’t force yourself to do something you hate, just because it promises to “help you get rid of this”.  With my clients, I’m always trying to tap in to the things that they enjoy doing and make sure we do more of them in our sessions together, because one size most definitely does not fit all and if you find exercise fun, it boosts your self esteem and you finish feeling amazing then that, in my mind, has been a far greater success than the fact you may have burnt 700kcal.  Find your motivation in how good exercise makes you feel.  As Anna Kessel says in her brilliant book “Eat Sweat Play” (read it, if you haven’t already!):
“It should be fun. The fundamental movement of a person’s body from A to B, with a breathless cackle at C.  Because when a kid rolls down a hill they don’t complain “oh my Gawd, this is SUCH hard work and my arse is still huuuuuge”, they enjoy it.”
And so should you.  To find out more about my group classes and personal training sessions, click here.