Under the terms of the lockdown, we are allowed outside once a day to exercise. This recommendation seems to have been interpreted as an injunction: overnight, we became a nation of joggers.
Having spent a fortnight limiting my movements to journeys between the isolator’s triumvirate of sofa, kitchen and bed, I decided that I, too, needed to include some exercise in my daily routine. But as someone who has rarely formally exercised – I play football, but for its social rather than aerobic benefits – I wasn’t sure where to begin.
Overnight, we became a nation of joggers.
I’d read in the news about Joe Wicks. His YouTube series, ‘P.E. with Joe’ has made him a gym teacher to the world. My only encounters with him in the past were seeing his face on his Lean in 15 books at bookshops, the glare from his pearly whites signalling to me that I’d inadvertently wandered into the wrong section.
Wicks is hard to square with my experience of PE teachers at school. They were track-suited, authoritarian meatheads, whose worldliness extended only as far as the sophisticated torture regimes they devised for their students.
Joe Wicks wants to make PE fun. I thought the fact that his videos are aimed at children might pitch them – physically – at the right level for me. In the lesson that I watched, he was dressed as Spiderman. This alone I could have coped with. But add this to being told to squat by a man pretending to spin webs out of his hands while shouting out to Olly and Lily ages six and eight, from Surrey, who are dressed as a dinosaur and a Brussels sprout, and I couldn’t carry on. “Hi Joe, Percy here, 25 years old, Burgess Park, in my pants.”
I’d never thought this possible, but Wicks’ video left me nostalgic for the torture artists of my schooldays. Exercise, it turns out, should not be fun.
I understand the benefits of exercise in terms of pain. The developers of the Nike Training app, a company whose ‘just do it’ ethos suggests more than a passing interest in what motivates us, don’t disguise their agenda. The app’s workouts have names like ‘Medball Madness’ ‘Ab Burner 2.0 (curiously no sign of Ab Burner 1.0)’ ‘Engine Fire’ ‘Ferocious 15’ and ‘Circuit Animal’. No fun on offer here.
I decided to begin with ‘Quick Core Crush’, which despite its name, is a ‘beginner’ workout. Only ten minutes long, it at least condenses suffering into bite-size chunks of time.
It turns out my suffering was to be considerably briefer. 15 seconds in to my first ‘plank’ and I gave up, in agony. It turns out that can’t train your core if you don’t have one.
But persistence pays off. While the happy medium between Wicks’ sunny enthusiasm and Nike’s rather more earnest masochism still eludes me, I at least feel that I now have something to aim for. Today, more than ever, we are numbers, measured by the counting of infections and fatalities. These are overwhelming and scary. The genius of exercise is that it offers a way to quantify activity in ways that we can control. And while in normal times that fixation on measuring performance seemed oppressive to me, it now feels like something to hold onto. And in chaotic times, it may just be the reassurance we need.