Fit in my 40s: I can go back to the gym now – but do I really want to?

It’s funny how, when there’s a huge array of things you’re not allowed to do, you simply forget about them. I haven’t missed the gym day-to-day: unlike the guys in the park, who were lugging around their own weights and trying to do pull-ups on branches, I’ve never had a fixed gym routine. What I’ve missed most is the country club-style experience, where there’s a creche and a tennis court and a bar where fancy mums come for the smoothies and stay for the prosecco. But then I only ever went to a gym like that once in my life.

What’s the regular gym like now? That’s the question. Well, that’s part of the question: what’s the atmosphere, is everyone masked, do you feel as if you’re dicing with death? The more important part is, was this ever a real, worthwhile pursuit – gathering more and more equipment into one place so we could worship at it? Or was it just a peculiar consumer evolution which, once we’d had the jolt of exercising outdoors, would seem very last century?

On the first question, it must depend on where you go and at what time. So many people on social media and IRL have complained about maskless scofflaws and the impossibility of social distancing, but in my nearest local authority gym – three visits, all in office hours (but who goes to the office anyway?) – it felt like a secret society only I and three other people knew about. People wore masks going from place to place, but took them off while on machines, which seemed fair enough. It was a bit hallowed and whispery, more like a disused church of historical interest than a gym, and I missed those bursts of random noise you get when a bunch of endorphined people troop out of a class.

The bad news for the industry is that the weights machines seem obsolete now. If there’s one thing we all realised in lockdown, it’s how much pain we can inflict on ourselves just with our own bodyweight; sure, deadlifts are cool, but have you ever tried a push-up? And so on.

I can’t think of any muscle group you can’t stretch with callisthenics (using gravity and your own weight) and resistance bands. Some weights machines – the one you straddle as if you’re horse riding, for instance – feel almost assertively pointless.

Yet there’s good news (also for the industry): although it is quite fashionable to find cross trainers and running machines absurd when there are perfectly good pavements and stairs you can use, this led me to forget how much fun they are. The absence of any real friction makes you feel as if you’re flying. The ease of measuring distance and speed has a powerful motivational effect. On the street, I was always wondering what was the least I could get away with. On a running machine, I’m thinking, why not 10km/h? What would be the harm in trying, just for 30 seconds? The lack of other people nearby means you can lose yourself without becoming one of those jogging jerks. Even if this is all that remains of my gym culture, it’s more durable than I thought.

What I learned A study, published in December, showed low Covid infection rates in gyms when extra hygiene and distancing is in place.

Under cover: indoor equipment you might have missed
Climbing wall Serious climbers had a hellish lockdown; for much of it, they weren’t even allowed to travel to naturally occurring boulders and cliff faces, let alone use a climbing wall. Now, perhaps because they are so grateful, they’re all incredibly compliant: even though in many centres you needn’t wear a mask on the wall, people do. So take a breathable, comfortable mask with you.

Pilates reformer bench If you’re into pilates, you should never go near a reformer bench: once tried, nothing else will do. It’s intense, you can feel it working, and the weird acrobatics you can do with bench-and-spring support are highly motivating. If you’ve been doing mat-based workouts throughout the past year, you might find the switch to reformer quite painful.

Trampolines It may sound a little niche, but in terms of effort-for-energy-spent, trampolining is as good as running and much more pleasurable. If you’re sick of your Couch to 5k, and are halfway back to couch, this is a wonderful way to restore your cardio fitness.