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Confessions of an exercise hater

(I’m dumping this here because I’m not sure where else to put it. It’s too long and too complicated for a Facebook post and part of me hopes (faintly) that it might be useful to someone else.)

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss my gym.

I’m not a gym rat and never have been. In fact, I hate exercise. (Though I suppose I can’t say that anymore, given I’ve been going to the gym pretty much three times a week for the past couple of years.)

Exercise and I first made our acquaintance during school PE (Physical Education). I like to think that if exercise was a person, the dislike was mutual. It involved running pointless laps of the local park, gymnastics on my high school’s antiquated equipment, teeball games where I was too uncoordinated to knock the ball off the tee, and soccer on the uneven hockey field in teams for which I was always picked last.

I had good reason to hate exercise.

But some years ago when The Biggest Loser became a television phenomenon, some of my friends started getting into a Jillian Michaels routine called No More Trouble Zones and I became so curious over what the fuss was about, I asked to borrow it. Another friend suggested we do it together, so for a time, exercise became going to her place one night a week, doing the routine in her lounge room while chatting and making fun of Jillian’s Jillian-isms.

This friend held me accountable so that even if we didn’t meet up, we would do it separately in our own homes—perhaps not on the same night, but at least on one of them.

Jillian Michaels No More Troubel Zones DVD cover

The routine goes for an hour and consists of a cardio warm-up, seven circuits of five exercises each (which you go through twice), and a cool-down. All the circuits involve strength training. The first time I did it, I had trouble sitting down the following day, and I was in so much pain, I wondered why people voluntarily subject themselves to this sort of torture. But subject myself I did—once a week pretty much every week for about three years.

Then I got pregnant again. Unfortunately for me, pregnancy means Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD) (that’s when the hormones in your body that loosen things up for birth go too far). I managed to keep going for part of the first trimester, but then eventually had to stop because I was in too much pain. By the final trimester, during waking hours, I had to wear a band around my hips to keep myself together and I was barely leaving home (or at least restricting my comings and goings to just once a day).

After the birth, however, I tried to get back on that exercise horse—very reluctantly, I might add. I still hated exercise, but I could see the value in doing it—all that stuff about how it’s good for your body, good for your mental health, good for your sleep, good for life expectancy, etc etc blah blah blah. I also missed the strength that doing Jillian had given me—strength that had accumulated slowly over time as I went through the chair squats, scissor kicks and side planks. “Once a week,” I thought. “I can manage once a week. I’ve done it before.”

That worked fine for as long as the little one was little. But soon enough, she became mobile, and being confined to a play pen or a high chair was becoming more frustrating for her. When I let her out, even though I tried to distract her with food for morning tea during my exercise time, more often than not, she would come up to me while I was doing the floor exercises and try and climb on me.

“This is not sustainable,” I thought under five kilos of baby toddler. “I’m going to have to join a gym.” But I’d never joined a gym in my life. I instinctively thought I’d hate them.

After procrastinating for several months, I decided to check out one that another friend (who had since moved out of the area) used to frequent. This friend had given me some coupons ages back that had since expired. The things this gym had going for it were 1. it was women-only (i.e. no stinky guys!) and 2. it had a crèche. It took me another couple of weeks after to deciding to actually make the call, but eventually I booked a visit, was given a tour of the facilities and signed up to be a member on the lowest tier that allowed me one visit per week.

I used that visit to attend a Pilates with props class on a Wednesday morning. The baby and I would drop the preschooler off at preschool, kill time at the park or at the mall, and then head to the gym, where she would go off to crèche and I would go to class. Inevitably I’d be called out to do a nappy change (for a while, the little one’s bowel movements were like clockwork). But at least I was doing some exercise. And it was Pilates—the sort of exercise you do when you’re lying down! (which I had done before for a couple of terms in hall of the local school)—and it was with a teacher I liked.

Time passed. Once a week was working pretty well, but I was also becoming more concerned about my weight, which had ballooned a bit for various boring reasons I won’t go into (but of course, my lack of movement was probably one of the factors). I loved Pilates, but felt like I needed to do a bit more. I had tried other classes at the gym—spin (that was the first class I had tried. Never. Again), weights (I liked that one a bit better), even aerobics to cool 80s music (I liked that one, but the class disappeared due to lack of numbers). I felt a bit constricted by the class timetable and wanted to figure out if I could do something more self-directed that would allow me to come at any time. I decided to spend some money and booked a session with a personal trainer at the gym, who weighed and measured me, and then put together a routine for me to use on the machines (which she had to teach me how to use). I also upped my gym membership to the standard rate, which gave me unlimited access. (What’s amazing is that since then, the rate has never gone up, and that was probably about five years ago.) Then, on the advice of that personal trainer, I aimed to go three times a week.

But self-direction only gets you too far: “I don’t like those machines at the gym,” says Jillian on her DVD, and I eventually got bored with them, even while listening to podcasts. I still hated exercise, but I found I hated it less when certain conditions were met—

  1. Doing it with other people (because I like sharing the pain and because I need an instructor to push me and to encourage me to persevere for that last little hard bit);
  2. Moving in sync to music (which is what we do in weights and, at the time under a certain instructor who I still miss, happened in Pilates too);
  3. Moving in sync with other people (which does have psychological benefits—see Daniel Pink on synchronisation:

    … when we do things collectively, especially in the synchronised in time setting, we literally feel different. So there’s research showing—so I put you—have you row in a single shell, boat, right, and you can measure basically the physics of how much you’re exerting yourself rowing. Then I can put you into a boat with other people. We can measure your individual exertion there and it can be exactly the same, but when we measure your pain levels, you’re feeling less pain when you do it with other people than when you do it on your own … There’s something almost—I hate to use the word ‘magical’, but there’s something powerful about when we synchronise with other people.”).

(Strangely I never developed a liking for Zumba—probably because I am too uncoordinated for it; the instructor says to go left and I go right.)

Women doing Pilates in the park

All this meant doing classes—which also meant arranging my life around doing the classes. So I did weights on Monday morning (or if I missed that one, Tuesday morning), Pilates on Thursday morning and weights again on Saturday morning. If I had to miss certain classes due to other things, I knew exactly when I could make them up. Or I’d do two back to back (not ideal—particularly if you’re going from Pilates to weights, instead of weights to Pilates, but at least you get the time in).

Something else that helped: a friend recommended magnesium tablets for the muscle soreness and they helped me a lot; the morning after classes, I no longer felt like I had been run over by a truck.

Also, after a while of doing this and not seeing much change in my weight and feeling fed up with comments about it, I talked to a GP and she suggested cutting carbs out of one meal a day. So I switched to salads and soups for lunch, and then the needle on the scale finally started moving.

I lost close to 8kg in about a year/18 months. (I wasn’t keeping close track because that wasn’t helpful for my mental health, but I know it was around that.) I also got stronger, adding more weight to my bar every couple of months. Before my gym closed in March this year due to COVID-19, I was managing 22.5kg on the leg track, 12.5-15kg for chest, 12.5kg for triceps and 10kg for biceps. (I know that’s not much compared to what other people can do, but it’s more than the majority of the women in my class.)

I miss my gym. I miss my classes. I miss the regulars I’d see at those classes—awesome women usually older than me who were all in terrific shape. For a short time when we were allowed to gather in groups of 10, the gym organised classes in the park. But now that they can’t do even that, they’ve switched to online instruction via Zoom on a timetable that doesn’t work for me.

Since social distancing began, I’ve tried to keep up the hated exercise. I’ve been going for walks—with the family and without them. I’ve mapped a route around my neighbourhood that takes up almost exactly half an hour.

But I knew it’s not quite enough. I knew I wasn’t working some of those muscles I became accustomed to using during weights and Pilates. I hated the fact that the strength I’d built up for the past however many years was fast disappearing—even if, a friend consoled me, I’d be able to build it back up again.

I knew I had to do something.

But it’s tricky. We (four us) live in a shoebox. The space I have to exercise in is less than 2m x 1m (see the photo at the top of this post). I could go down to the park, but I feel weird exercising in front of other people when it’s just me, doing it alone. Given the shape of life at the moment, it’s difficult to do exercise with other people, even if I could tee it up. Also, there’s my continual battle with motivation: I may love my gym, but I still hate exercise.

Street art in my local neighbourhood

“Necessity is the mother of invention”, as they say. I remembered vaguely that there had been a NPR Life Kit episode on exercise that I had listened to sometime last year (transcript). It had detailed a 22-minute exercise program recommended by the man who trains US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It consists of:

  • 10 minutes of cardio (broken up into two five-minute segments);
  • 8 minutes of strength training;
  • 4 minutes of stretching.

(It’s 22 minutes long because the recommended amount of exercise for adults is 150 minutes per week, so 150 minutes divided by 7 days = about 22 minutes.)

My problem with that and similar workouts (like this seven-minute one on the Science Versus podcast, and even this NPR Life Kit episode on how to start running) is boredom: I knew I would probably do the routine once—maybe even twice—but then lose motivation and never do it again.

So I decided to hack it.

Given my above conditions for exercise and given that 1 (doing it with other people) and 3 (moving in sync with other people) weren’t going to be possible, that just left 2: moving in sync with music. So I decided to choose music that I’d actually want to move to for each section of the workout and try to tailor the routine to that. So I started making lists—lists of songs that would work well for cardio (i.e. high tempo), for strength training (i.e. slightly lower tempo) and for stretching (slow songs worked best for this).

Then I went through Jillian Michael’s No More Trouble Zones routine, wrote down all the exercises for each circuit and picked out ones that would work for each section of the 22-minute workout that could also be done in a small space.

It took a few goes to get the mix right, but I think I’ve done it now. So here goes: I present to you The Exercise Hater’s Home Workout Routine that Can Be Done in a Very Small Space.

You do all the exercises in time to the music with the general rule being that when the music changes, you change what you’re doing. It’s a bit longer than 22 minutes (it’s 28), but that’s also because the strength exercises go for about 11.5 minutes and the stretching time is doubled.

Here’s how it works:

1. Warm-up/cardio 1: “Kill vs. maim” (Grimes)

Exercises (cycle between them):

  • Marching in place
  • Jump rope
  • Star jumps/jumping jacks
  • Running on the spot (but try to kick your butt with your heels).

2. Strength training 1: “Graffiti” (CHVRCHES)


  • Slow standard squats (do this during the verse and the first part of the chorus; try and get your bottom to the floor each time)
  • Low squats with isometric hold or pulses (do this during the pre-chorus—when Lauren Mayberry sings, “Time to kill was always an illusion …”—and also during the final bit of the chorus where she sings, “And now we never will, never will”.)
  • Forward lunges (start these at the bridge; try and get your knee to the floor)
  • Backward lunges (ditto).

3. Strength training 2: “All you need to know” (Gryffin and Slander)

(This is one they used to play at the gym during weights class—possibly for the tricep section.)

(This is the hardest track.)


  • Wide arm push-ups (which work your chest; start on your toes and switch to your knees when you can’t stand it anymore)
  • Pilates push-ups (which work your triceps because your arms are closer to your body; start on your toes and switch to your knees as above).

Do wide arm push-ups for the first and second verse, then bring your hands to your feet using Downward Dog and roll up through your spine. Roll down again and walk your hands out again to do the Pilates push-ups for the chorus (where he sings, “I’ll lift you when you’re feeling low …”).

  • Recovery: child’s pose during the instrumental part of the chorus (“And that’s all you need to know”)
  • Third verse: lie on your front with your hands by your sides, pointing towards your toes. Rotate your arms from your shoulder joint so that your palms face the ceiling. Rotate them back again so they face the floor. If you’re doing it properly, you’ll feel it in your triceps and you will want to die.
  • Last chorus: do the above, but hold your upper body and your legs off the floor as if doing Superman.

Cardio 2: “Gimme sympathy” (Metric)

The exercises are the same as for the first cardio track as it’s a little hard to do more than that in such a small space. (But feel free to substitute your own.)


Strength training 3: “Unstoppable” (TobyMac—Phenomenon Remix By Soul Glow Activatur/Audio)

(This is another track from weights class, but I forget what we used to do to it. I have a vague memory of doing push-ups to the opening bars.)

  • Slow double crunches (during verses and pre-chorus)
  • Bicycle crunches (during the chorus—“We are, we are”—and the rap section)
  • Recovery: child’s pose during the rap section (“We keep it movin’”).
  • Plank pose with toe taps (during the third chorus)
  • Plank pose with leg lifts (during the bridge: “There’s no disguisin’, truth is risin’”)
  • Plank pose with toe taps (final chorus to the end).

Stretching: “Like a star” (Corinne Bailey Rae) and “Finish what we started” (Jessie Ware)

“CONGRATULATIONS! You made it! It’s all easy peasy from here,” as Jillian Michaels used to say.

This is how I like to stretch:

  • Pigeon pose (both legs)
  • Froggy (but often I don’t have enough space)
  • Hamstrings while lying on my back
  • Glutes (opposite leg over opposite knee and pull through)
  • Child’s pose
  • Calf stretch
  • Shoulder stretch (can be done while also stretching calves)
  • Side bends
  • Tricep stretch
  • Shoulder rolls (forward and backwards).

I also like to hold the stretches for a LONG time—mostly because one of my instructors said that 30 seconds is the recommended length because after that long, your body settles into it.

For anyone who wants to try it out, I put the playlist up on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music.

I’ve made it my aim to do it about every other day and go for a walk on the alternate days. It can be hard summoning up the motivation to do it, and certainly I have no shortage of procrastination on the days when I feel I should make myself do it. But I haven’t got bored with the routine yet. (And if I do, I figure I’ll just change the music around.)

In case, you’re wondering, it does work: I’ve got the muscle soreness to prove it. It’s not as good as my old weights and Pilates classes. However it will do for now. And hopefully one day when I am able to return to my beloved gym, I won’t end up in a ridiculous amount of pain after that first return visit simply because I haven’t been doing anything—which, you know, is really the purpose of all this.

(Yes, my goal is not to keep fit or lose weight or build my strength; it’s to avoid pain when I return to the gym!)

(Did I mention I hate exercse?)