I don't mean the outdoor exercise where you are constantly on the move, like running or cycling. I mean workout classes where an instructor finds a spot in a local park or public space and guides a group of people (mostly women) through something designed to get you moving and sweaty. Zumba, yoga, core, boxing, cardio, circuits... These classes always seemed too reminiscent of my experience of outdoor PE lessons: the unpredictable weather, the potential surveillance from people who walk by, the fear and shame of being unable to keep up. It felt like an experience primed for embarrassment but unlike at school, it was something you did voluntarily.
It has been well over a decade since I was as hormonal and self-conscious as I was in PE but there's something about the thought of outdoor workouts that brings up those otherwise worked-through insecurities all over again: about my physical ability, my body and what other people see when they see me. This is only heightened by the very real fact that if you are a woman outdoors, you are vulnerable to surveillance and harassment.
In some ways the pandemic has strengthened these reservations. After months of working out only when I felt like it and mainly indoors, fitness settings have become the areas in which I feel most self-conscious. Publicly exercising can sometimes feel like a performance and given that I'm not very fit and will never be thin, I feel worried that I will be publicly and spectacularly failing in my performance. It's embarrassing to admit how exposed working out outside makes me feel. You can work on embracing yourself as much as you want but self-confidence can only go so far to protect you from the reality of working out as a woman in public, especially if you're doing so while failing at ideal womanhood (cis, thin, white).
But equally, I've always suspected that outdoor workout classes must be enjoyable somehow. And that in all honesty it's probably not that deep. The fresh air must add something vital to the experience, right? Plus they are comparatively cheaper than many fitness classes. Besides, as we near a post-lockdown world, the thought of an enclosed gym space feels far too beyond my personal comfort zone. Where once I felt comforted by an indoor gym class, where you can be assured everyone is only focusing on themselves, I now have (justified) reservations about enclosed spaces and their capacity to accelerate an already deadly pandemic.
The impulse to want to stay outside is corroborated by the fitness, beauty and wellness booking platform ClassPass. Over the past year, the platform has seen a 400% increase in the number of outdoor classes being offered by studios on their platform.
As someone who misses some gym classes but is too much of a 'fraidy cat to re-enter those spaces yet, I wanted to push myself to see if all my perceived fears about outdoor classes held true. How much of my pre-emptive embarrassment was warranted? How much do you actually notice the people around you? Maybe the class could even be…fun?
And so, on the first Sunday morning after gyms reopened in England, I made my way to BXR in Marylebone to attend a Cardio Conditioning and Core class I'd booked through ClassPass in the park space next to the gym. The class promised a mix of – shockingly – cardio and conditioning, using a combination of resistance training and weights to get your heart pumping, your muscles targeted and your body that particular kind of enjoyably exhausted. BXR was already running this class but has adapted it for an outdoor space; the class description says it is designed to "challenge all fitness levels".
After meeting in the gym space to collect our mats and weights, seven of us in total (one instructor and five attendees plus one attendee's dog) set up in a relatively gated park next to the gym. Thanks to the beautiful spring weather that weekend, the ground was dry to the point of dusty, meaning no mud (good) but hardened, uneven ground (less good). But the small class size and being in the open air meant it was easy to keep a COVID-friendly distance from the instructor and each other while finding somewhere even to place your mat.
Once we were all set up we began warming up and, almost immediately, most of my apprehensions no longer had any retail space in my head. My focus was entirely centred on what our instructor was doing and trying to keep up.
As the class was a mix of different forms of interval training with each exercise only repeated twice, there was no opportunity for my thoughts to drift away – keeping up demanded concentration. The wonderful thing about knowing you only have to keep doing your 180° jumps or your plank rows for 45 seconds is that maintaining that movement for that time feels exhilarating in and of itself. Just as in indoor classes, everyone is so absorbed in their own body's movements that you barely notice each other, let alone passersby.
This changed as I got more tired, though. The harder it was to keep up, the slower I became and the more aware I was that there was a man walking his dog and staring intensely at this group of women. As we reached the final push (a punishing series of chest to floor burpees) I could feel my 15-year-old self's insecurities bubbling up as I noticed I was the last one going by a long shot, barely able to complete the minimum of eight burpees in a minute.
It was only when we started stretching and cooling down, 40 minutes after we started moving, that I really had time to reflect on how the class had felt. There was that moment when, flailing at the possibility of doing those burpees, I could feel an almost anguished teenage frustration rising in my throat. I was ready to cry and beg off doing any more exercise because of my period as if I were 14 again. But there was no other point during the class when I felt this way. I discovered that there were moves I could do with ease thanks to a few months of Yoga With Adriene (a side plank! What?!) and I managed to do one extra jumping lunge because being in the sun genuinely made me feel happier to be there. The only time my self-consciousness really came to the fore was when I felt I was visibly struggling.
One of the few positives of the past year is that it has helped all of us reframe what we expect from our bodies and each other. All we can do is try based on our ability on that day and hope to be supported by others around us, which I felt I was. The slightly surreal nature of being part of a group of women huffing and puffing in the park brought a sense of camaraderie to the hour. We were bound together by a thin layer of sweat and dust, united against the admitted weirdness of people being able to watch you work out from any angle. And though I'd never met them before and am unlikely to again, the overarching joy of being with people, safely, with a shared goal of getting ripped as hell, far outweighed any self-consciousness I had going in.