As I arrive down the stairs into a Shoreditch basement gym I adjust my sports bra. Why do they always feel like they’re suffocating you?
I am here to lift weights for the first time. Yep, that’s right. At the ripe old age of 30, I have decided to get into weight lifting. This is not for Instagram, though I do wonder whether an undocumented work out ever really happened at all. This is all because I feel like my body and mind have started to separate like oil and water. I want to feel connected to it again, I want to see what it can do – to lift heavy things, move quickly, squat and shudder maybe even try a burpee.
Outside it’s a warm early May day, below ground techno is pounding, set against the soundscape of a whirring rowing machine and the deep grunts of an older man using a weight machine that I can only describe as looking like a medieval rack. It’s fair to say that I’m intimidated.
But then Maiken, a tall, lithe woman my own age wearing a bright pink tracksuit paired with pink velvet Nike TNs came over. We had emailed, but this was the first time we had met and I did a double take. She was my new trainer, but she did not look one bit how I expected a weight trainer to look.
After turning 30, I had become acutely aware that, for a long time, my relationship with exercise had been a punitive one. I did it when I wanted to lose weight, it wasn’t healthy, and I didn’t want to flog myself on a treadmill or cross-trainer for the wrong reasons ever, ever again.
For that reason, gym classes have always been difficult for me. I find crowded spaces overwhelming, I’m wary of competing against other people as well as my own demons and, whenever, there’s a paired exercise I always seem to end up with someone wearing make-up, a matching sports bra and leggings when I can barely find two of the same socks. I recently walked out of a spin class because being shouted at and told to go faster by a muscular man on a tiny bicycle in the name of wellness is pretty much my idea of the seventh circle of hell.
But, like so many people, I have spent a lot of time wonder about and looking into the relationship between exercise and mental health. I know that I am calmer, happier and more focused when I am working out.
I no longer wanted to go to classes that made me feel rubbish or fixate on fat loss, I wanted to find a way of exercising that would truly test me and make me feel powerful in my own skin. Inspired by other women, like Poorna Bell who has documented her own journey with weights, I wanted to do more with my body.
Maiken didn’t waste any time. I blinked, and she had somehow already set up the deadlift bar. She did a demonstration. Watching the way she moved through the air, gliding, I hoisted my leggings up and tucked my T-shirt in.
I stood in front of the metal bar and stared at it. I looked in every direction and saw my reflection lit by blue fluorescent lights in gleaming mirrors.
They must be so hard to keep clean I thought to myself. No, don’t get distracted.
“I can’t lift this,” I said to Maiken.
“Yes, you can,” she said in a tone that was at firm, reassuring and encouraging in equal measure but made it totally clear that we weren’t going anywhere until I did it.
“Stick your bum out!”
I looked at her. She looked right back at me. I bent down, gripped the bar and decided to do it. At first, I struggled to get the thing off the ground. It was like I was buffering. And then, out of nowhere, I had done 10 reps.
9 months have now passed, I can deadlift and hip thrust more than my own body, we’re getting progressively heavier and heavier. It’s hard to express the sense of accomplishment that I feel every time Maiken says we can add more weight.
I haven’t checked any scales for a while and I want it to stay that way, but I have watched my body change and I’ve never felt more comfortable in it. It feels more responsive like it has reconnected with my mind in a way that, perhaps, it hadn’t since I was a kid.
Finally, I feel like I have a centre that will hold no matter what my emotional life throws at me and perhaps that’s what has been most transformative. I told Maiken this at the end of our final session before Christmas. She smiled knowingly and said ‘with weight training you’re not only building up your strength. It’s great for avoiding injury because you build up strength around your joints which is important as you get older’. This, I think, has to be an added bonus and makes me think that the money I’m spending on training now is an investment in my future health.
Now, when I walk into the gym I feel like I belong there. I wish I’d known sooner that this was a space I could hold. Why did I think I had to focus on burning calories to shrink myself? Why did I lazily believe absorb the myth that ‘women can’t do weights because they will bulk up?’. Maiken said this is really common. ‘I think a lot of women are scared to do weights for this reason, but people need to understand that it actually takes a lot of work, diet adjustment and usually supplements if that’s what you want to achieve. It’s just a story to put women off or make them feel like weights aren’t for them.’
Another positive benefit has been the effect weight training has had on my mental health. You can’t really take a before and after #fitspo pic of this one. It turns out that weight training can help relieve depression. A study conducted in 2018 and published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that weightlifting and strength training is associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. More research is needed and while lifting weights won’t be a tonic or a magic cure for everyone, researchers think it could certainly help some people.
In 2019 I want to get even stronger and push myself to overcome the limits I impose on myself. I’m definitely not ready to take on powerlifting as Poorna has, but I will continue to work on having a healthy relationship with my body and how I use it. I no longer look at the bar and think ‘I can’t lift that’, I approach everything at the gym in the hope that I can lift it. And, when I can’t, I keep trying until I succeed. Cliched as it is, that’s a pretty useful metaphor for the rest of my life.
We live in an age of instant gratification and immediate results. Lifting weights has reminded me that some things take time, dedication and work. Sometimes, frustrating as it is, you just need to do the same thing over and over again until you’re good at it. And, once you’re good, you can work hard to be even better.
As I left my final session of the year with Maiken I thought about Naomi Wolfe’s book The Beauty Myth. In it, she wrote ‘a culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience’. For so long, I was focusing on making myself smaller that I had no idea how strong I could actually be