It looks like social distancing may continue for a while and so we’ll have to do what we can to survive it, with our mental health relatively intact. For me, exercise is integral for managing my moods; if I can’t work out, my bipolar makes a nuisance of itself pretty quickly. Cardio never fails; the burst of endorphins gives me a lift when I’m low and burns excess energy when I’m manic. After a heart-thumping session of HIIT (high intensity interval training) I feel clear, focused and positive. If I’m really down, that feeling doesn’t last very long, but it’s a step in the right direction and it usually keeps me from dipping to the darkest depths. Consistent self-care provides a safety net, the trick is to implement it during the better times as well as the bad.
I’ve been working out from home for a long time so the new measures aren’t that much of change for me. I had a gym membership years ago but I cancelled it because I was doing more home workouts and it was a waste of money. Financial considerations were not the only reason I quit the gym; I have the strength of a mutant but the co-ordination of a puppy wearing socks. I frequently had slapstick accidents, like losing my footing on the treadmill and being flung backwards at high velocity, landing prone, bruised and humiliated. I also have the unfortunate habit of making sex noises when I exercise. I like to push myself to my limits and as a consequence I emit the kind of involuntary sounds that I imagine Serena Williams making during angry intercourse. Working out is now a private activity, safely confined to the seclusion of my living room. This hasn’t entirely shielded me from injury and mortification. I once attempted a boxercise routine and gave myself a bloody nose.
Now that many of us will have to get our exercise done at home, I thought I’d share some tips on how to optimise working out without the gym. I am not a personal trainer so it’s important to seek out more information from someone who really knows what they are talking about, however I might be able to impart some useful information on motivation and why it’s worth the effort.
It is possible to stay fit from home without spending a penny, providing that you have a rug or a towel to protect your back when you do floor work. However, if you wish to include strength training, weights are useful. I have a set of dumbbells from Power Block, they aren’t cheap but they take up very little space and last forever. I bought mine 7 years ago and they’ve paid for themselves in unspent gym memberships many times over. However, you could improvise with household objects likes bottles of water or tins of beans. A skipping rope and resistance bands are very handy, inexpensive and tuck away neatly into a drawer. I usually follow routines from Fitness Blender, a free website with hundreds of videos. Fitness Blender is great because the trainers aren’t annoying and there’s no music. They have a massive range of workouts from very gentle, low impact beginners stuff to the kind of hard core exercise which produces an endorphin rush and makes you feel like you’re having the best day of your life – but also like you might vomit. I crave intensity; I want to feel like every muscle is on fire because then I know I’ve worked hard and it’s been a good use of my time. This need for an extreme burn is not necessarily a good thing; I’ve been having sessions with a personal trainer via FaceTime, who has taught me the importance of correct form, adding variety and challenging muscles groups with more subtly and precision. My PT is called Bethan Gorman and she’s brilliant. She’s currently offering FaceTime sessions and I cannot recommend her enough.
If you’re new to exercise, take it slowly. Start with something low impact and progress at your own pace. After having my son, I would do a Fitness Blender level 1 routine for a couple of weeks, then move up when I was ready. Don’t be tempted to do it every day, it’s important to have rest days to give your muscles a chance to recover. Ironically, it’s the rest days that allow your body to make progress. I aim to work out 5 days a week, although I might do four on, three off, depending on my energy levels.
The most challenging thing for home exercise is finding the motivation. A lot of my friends have told me they find it easier to go to the gym because it is the designated place for physical activity and they see home as the place for downtime. Clearly demarcating different the areas of one’s life is usually very healthy, however, it is no longer possible to have boundaries around places of work, rest and play. I would suggest making exercise a priority, preferably in the morning. It’s much easier to feel positive if you’ve started the day with some physical activity, even if it’s just some gentle stretching. Being active gives your mental health the best chance of staying afloat.
Rather than seeing it as a chore, I try to think of exercise as something fun. I like to play music that makes me happy; soulless, pumping dance tunes makes me feel like I’m being tortured. Smiling during the most challenging parts of a workout also helps me to power on through. When I do this I look like like a mad woman, sweating it out with a maniacal grin plastered on my blotchy, red face. However, smiling seems to trick my brain into thinking that I’m dancing the night away, rather than doing my fifth round of burpees. Once again, the privacy of working out from home protects what little dignity I have left.
It would be dishonest to pretended that there wasn’t an element of vanity in my motivation, but wanting to look nice isn’t nearly enough to get me moving. I find exercise empowering because it’s the most effective thing I can do for my mental health, apart from medication and therapy. It’s possible that even the most resilient among us will develop some form of mental issue, particularly in these stressful, unprecedented times. I’m aware that there’s pressure to come out of the lockdown having learnt a new language, become a master baker and have a rippling six pack. I find this profoundly unhelpful and this post is not intended to make anyone feel bad about their fitness. However, even the most gentle exercise will be make a difference; loosing weight or becoming super toned is not the goal here. It’s useful to frame working out as something you’re doing for your mind, as much as your body. Staying active and positive will not always be easy, but it will support you through whatever is to come.
The feature image was taken a couple of years ago, at a time when the a global pandemic seemed like little more than the plot of a movie.