Looking around the streets and parks of the UK, or scrolling through #fitspo workout selfies on social media, it can sometimes feel as if everyone is exercising: running, weightlifting, wild swimming or competing in Ironman triathlons. In reality a huge 12.4 million of us are inactive. But why? It’s often a combination of reasons: time, money, health, feeling unsure where to start, mobility problems, being intimidated by gyms, or even scarred by school PE lessons.
Then came Covid. “Our latest Active Lives survey found that activity levels are now starting to recover after the disruptions of the pandemic,” says Kate Dale of Sport England. “But the pandemic exacerbated existing lower activity levels for certain groups of people. Women, lower-income households, people from Black and south Asian backgrounds and those with a long-term health condition or disability are still less likely to be active. In challenging times, boosting our health and wellbeing through movement – be it a walk, swim, jog, a dance or a fitness class – is essential.”
But taking that first step can feel overwhelming. According to Paralympic cycling and swimming Olympic champion Sarah Storey, “people are still struggling to access activity that they are confident in doing; we still need to find a way to enable people to have that confidence to get started.” So I asked some experts and recent converts for tips – Lycra optional.
Work out how you’re talking yourself out of exercise
Guilt at taking time away from family; a belief it’s too late; the “I can’t train yet because I’m too unfit” mindset – trainers have heard it all. “Identity is a huge part of it,” says Robbie Thompson, a trainer and coach who has worked with Northumbria police and Deloitte. “If you’ve spent your whole life being inactive, how you view yourself and how others view you is based on that identity and it’s a huge shift to start to pull at those seams.” Men in particular, he says, have an expectation that they should already be strong. It’s a sentiment echoed by my friend Simon, who says: “There is often a feeling of ‘the other guys are laughing at how little weight I’m lifting.’” For Thompson, it’s often a case of persuading men to “start where you are. Focus on what you can do, make small changes: they have an enormous impact when you do them consistently.”
“You get trainers who say: ‘We all have the same 24 hours a day,’” says Hannah Verdier, who only started exercising in her early 40s and is now a personal trainer in south London. “We haven’t!”
Thompson agrees. “People have families and work and they’re sleep deprived,” he says. “Training is a stress: a positive stress, but a stress. It’s a good reason to start sensibly in terms of how you pitch the intensity.”
Do a little, regularly …
“Nobody is motivated all the time,” says Sarah Scudamore of Mumology Movement. Aim for little and often: “It’s easier to build a habit by doing something for five minutes each day than to spend 45 minutes three or four times a week.”
“There’s no scientific reason we exercise for an hour,” reminds Verdier. Search for something short online, from 20 minutes of absolute beginner’s yoga with Adriene to the Couch to Fitness five-minute “bite-size” sessions.
… but let yourself off
“Lots of Instagram influencers say: ‘You’ll never regret a workout, no excuses.’ I don’t believe that,” says Verdier. Sometimes life will get in the way, and that’s OK. “I don’t want people to think, ‘I’ve got to do this three times every week’ – because you just don’t,” she adds. “If you’re going to be doing it for the next 20 or 30 years, what does it matter?”
Bridge the ‘enjoyment gap’ …
To really exorcise the ghost of school cross-country runs, look for something you find fun. This Girl Can classes are “designed to tackle the enjoyment gap,” says trainer Lisa Brockwell. “We’re looking at people that haven’t exercised, or haven’t exercised for some time – we already know they’re not comfortable, but we’re going to try to make it as fun as we can.” The “bite-size” class format over nine weeks gives participants the chance to try lots of different things – boxing, yoga-based stretching, circuits – in a relaxed, no-pressure, non-judgmental environment. Instructors are trained to be empathic and to adapt to all levels of mobility and fitness, says Brockwell. “That’s really important, that ability to go: ‘It’s fine, just come on in, let’s see how we can make this work for you.’ And if it doesn’t go right, it doesn’t matter!”
… but don’t expect to enjoy every session
People who exercise aren’t some breed apart who actually want to go out for a run in the rain. My friend Robbie, an apparent exercise fiend, surprised me by saying: “One central truth about exercise is that, pretty much universally, no one wants to do it.” Thompson agrees: “I don’t in any way feel motivated to do my run today. Most days I don’t. Don’t think about how you feel beforehand – think about how you’re going to feel afterwards.”
Tap into specialist resources
“The challenge for people who have long-term health conditions, physical disabilities or visual impairments is knowing the right place to start,” says Storey, adding that this is particularly true for older people. “It’s only in recent times that inclusivity has been championed.” She recommends using the Parasport site to find activities in your area. For cycling, Storey says Wheels for All centres are a great place to start. “Support staff will help you at the right pace, and help you find the right equipment as well.”
Do it from home
An upside of the pandemic has been the explosion of online exercise options: Joe Wicks was just the muscular tip of the iceberg. The free online Couch to Fitness site offers a nine-week programme of 30-minute sessions combining cardio, strength and flexibility elements. Amanda Oliver is a convert: “You don’t need much space. There isn’t too much jumping to annoy the downstairs neighbours. It’s on demand, so no travel time (or cost!) or hanging about waiting for a class to start and you haven’t got the barrier of having to be outside in the pouring rain.” The classes also offer three coaches doing three different levels simultaneously, meaning there is always a modified option: “You’re never left staring at the screen thinking, ‘That’s impossible.’”
Measure your progress
“People convince themselves they’re not making any progress, but they’ve got no point of reference,” says Thompson. “Most of my coaching is pointing out what’s already happening to people who are too hard on themselves: a lifetime of it not working makes them think it’s not going to.” Notice and log your progress. That needn’t be running for longer, building muscle or losing weight; it could be having more energy, being more patient with your kids, or improved sleep.
Enlist a friend (or two)
“If there are two of you, you’re more likely to go,” says Brockwell. “And you’ll have a laugh.” Verdier agrees: “I teach a group of women and, on the morning of the class, the excuses will come out – but someone will say, ‘Oh come on, it’s sunny! We’ll have a coffee afterwards!’” Having a mate you don’t want to let down keeps you coming.
Or find your gang
For beginner cyclists, “it’s trying to create that network of friendly faces and people who understand what you’re going through,” says Storey. She is supporting the She Can Ride campaign, for women who want to get into cycling but don’t know where to start, or are intimidated by the kit and busy roads. She Can Ride helps women find local cycling clubs and groups who can provide a supportive environment. Or hit your local cycle shop: “a fountain of all knowledge,” according to Storey. “There might be someone in the shop who’s going out for a ride, or they can direct you to a local path or track.”
Whatever you’re trying, stick some music on. “It transforms your mood,” says Verdier, who swears by “late 90s rave” and Kylie to get people moving. Recovering from a bad bout of Covid and weak as a kitten, I tried out Couch to Fitness’s mini Couch to Bhangra and Afrobics courses: at nine or 10 minutes a session, they’re about my level, and the high-energy beats and easy choreography made my faltering steps back into movement properly fun.
Dance is absorbing and joyful: it can feel less like a workout and more like a good time. The Swing Dance Company offers online or in-person free trials for their Absolute Beginners course, which is suitable for people who have never taken a dance class in their lives. The Royal Academy of Dance Silver Swans classes, online and in person, welcomes older learners who “don’t know their plié from their pointe”.
Hit the park
Our Parks offers a range of exercise classes in London parks, and the justly famous parkrun gets people across the UK and beyond running every Saturday morning: they’re both free. Or use the Move the Masses map to find fitness trails and outdoor equipment near you.
Check out chair-based
The NHS has a seated pilates workout on its website and many local authorities offer chair-based exercise or yoga classes. Joe Wicks also has some chair-based routines on his Body Coach YouTube channel.
Go for a wander
The best, easiest way to start is just to open the front door, go out and walk. “You don’t need special kit, you can do it anywhere, and it’s so good for your mental health,” says Thompson. “Just get outside in the fresh air,” urges Storey. “A 10-minute walk massively changes your health outcomes.”
“Your training is only as effective as your recovery,” says Thompson. “Make sure you’re having rest days where you allow your body to reboot.” Scudamore recommends checking in on your sleep and energy levels before you go all-in on a new exercise routine: “If you already feel absolutely shattered, you’re more likely to give up after a few weeks when burnout hits.”