Like a lot of women, I have a complicated relationship with exercise. Whether as a deeply insecure, chubby pubescent teenager, an anorexic in her early 20s, or a former vegan with obsessive tendencies, I’ve struggled to find a healthy relationship with working out. It oscillates between a healthy outlet of energy and source of oxytocin that keeps my OCD at bay and a cruel obsession that encourages self-loathing. And these characteristics are hardly unique to me – if anything, unless you are blessed with a beauty standard-friendly metabolism or a natural athleticism, finding a healthy relationship, both physical and mental, with working out takes, well, work.
For a long time, I bought into the allure of expensive, shiny workouts at boutique gyms. The kind you find on Classpass or that have a following that verges on cultish. They were expensive but the gleam of the facilities and the promise of the classes was enticing enough to justify whether I went once or, when I was feeling flush, three times a week. Whether it was spin or barre, strength conditioning or pilates, these 45 minute to hour long classes were aspirational, thorough and exhausting.
I enjoyed how thoroughly I was working out but there was so much seriousness driving these classes – fitness was a chore to be undertaken, a challenge to be conquered. Those environments made me see it that way too: just another box to tick on your way to the ‘ideal you’. This was only made worse by the inescapable sense of inadequacy that insisted itself upon me in those spaces. Even if there was no mention of weight loss, I was still less fit with my workout gear more grimy than sculpting. I was always the sweatiest and hairiest in the room and oftentimes the biggest. Having worked diligently to feel neutral about my body, it was jarring to have old insecurities and fixations wander in the back door when I was at my most sweaty and vulnerable. Despite meeting many socially defined standards of acceptable womanhood (white, able-bodied, feminine) my chubbiness, hairiness and over-active sweat glands would make me feel out of place.
This changed when I moved in 2021, finally coming within walking distance of a local leisure centre. After the pandemic-induced reprieve from in-person classes (bar an attempt or two) I decided instead to join my local leisure centre. For the princely sum of £35 a month I had off peak access to the gym, classes and pool. Which is how I ended up every Monday at the hilariously named Legs, Bums & Tums.
It feels somewhat obvious to say it, but the way you exercise is radically altered by the environment you are in. At a boutique spin class each session feels like a silent competition with yourself and those around you: this is a shared experience in location only. Any sense of camaraderie through the instructors’ affirmations or whoops of other cyclists falls short when everyone in that deliberately darkened room is ultimately focused on themselves.
This sits in stark contrast to a leisure centre class. In an unforgivingly lit hall that is far from purpose built for this particular class, you are surrounded by a snapshot of your local community (if a bit gendered – class workouts are invariably dominated by women). Women of all different ages and abilities doing squats and step ups while the charming instructor who comes to know you all by name intersperses instructions with her latest advice about ordering off amazon or tidbits about her son’s latest venture.
This is not to imply that the class is easy. This class, much like any of the classes I take at the leisure centre, is as hard as any boutique class I’ve done. I have all the sore muscles and a sense of satisfaction after an hour. But there is no lingering sense of superiority in these spaces – just room for everyone to do their best for their own reasons. And instead of being filled by a constantly shifting range of faces as people attend these fancy classes around their demanding work schedules, the faces of your local community become more familiar. After living through the pandemic and feeling isolated not only from my loved ones but from the place I lived, anything that offers a sense of real local community is a gift.
The leisure centre, ultimately, reminds me of being a child again. The smell of chlorine and presence of unruly children being wrangled into swimming caps are obviously a huge factor here, reminding me of learning to swim and longing for those weird but delicious chicken nuggets afterwards. There’s nostalgia, too, in the classes themselves. Legs, Bums & Tums? Aqua Aerobics? Step? Zumba?! These are all classes which have fallen out of vogue, perhaps generationally, but I’ve found them to retain the sense of fun and community that is so often lost in shiner spaces. Entering the fitness spaces that parallel those of my pre-pubescence is a way to reconnect with exercise not as self-punishment or a path to self-improvement.
So before you make overly-punishing resolutions in the new year, consider what you really want out of your relationship with exercise. If you want to workout at your own pace, feel a part of your local community, and genuinely enjoy it (while saving a few quid), you can’t do better than a leisure centre. Inadvertently or not, it really does reaffirm that fitness is something for everyone.