I had a conversation with some friends about yoga last weekend. One said she loved it; another said she was put off by the wibbly-wobbly spiritual stuff that seems to come as part of the package.

I thought this was interesting, because although I have certainly been to yoga classes where I was invited to pray to the goddess, the indisputable mental and emotional benefits of exercise suggest that our psychological selves are more closely bound up with our physical selves than traditional religious or “spiritual” (horrible word!) doctrine would like us to believe. We exist in our bodies, not in our immortal souls, which is why eating well and exercising make us happy as well as healthy.

So I am pro-exercise, as long as you can do something you enjoy. I really love Pilates and swimming, but I wouldn’t say I do either with great vigour. It doesn’t matter: the simple fact of taking yourself away from your everyday environment and using your limbs rather than your mind for an hour, especially if you spend most of your time sitting at a desk, has benefits way beyond the calories you might burn up while you do it.

Of course, if you spend an hour sweating over something you hate, like – ugh – hockey, you’re unlikely to end up happier, because the small buzz that the exercise generates will be overshadowed by growing dread at the thought of having to do it again. Finding exercise stressful rather than fun is an easy way to slip into the body-hate mindset that is so pointless and harmful. At school, I was awkward and ungainly and the last to be picked for sports teams, and although that was completely to do with my own adolescent hang-ups and had nothing to do with my actual body, which worked about as well as anyone else’s, the pain of Being Bad At Sport long outlasted the point at which anyone apart from me cared how fast I could run, or how often I could return a serve in tennis (answer: never).

Now that we’re grown-ups it doesn’t matter if we can’t run or hit a tennis ball, because we can choose to do something else instead, but I let that ancient anxiety poison my relationship with exercise for too long.

So if you hated PE and used to hide in the cloakroom to try and get out of it, take heart. It’s not about how many Twixes you burn, it’s about using your body to have fun. Try something off this list, and let me know how you get on:

  • Belly dancing
  • Snooker
  • Trampolining
  • Synchronised swimming
  • Hiking
  • Climbing
  • Sex
  • Archery
  • Diving
  • Bowls
  • A pogo stick
  • Cricket


I’ve been going to Pilates classes for about ten years, on and off. Ten years ago I was working in a bookshop with a specialist line in what those in the business call “Mind, Body and Spirit”, though I can think of a few other names for it.

Sometimes, people would come to the shop and try to sell us books. One day, a man who looked a bit like God came in and tried to persuade us to buy twenty copies of his book about Pilates. Neither I nor the boss knew what Pilates was and so he gave us a thirty-minute lecture, after which we ungratefully didn’t buy the book (books about exercise regimes were already a bit old hat, even in those days of dial-up internet). But my curiosity was piqued and a short time afterwards I signed up for classes at Brockwell Lido.

Pilates suits me. I am quite bendy, so I get to feel as though I’m doing well at it right from the start – something which never happens to me with most forms of exercise. Plus, I like to do something where I have to be very intent and focused in the moment, rather than something like running or swimming which you can do mindlessly whilst still thinking about work and worrying about the gas bill. If you work hard at Pilates, there is no time or space to be doing anything other than Pilates, and being able to tune out of real life for an hour is a rare and valuable thing.

And then, the more you do of it, the better your posture is and the less likely you are to injure yourself in the course of other types of exercise, and those are both good things too.

However, there is a small price to pay for all these benefits, and that comes in the shape of other people. Sometimes the other people in a Pilates class are fine. A lot of the time, they are a nightmare. Imagine the scene: you are lying on your back with your eyes closed, your arms at your side, your knees bent, your abdominal muscles engaged and your pelvis in a neutral position, focusing on your breathing. Your mind begins to go blank as you become as one with your body and the day’s stresses and minor inconveniences recede into the background. And then someone in the corner pipes up:

“Excuse me, should I be feeling this in my hamstrings? I’ve got an old shoulder injury, should I do this differently? Do you like my tight lycra pants? Gosh, I’m annoying, aren’t I?”

These are the people who see Pilates not as a much-needed respite from the rush of the working day or a way to improve their health and physical fitness, but as a competitive sport in which the challenge is to work hardest and bend furthest, and the prize is to get more attention from the instructor than anyone else does.

Here’s the thing. No Pilates instructor worthy of the name will start a class without checking whether anyone in that class is injured, or pregnant. If you are either of those things, she will be aware of it and will let you know if you need to do anything differently from the rest of the class. Otherwise, Pilates is not an impact sport; you don’t have to be able to do it faster than anyone else, and you should probably just shut up so that everyone else in the room can carry on with the class, rather than sitting around waiting for the instructor, who is too polite to tell you to shut up, to come up with an answer to your inane question.

So here are my simple rules for attending a Pilates class. (They work for yoga too.)

  1. Tell the instructor in advance if you are injured or pregnant. (If you are both, consider whether you ought to be at a Pilates class. Some days it really is a better idea just to lie down and eat chocolate.)
  2. Save your questions for the end. You are paying for the instructor’s time, but you are paying to share it with fifteen other people. If the answer to your question is not going to interest them, ask it afterwards.
  3. Good grief, breathe normally! There is no award for effort for the person who sounds most like Ivor the Engine on each exhalation. It is both possible and desirable to breathe out through your mouth without sounding like an elephant. I don’t want to hear your breath any more than I want to smell it.
  4. A tricky one this: try not to fart too close to anyone’s face. I know you can’t always help it. But, you know, I can manage it, so it technically possible. That’s all I’m saying.
  5. Talking of which: when the instructor tells you to swing your arms out to the side, do check that you’re not about to hit someone over the head before you do it. It’s so much easier and more elegant than having to apologise afterwards.

There. Just five rules, but you will find that your experience, and those of the people around you, is wonderfully enhanced by following them.

My sixth personal rule is “remember to get changed back into your work clothes after the class and before leaving work”. Since I am still sitting here in my tracksuit bottoms and hoodie* I will now go and obey that rule. Laters.

*the hoodie is actually also part of my work clothes, but there should be a dress under it rather than a vest.

Fitness, fatness, and other f words

I’m in the middle of a six-week programme with a personal trainer at my workplace gym, but last week I read Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, and I agreed so vehemently with most of what it says that, even though I am not and have never been on a diet (I like cheese too much ever to consider a world in which I couldn’t eat as much of it as I like), I found myself reluctant to go back to the gym, even though I enjoy it, because it felt like giving in to the body fascists.

Nuts, I know. And I did go back, yesterday, and enjoyed it as much as ever.  And I don’t think it’s any saner to deliberately gain or keep weight than it is to try and lose it (though having read the book, I don’t think it’s any madder, either).

It’s a great book, by the way, and I don’t think you have to be fat or on a diet to get a lot from it. I like my round bottom very much, but I had started to feel a bit self-conscious about getting naked in the changing rooms in front of the skinny twentysomethings (and thirtysomethings, and fortysomethings) who are the biggest users of the gym. Yesterday, for the first time, I happily undressed without caring who was looking (not, of course, that anybody was). It may not be a gym bunny’s bottom, but it’s mine and if it weren’t round, all my clothes would fall off.

I am all about liking yourself the way you are, in any case. For a bit, I thought I wanted to get the gap between my two front teeth fixed, but this postcard, sent in to the always-wonderful PostSecret, convinced me otherwise: