On Friday nights, if I’ve managed to avoid making social plans, I head to a tiny-yet-cosy yoga studio on Shacklewell Lane in Hackney for a “flow and restore” class. You might think I’d feel smug for avoiding the Saturday-morning hangover by burning calories on a Friday night, but that’s not really the point. Bolstered by supportive props and woolly blankets and nervous system-calming poses, this is, more than anything else, a space in which to underachieve.
I’m partial to this yoga studio because it was the place where I learnt that movement could be nourishment, rather than punishment. And, after a seven-year-long competitive-running career spanning high school and university, where vomiting after a workout would be viewed as some kind of perverse achievement – rather than, say, a signal to back the hell off – this was a lesson I needed to learn.
Despite our culture’s fervour for bone broth and courgetti, we are slowly becoming more aware of our relationship to, and vocabulary around, food. Even the inventors of “clean eating” are souring on the phrase due to the accompanying suggestion that other foods are “dirty” by comparison. But less discussed is the fact that the moralistic attitude we have for food often extends to exercise, too.
While working out is undoubtedly good for us in our increasingly sedentary lives – and, by most accounts, much of the Western world’s population needs to do more of it – we seem to not question if an excessive devotion to it might mask some issues. Instead, the intensity of our exercise, much like the cleanliness of our diets, is used as a measure of our efficacy as a human. We envy and applaud the self-discipline of the friend who gets up at 6am every day to hit the gym before a full day at a high-pressured job – rather than asking them if they’re getting enough rest.
Recently, the author Ruby Tandoh – whose cookbook, Flavour: Eat What You Love, espouses the lovely idea that you should only prepare for yourself what you’d serve to your loved ones – posted on Instagram that she was running the London Marathon to raise funds for the eating disorder charity b-eat. She said she chose the cause because she “used to use running as an extension of [her] eating disorder, but now it's a positive liberating thing”.
The suggestion, in our society, that you can eat a doughnut because it brings you pleasure is still a subversive one
I can relate. In my days of competitive running, a disordered relationship to food seemed the norm, rather than the exception. Calories were counted, despite the fact myself and my teammates were running the kind of weekly mileage that meant we should be eating bagels and pasta as a daily staple, rather than as a well-deserved “treat”.
The tendency to rid ourselves of guilt by promising to exercise after eating “bad” food is reflected throughout our society. After capitalism relentlessly encourages us to indulge all December, we are promptly exhorted to hit the gym religiously to atone for our sins afterwards. We can only publicly tuck into a burger or plate of pasta with the insistence that we’re going to work out in the morning. The suggestion, in our society, that you can eat a doughnut because it brings you pleasure is still a subversive one.
And it’s similar with exercise. We drag ourselves to the gym because we must, not because regular and dynamic movement is a fundamental – and not to mention joyful – part of being a human being. There’s status involved, too. No one brags about walking an hour to and from work every day, even though it may burn the same number of calories as a 45-minute sweat-drenched cardio session. A few years ago, when interviewing an exercise bio-mechanist for an article, she informed me that cramming in a pre-dawn hour of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) exercise, followed by sitting at a desk for 10 hours, was pointless. You’re better off taking all your phonecalls and meetings throughout the day while going for a walk, she told me. But of course, we can’t Instagram that.
Indeed, in our over-achieving society, the expectations around exercise have become incredibly high. Somehow, we’re supposed to be creatively fulfilled, politically engaged, financially responsible, cook like a wellness blogger and work out like an Olympian all at once. I may never be able to run 400 metres at the speed I could when I was working out two hours every damn day – but that’s because I have a life and a job now.
Despite all this, I still love exercise. For years, running has served as the great reset button on my life. It is the most reliably cleansing, energising and ameliorative activity I know – it’s also free, possible to do almost anywhere and doesn’t necessarily require shoes. But I think it’s time to expand Tandoh’s idea that food should be nourishing and enjoyable, rather than regimented and moralised to exercise, too. I’ve certainly started.
In fact, I, too, got into the London Marathon lottery entry this year, something that, a few years ago, I would have not been able to turn down. But, after spending much of 2016 unable to run due to a body that was, after years of intensity, physically rejecting the idea altogether, I’ve decided to defer my entry until next year. The reason? I’m enjoying running gentle 5Ks too much, so I think I’ll stick with that for a while.