Spare me your eternal happiness. I just want to sweat and go home.
It’s almost impossible these days to find an exercise class that doesn’t try and teach you something about yourself or gift you some kind of eye-opening, life-changing, mountain-top-gazing moment.
Believe me, I have tried to find them. I have always needed a group exercise class to stay fit because I find treadmill running and rowing machines equally torturous, and I need an instructor in front of me to make sure I don’t walk out when boredom strikes.
I’m an old-fashioned exerciser, too. I throw on T-shirts and shorts, and head out the door with zips half done up. I have sports bras that are 10 years old and sports socks that definitely do not match. Working out is something I don’t especially enjoy, so I don’t think about it too much. I turn up, do the darned work and leave.
But in the past five or 10 years, group fitness classes have started to demand more of me, that I wear insanely priced leggings, for example, or that I set clearly defined goals. Suddenly fitness is something that consumes people, rather than forming a small part of their day, and we’re all supposed to love it. Much has been written about the intersection of fitness and wellness. Spiritual or wellness components have been tacked on to many exercise classes in recent years, with programs featuring the self-help slogans of startup culture: you’ve got this, push through the pain, don’t listen to your excuses. A recent feature in Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine included an account of Taryn Toomey’s popular workout The Class, which is part cardio, part power yoga. It culminates in a group primal scream, or what Toomey calls putting things that aren’t working for you “on the fire”. It’s not that I haven’t tried putting my metaphorical baggage on a fire. I did yoga for years and received many benefits from it, including increased flexibility. But my yoga studio was one of those inner-city hangouts with a $25-per-class drop-in rate, and the vibe of the place started to grate. I was also put off by the way people hugged each other tightly after class, like a tragedy had befallen them. Then there was all that vague, quasi-spiritual talk of “intentions” and “listening to your body” and “playfulness”. Every subsequent fitness path I ventured down led me back to the distinctly un-sexy, council-run classes still peddling the routines of 15 years ago. I have stuck with these unglamorous step and aerobics classes as the SoulCycles, the CrossFits and the Tough Mudder challenges have attempted to lure me into the fitness present with promises of Olympic-standard health and wellbeing.”
It hasn’t been hard to resist because, the truth is, I’m a sucker for the ungainly group fitness classes of the 90s and early 00s, the exercise programs you either bought on VHS or performed with a bunch of other half-interested men and women at your local community hall to the melodic pop of Paula Abdul. In the daggy fitness world I inhabit, there are no Fitbits and very little philosophy. No one talks about their love of the workout like they are drugged acolytes nor do they worship the instructor. No one has a #fitspiration Instagram account, either, to record their progress from #newmum back to #hotmum. The yoga industry is booming – but does it make you a better person? Read more And many of us don’t really want to be there, but we realise if we’re going to lose 5kg, or ward off heart disease, or keep our blood pressure down then we had better get off our backsides. The fact our workouts aren’t always enjoyable is not the fault of the class or instructor, but rather a testimony to its effectiveness. I know the exercises will be hard and I naturally don’t look forward to hard, but I do feel great afterwards – a mixture of endorphins, no doubt, and exhausted relief. But best of all there are no promises of eternal happiness, that my soul will be scrubbed clean from sweating. No instructor patronises me with encouragements to be my best self, to get out of my own way, to embrace change. And for those 55 minutes, three times a week, I am not focused on myself, or my personal growth, but completely in my body, in the moment and out of my own head. Which, come to think of it, sounds alarmingly like a workout philosophy to me.