Maggie Alderson: 'Why I'm tackling the exercise phobia that has blighted my adult life.'

I have a complex relationship with exercise. Put Uptown Funk on loud and I will jump about like a crazed fool, as I often do, in my kitchen. Play good sounds at a party and I will dance like a mad thing for hours in high heels.

But the idea of Doing Exercise in a formal, sporty context makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry. Or sulk like a 14 year old, as I did when setting out on a glorious 8km country walk with my husband the other weekend.

‘Oh look,’ I kept saying, ‘another leaf. How fascinating…Oh! And an actual twig, thrilling…’

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Several times he lost patience with me and started walking back to the car, then I’d persuade him to continue only to start doing it again (I don’t know how he puts up with me) until finally, when I thought he really was going to bail out, I realised I really did want to do the beautiful walk and shut the fuck up.

By the end, of course, it was me who wanted to go further.


I don’t know when I got so confused about it. As a child, when the weather was nice I was always outside doing something physical. Charging about on my bike, or my scooter, skipping, banging a tennis ball against the garage door, doing that thing with a tennis ball on a rope with a plastic loop round one leg, hula hooping. In between all that, I went to ballet classes.

But I already hated sport at school. When you are the smallest girl in the class in Primary 3 and no one has ever explained the rules to you, netball is a very hell. From then on, I was the one Not Chosen.

By secondary school, sport was almost a phobia. No one ever told me the rules of anything, which didn’t help. Everyone else seemed to know. I’ve never understood that.

And on top of the nightmare of having to do anything resembling jumping, there were the showers. In the first year of secondary school, they would make us get nude and run through freezing cold, completely open-plan showers.

Half the girls had pubes, half didn’t and it would be hard to say which group was more mortified.

An obedient 11 year old, in a permanent state of bewilderment at suddenly finding myself thrown in with 1200 kids on what was virtually a campus, after a small convent junior school, I had no choice but to endure it.

But by 14, double sport over the last two periods on a Thursday afternoon was an early pass for me.

I felt exhilaration once during hockey

So easy to turn right instead of left on the way over to the sports hall and I’d read my book as I walked home (memorably walking into a lamp post on one occasion). Oh, the sense of freedom.

Would I feel differently about exercise now if I’d been taught sport better? I think so. I had one term at an all girls school where they really explained hockey to me and even went into some possible tactics – as opposed to thrash or die at the other school.

I remember one game of hockey there when, charging up the middle of the field, with the ball fully under my control before passing it to a goal scorer, I felt the exhilaration of playing a team game for the first – and only – time.


But not long after that the PE teacher caught me reading the Little Red School Book in the changing rooms, when I had pleaded period pains (fictional), gave me a detention and confiscated it. That was the end of my brief engagement with school sport.

I’ve spent my whole life ever since not exercising enough.

I love yoga and have done that pretty consistently for 30 years, but the aerobic stuff has been sadly, dangerously lacking.

If you're like Maggie and want to try different types of exercise here's 5 simple yoga moves that are good for your back (Post continues after gallery):

But I’m trying to engage with it again. I’ve now been to four aerobics classes in 10 days, which is a miraculous statistic for me.

I can’t say I love it yet, but I’m trying out different classes at different venues, looking for the one where I won’t feel like a hopeless joke and where I will experience the sense of fun and camaraderie that I know some of my friends enjoy with their exercise groups. I want to feel the fun as well as the burn.

A recent class – the appropriately named ‘Body Attack’ – was a bit more challenging than I’d been expecting, with a marine style male teacher and not very friendly participants, but I did my best, getting a short attack of hysterics every time we had to run round the studio in a circle and somehow I was still always at the back.

But I’m not going to give up. What’s hardened my resolve? I’m getting older and I don’t want to get dementia or diabetes. I don’t want to die of heart disease as my darling dad (and both his parents…) did in their early 60s. I want to firm up my jiggly middle.

Most of all, I want to prove to myself that I can overcome the exercise phobia that has blighted my adult life.

And the other thing which is inspiring me, is this brilliant ad which I saw for the first time in the cinema the other day. This girl can:

This article was originally posted on Maggie Alderson and was republished here with full permission.

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