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Cravings of a gym addict


ALTHOUGH hurtling with indecent haste towards my ninth decade, I remain as fit and healthy as somebody 30 or 40 years younger.

When asked what my secret is, I reply: exercise. For the past 40 years I have visited the gym several times a week, doing a variety of tough classes as well as working out on the machines. I am convinced that this regime has enabled me to stay free from such age-related conditions as diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis and arthritis.

It’s not just me. The new Countdown host Anne Robinson, the same age as me, said in a recent interview that regular exercise was the main reason she still had the energy to host a television programme in her mid-seventies. Anne, too, is as slim and lithe as somebody decades younger. She added that she did workouts not because they were fun but because she wanted to stay fighting fit for as long as possible.

We oldie exercisers were able to keep up our regimen until the first lockdown, when all the gyms suddenly shut. Desperate to maintain my fitness, I bought an exercise bike and some weights and continued to exercise at home, doing online courses.

But it wasn’t the same. Without the discipline of going to the gym and attending a class at a specific time, it was easy enough to say, I’ll do it tomorrow, or to forget about exercise entirely.

Well, the gyms have been open again since April and further restrictions were supposed to ease from Monday, so are we back to normal? No, not at all. Gyms are still operating at only half strength and remain hedged around with so many rules, regulations and restrictions that you wonder whether it is worth going at all. Opening hours have been drastically reduced and everything has to be booked, even a session on the treadmill.

You are allowed to work out on the equipment for only 50 minutes at a time and you can book a maximum of seven sessions a week, whether these are classes or working on the equipment. And you have to book. You can’t just walk in and join a class or have a go on the rowing machine as before.

All this has made many, if not most, former members feel that the gym is no longer good value and they have not renewed their membership. Nor are new members coming along.

The result is that whereas my gym was once a busy, bustling place, it is now sad and empty, and while there were once 20 or more people in the classes, the instructors are now motivating a multitude of three. Some classes, such as pump – a weightlifting class – cannot be held because of the difficulty of disinfecting the equipment satisfactorily, or so it is alleged. Never mind that not a single case of Covid has been reported at my gym, or most likely at any other.

I fear that the ‘safety measures’ which gyms have had no choice but to put in place have made many people scared to return even if and when all restrictions are lifted. I used to go to an ‘old lady’ Tabata class which was always packed. Not one of those old ladies, who used to live for their weekly workouts, has come back, even though this class is now once again on offer. Tabata, by the way, is a series of exercises each lasting 20 seconds, with 10 seconds off, and is supposed to be the most effective exercise regime ever invented.  Pre-lockdown it was highly popular, but the management will not put on more live classes while numbers remain so low.  

I am not blaming the gyms: they have to abide by government rules and guidelines, however ridiculous or unnecessary, for fear of being shut down if they do not conform. My gym, along with most others, has instigated a variety of online classes to compensate. But in much the same way that you have to go to church to get the full benefit of a religious service, you actually have to go to the gym, make the effort, join a class and have the motivation provided by an instructor at the front of the class, to retain maximum fitness. Sorry, but even the jolliest Joe Wicks class won’t do it.

At the moment, neither our bodies nor our souls are being looked after, and without the gyms operating at pre-lockdown strength we are rapidly becoming a nation of porkers, fat and lazy, eating banana bread rather than putting in an hour on the cross-trainer. And regular workouts, as all exercisers know, are good for the brain as well as the body. I can sweat off much of my anger and frustration with a frenetic hour on the exercise bike. We’ve heard of ‘runner’s high’, the adrenaline rush that comes from a satisfying run. I get ‘biker’s high’ and the tingling sensation left by an intense workout lasts all day.

Regular hard exercise is good not only for physical health, it is also excellent for mental health, as all sportspeople know. I am not a swimmer, but I have several friends who have gone into deep depression because they have not been able to go to the pool. For many, especially the retired, their daily swim makes life worth living. And although most indoor swimming pools are now open, a lot of people remain too frightened of catching Covid to return to lapping the lanes. 

So, while purporting to ‘protect’ the nation’s health by making us stay indoors, restricting exercise and sport, successive lockdowns have made us unhealthier than ever we were before and, paradoxically, much more likely to succumb to any infection going.

Without regular exercise, systems seize up and become sluggish, predisposing us to more illness and making us old and bent before our time. I also know that exercise works for weight loss. One woman at our gym, before lockdown, lost three stone in a year on a regular exercise programme devised by her personal trainer. As a result, her confidence and self-esteem flourished. At the moment, there are no personal trainers working in our gym.

It is well known that as a nation we are suffering from an obesity epidemic. Boris Johnson has rejected a proposal to put extra taxes on sugar and salt, but a concerted move to get us all going to the gym, and easing up all remaining restrictions and making sure they never return, would do us far more good than all the test and trace, lateral flow tests, isolation, mask-wearing, distancing rubbish that is preventing a restoration to mental and physical wellbeing.

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Liz Hodgkinson
Liz Hodgkinson
Liz Hodgkinson is an author and journalist.

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