Fitness fanatic, agnostic or avoidant? We all have our approaches to exercise – and when we’re in our twenties, they can be life-defining. I was an avoidant, luxuriating in my sofa-bound Saturdays, parading my lack of gym membership, and mocking my marathon-running friends even as I was forced to pause for breath halfway up the stairs to my third floor flat.
Then I moved to another country, a place where the sun shone for 11 months of the year, and around the same time, my metabolism began to slow down – as it often does in your early thirties. In this outdoor culture, where it was bafflingly normal to socialise in swimwear, I embraced the water: lap pools, ocean pools and the open sea. I ditched my tights and walked bare-legged for miles around this city. Exercise crept up on me by stealth, 10,000 miles away from home.
Back in the UK, I now swim outdoors from March to October and use the gym at my lido in the months between (though staring wistfully at the chilly waters). I still can’t brave a spinning class or run a half. But my weekends are made for walking and I’ve finally found my exercise mojo. It calms my mind, it aids my sluggish metabolism, but most of all – *whispers* – I actually enjoy it.
Asking around, even fitness fans tell me their motivations shift as they hit a new decade. “When I was younger it was about losing weight and trying to look a certain way – have a flat stomach or whatever,” says Danielle Mowbray, 39, a content manager from Newcastle. “Now it’s about how it makes me feel inside.”
Our approach to exercise does change as we get older, and not always in a good way, says Stuart Roberts, author of Get Strong, Get Fit, Get Happy: A Life Manual For 40+. “A lot of people expect to get old in the traditional way, which includes restrictions on exercise and movement, aches and pains, and a decline in health, wellbeing and fitness.” But does it have to play out like this?
“Absolutely not,” says Roberts. “You just have to exercise in a smart way.” This might mean super slow resistance training, he says, which only has to be done once a week, or it could be yoga – which improves muscular skeletal strength and balance, increases flexibility, de-stresses and enhances cognitive functions.
“The more you exercise, the better you’ll feel and the more likely you are to want to do that class, go for that jog or swim again soon,” he says. “It’s all about finding what you enjoy and being open to trying different things.”
With this in mind, we asked HuffPost readers of all ages to share their stories.
‘I feel powerful’
“I definitely exercise for different reasons than I did five years ago, let alone 10,” says Poorna Bell, 39, author, journalist and founder of the fitness diversity platform, See My Strong. “Previously it was with weight loss or maintenance in mind, or some invisible system of burning off what I’d eaten. The older I’ve got, the more I’ve shifted towards what my body’s capability is, and that will always, always triumph over how small it is.”
Bell’s aim is strength – and working consistently towards that goal, year on year. Whenever she achieves a new target, it means more than fitting into a dress or receiving a compliment on her weight, she says. Seeing a greater diversity of body shape and ability in the fitness arena helps, she says, as does the higher of women’s sport – “although we still have a long way to go”.
“There is definitely a sense of ‘fuck it’, the older you get,” she says. “You also realise that living according to other people’s expectations or what they’ve been conditioned to think of as attractive or commendable is just... nonsense.
“I spent so many hours doing [exercise] for the wrong reasons. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy some of it but it doesn’t compare to how I feel now, where there is perfect equilibrium between my mental and physical halves. I feel powerful.”
‘It’s a means to stay alive’
“I think about exercise now as a means to stay alive,” says Ami Amin, 36, a lawyer from north London. “Still don’t really do it, though,” she jokes, before admitting she went on a long bike ride with her friends only last weekend – proof that exercise doesn’t need to mean gym, weights or cardio.
Binita Walia, 48, an arts consultant from Brockley, says her focus is on staying supple and avoiding any issues associated with older age. “I started doing Rosemary Connelly, and now the seven minute workout every morning, then a dog walk for 45 mins. I don’t want to be creaky and unable to bend at 70!”
She doesn’t find formal exercise that pleasurable, but says walking the dog is “very, very enjoyable”, great for making new local friends and helps with the early stages of menopause. “I listen to podcasts while walking at a good pace around the cemetery. All very positive, especially as I work from home.”
“I only ever swam, because I love it, and never with any discipline,” says Aliki Chapple, 48, a theatre-maker from Lancaster (by way of Greece and the US), who thought of herself as generally active and fit in her thirties. But in her forties, working from home, she started finding errands more and more tiring.
“The day I had to lean on my teenager to walk up a hill I decided to break the aversion of a lifetime and joined a gym,” says Chapple. “I go two to five times a week, not because I enjoy it, or for vanity, but because I want to be walking up hills unaided still 20, 30 years from now.”
‘I’m more aware of my body’
For Eleanor Turney, 33, new motherhood marked a change in perspective. “Having a baby meant a) I was much more aware of my body and what it was doing/not doing, and b) want to be around for a good long while,” says Turney, a writer and producer who moved to Lancaster from Bath two years ago.
“I definitely didn’t exercise for the first year – despite wanting to, desperately. But I had a baby who didn’t sleep, which kind of ruins everything!” However, now that her son is 15 months, Turney has rejoined the badminton team she stopped playing for when her morning sickness first hit – and also runs.
‘To my surprise I love it!’
For some people, early brushes with sport at school can have a lasting impact. “It took me a long while to get over my rep for being bad at sport at school and realise I wasn’t physically inept after all,” says Elspeth Bleakley, 38, a maths teacher from Edinburgh, who identifies university as the major turning point.
“I first joined the mountaineering club, have cycled daily since student days and, post-kids, took up orienteering and then running. To my surprise I love it!” She’s noticed a shift. “It seems to be different in the schools I’ve worked in, much more choice and variation,” she says. “I hope it’s different anyway!”
Genevieve Roberts, 41, a Brighton-based writer, experienced something similar – and believes it pushed her towards the things she loves. “Sport was something we did at school, it was competitive, and I was brainy not sporty,” says Roberts of her teenage years. “By my twenties, I realised how amazing I felt after a swim. In my thirties, yoga helped me with grief when my dad died.”
These pursuits are no coincidence, she says. “The sports I choose, from surfing to swimming to yoga, are all things that can be enjoyed at any level. The best thing school sports gave me was an utter belief that I am rubbish at sport, which has given me the freedom to simply enjoy it rather than try to be good at it.”
‘I want to be an energetic granny’
Susan Wakeford, 64, who lives in Gloucestershire, and survived cancer a few years ago, believes in the right exercise for the right life stage. “I do something called Paracise,” says Wakeford, fitter at 64 than she felt at half that age. “In my early thirties, I went to the gym and did Jazzercise, a combination of dance and aerobics. It was a break from work and the children and when I was doing it, I couldn’t think of anything else. I stopped when we moved out of London and because of being so ill didn’t do much for ages.”
A year and half ago, she took up pilates and Paracise – a low impact, low intensity exercise programme, with no floor work, designed for over-50s.
“I want to be an energetic granny,” says Wakeford, who is a mother of three and now grandmother, too. “I now do three classes a week, as I have added aerobics or circuits. I feel physically and mentally great and am much fitter than a few years ago. I thought I was fine then but there has been a huge difference. Today as an example I have done over 14,000 steps, including a 45 minute Paracise class and my Fitbit tells me I have climbed the equivalent of 30 flights of stairs. That is a normal day for me now.”
‘It’s almost spiritual’
Pippa Best, 47, from Penzance, runs Sea Soul Blessings, which encourages mindfulness and connection to nature, and swims daily for the sheer joy of it.
“In my twenties, my only exercise was raving through the night,” she laughs. “That did my knees in – and after becoming a mum in my mid thirties it was all about the pelvic floor, yoga, plus comedy Zumba with friends.
“Then in my forties, I discovered cold water swimming, which soothes the dodgy knees, arthritis and peri-menopausal bonkersness but has also become an almost spiritual practice – so it’s full circle back to those rave days.”