From school, we’re taught that exercise is something you do alongside others, with team sports like netball, football and rugby taking centre stage. During cross country runs and gymnastics, we were surrounded by other bodies. And as adults, it can be just as hectic during a solo session at the gym.
Some people may thrive when bumping shoulders with others while exercising, but for introverts – who often feel drained in the constant company of others – it’s a slightly different story. And group workouts are unlikely to leave them feeling energised.
That’s not to say they can’t enjoy keeping fit, though. We spoke to people who identify as introverts about their changing relationship with exercise, from initial challenges to discovering a life-long love for it. Here are their stories.
“Cold water swimming is the perfect balance of community and doing something alone.”
Alice-May Purkiss, 31, from London, often opted out of exercise as school because of her introverted tendencies. In her 20s, she experimented with running and Zumba – taking part in the latter “always at the back, in the corner, furthest away from the mirror”.
But she didn’t discover her true passion, swimming, until 2015. She’d had treatment for breast cancer and wanted to find a way to reconnect with her body – in a space where she felt comfortable.
“Cold water swimming has done that for me,” she says, “and it’s the perfect balance of community and doing something alone. I don’t really talk to people when I’m in the water, but I might have a chat in the changing room if I feel like it.”
Now she’s a regular in the water, Alice-May sees the mental, as well as physical, benefits of exercise. “It helps me make sense of the world when it feels like there’s no sense to be found,” she says. “It gives me clarity when everything is cloudy and reminds me what it means to be alive.
“I don’t know if this is a generalisation, but I often think introverts think about things a lot – I certainly do – and so finding space for those thoughts, or stepping away from them, has been a game-changer.”
Alice-May’s tips for introverts:
“Don’t shy away from exercise just because it feels terrifying. Also, accounts like See My Strong on Instagram, run by Poorna Bell, remind me that everyone has hang-ups about exercise but we can all work through them.”
“I run by myself so I can switch off and tune into my body.”
Danielle Pegg Mowbray, 39, from Newcastle upon Tyne, runs alone two or three times a week. “There’s a group of people at work who go running, play football together or go to the gym at lunchtimes, but I just can’t do it,” she explains. “I like to be by myself so I can switch off and tune into my body.
“I don’t intentionally try to be unsociable, but I do find that being around people all day is draining – even if they’re lovely and I have a nice time. I need alone time to recharge my batteries.”
Danielle hated running in school, but gave it another try four and a half years ago when she’d been made redundant and wanted to keep her spirits up. She challenged herself to run a marathon over a month for the British Heart Foundation, in memory of her dad who died in 2013.
“Without the pressure of other people around me, or it being a race or a cross country expedition like at school, I really enjoyed it. And I’ve been running ever since.”
Danielle’s tips for introverts:
“Don’t feel pressured into exercise being a social thing. That’s great for some people, but if you need space to be alone then do it. You don’t have to chat to everyone in a class. You don’t have to be the one at the front. Find your sport and your space and revel in it your own way.”
“I’m more confident after signing up to an online fitness programme.”
Tutu Akinyede, 35, from Kent, thrives in quiet, calm environments, which has discouraged her from joining fitness classes in the past. But in February 2019 she started exercising for the first time in her adult life – initially to lose weight – and hasn’t looked back.
Tutu found her groove by signing up to a programme by online fitness instructor, April Laugh. “I’ve lost 30lbs and I’m still hoping to lose another 20lbs,” she says. “I’m much more confident in my appearance. I’m super energetic and my mental health is at top notch.”
Tutu runs a tutoring school in Kent and is also a mum, so she often struggles to find time for herself. But establishing a fitness routine, which also included running, has helped her redress the balance.
“Exercise helps me get that me-time, it clears my head completely,” she says. “I recently discovered that I don’t think when I run, my head is completely clear.”
Tutu’s tips for introverts:
“Start moving! Run, walk or join a small, quiet gym.”
“Branching out and trying a spin class has left me feeling so much more confident.”
Lucy Farrington-Smith, 27, from Leamington Spa, also likes running alone – having started last year to boost her fitness. “I love not bothering anyone else when I exercise,” she says.
But she marked the new year by attending her first spin class after previously being “terrified” of the idea. She wanted to push herself to try something new – and “what better than a dark room full of strangers sweating to the same beat on a bike?”.
After window shopping the gym for about a month, she booked a class, went on her own, and threw herself in. “I’ve never looked back,” she says. “My legs don’t feel as appreciative yet, though.”
Lucy says branching out and trying spin has left her feeling so much more confident and empowered. “It’s a moment in time that’s my own, and I can rely on it to be there after a rubbish day in the office when all I want to do is angrily pedal to The Prodigy,” she says.
Lucy’s tips for introverts:
“Do your research. I feel safer when I’m equipped with knowledge – even tiny things like if there’s a toilet or where I put my bag. I used YouTube voraciously and followed vlogs of people doing similar things to me, and learned through their experiences – especially how much you’ll need a towel!”
“I prefer to run in the dark when less people are around.”
Tariq Butt, 40, from Bolton, is an inspector with Greater Manchester Police and says when he’s not “catching baddies” he likes to work out – which, for him, means avoiding the gym at peak times.
Staying fit was a requirement for his job when he was an officer, so he had to find a way to enjoy it. He started running with music through his headphones – both for motivation and to stop any unwanted conversations – and discovered running has its perks.
“Being an introvert has driven me off the road, as I prefer running up on the hills, where there are less people and more sheep!” he jokes. “If I do run on the streets, I prefer to go in the dark when less people are around – even though I know they aren’t watching me, because I’m certainly not that interesting.”
Tariq says exercise allows him to have thinking time, especially on long distance runs. “It’s when I come up with some of my best ideas,” he says. “It’s also great for my mental health and wellbeing because, being a police officer, there are some things that you can’t un-see. That time while running allows me to process some of the more traumatic experiences.”
Tariq’s tips for introverts:
“Use technology, such as headphones or a music app, and also an app to track your training. Headphones will reduce any interaction and having the tracker app gives you a conversation starter or fall-back if you need one.”