‘Lockdown taught me I wasn’t ‘too cool’ to exercise, and I’m not ashamed to admit it’

‘Lockdown taught me I wasn’t ‘too cool’ to exercise, and I’m not ashamed to admit it’

Self-confessed anti-exerciser Grace O’Neill shares how she discovered the joy of working out, and how a Youtube channel shone a light on her internalised misogyny and fear of failure.  

When the COVID-19 lockdown started I made a mental list of promises to myself: I won’t learn to bake, I won’t learn French, I won’t become a yoga person.

It seemed like weeks in isolation would serve as the perfect opportunity to build up a list of unrealistic goals, only to inevitably not meet them, and then inevitably beat myself up for being lazy, uncultured and unfit. A few years of introspection (and therapy!) have taught me that expectations are everything, and I actively decided not to set myself up for failure. I would enjoy an opportunity to sleep in a little later, be a little less career obsessed and would watch lots of RuPaul’s Drag Race, without feeling guilty for it.

My relationship with exercise has always been… strained. As a bookish kid with asthma I never excelled at physical activities (When I was 11 and joined a local basketball team, an overzealous mother once ran down the court screaming ‘Don’t pass to Grace!’). Because I am naturally slim, I’ve managed to fend off any external pressure to work out or join a sports team – part of the myth that weight and health are necessary correlated – and so I have avoided exercise like the plague for the better part of three decades.

When I began working in fashion magazines, I soon became hyper-aware of how the ‘health as wealth’ ethos is seen as essential to a chic, glamorous lifestyle. The perception of being a person who works out regularly – be it boutique reformer Pilates classes, spin classes at Barry’s Bootcamp or group workouts at Sydney’s Shelter Double Bay – was as important as having the right pair of shoes or the right reservation at the right restaurant. In the era of Instagram, performative wellness is the cornerstone of an aspirational lifestyle.

It felt like some small act of rebellion to not take part in the charade. I had convinced myself there was something cool and Mick Jagger-esque about eschewing the world of 5AM F45 sessions and Body Pump classes in the lunch hour (the latter I tried only once, and couldn’t walk for three days). I was working in an industry that was so image-conscious that, for me, exercise became inextricably linked with a quest to look different – and I didn’t want to to bullied into looking different. I became convinced that joining a gym would be like handing over a part of my identity – I’m not the kind of person who exercises, I would tell myself, I don’t think having abs is an achievement.

A change of perspective

In quarantine, the shortsightedness of this thinking has been laid out bare. The pandemic has forced us all to collectively realise what a privilege it is to be healthy. Being forced into idleness has made me appreciate what a joy it is to move my body – and being stuck inside with my thoughts for company, I’ve learned how essential it is to try and switch your brain off for a few short stints each day. By focusing solely on the aesthetic purpose of exercise, I missed the point entirely – having a functioning body is a miracle! Looking after it is the greatest gift you can give yourself.

So, surprise surprise, I got into bloody yoga.

I dabbled with a couple of paid programs, and then, in a COVID cliché so profound you could drizzle it with honey and call it banana bread, I fell in love with Yoga With Adriene. Actress-turned-yoga instructor Adriene Mishler started her Youtube channel in 2013, slowly amassing a millions-strong following that has skyrocketed once again during quarantine (nothing shows you’re the face of pandemic fitness like a glowing review in The New Yorker). Her videos, including the hugely popular ’30 Days of Yoga Series’ combine intermediate level routines with a calming ASMR-like quality. There’s no judgment, regular reminders that you can ‘sit this one out’ if you don’t feel like it, and the ever-present mantra to simply ‘follow what feels good’.

A routine emerges

Three weeks’ in, and morning classes and meditations now feel as essential to my everyday routine as showering and drinking instant coffee. I do her classes every single day – even when I don’t feel like it, even when I’m hungover from late-night Zoom catch-ups and have to drag myself onto the mat.

I’ve suddenly become grateful for terribly goop-y things, like how great it feels to slowly strengthen a muscle over time, or how to use meditative breathwork to work through the moments of overwhelm which have been coming thick and fast in the last couple of weeks. When my boyfriend forgets to take the bins out I hear Adriene’s dulcet tones reminding me to breath, it, out, and instead of over-reacting I try to speak calmly and clearly (a work in progress, I haven’t had a personality bypass). My concentration has increased, I’m reading more, and I sleep better at night. I haven’t reached for a cigarette in a fortnight! My body is a temple.

As a person who suffers from anxiety, I can’t believe it has taken me so long to adopt a daily habit which is so incredibly beneficial for my mind. I think my belief that I was simply ‘not to the type’ to exercise was probably rooted in some sort of cool girl-style internalised misogyny. Like, Oh, you work out? I don’t – I’m chill. Yuck! I can’t tell you how unproductive it is to deprive yourself of something that makes you happier and healthier because of some totally arbitrary notion that it makes you cooler not to.

A harder pill to swallow

The other thing I realised – an even harder pill to swallow – is that I’ve never worked out because I am not very good at it, and I avoid absolutely anything which I do not naturally excel at. This never really felt like a conscious decision, but as I started to think more about it, I realised that my life was a pretty neat triangle of write, read, talk – my three favourite pastimes. I don’t cook because I’m no good at cooking, I don’t practice French because I muddle through every class, I don’t exercise because I’m inflexible and uncoordinated.

So I guess the only little nugget of wisdom I can offer is that now is the perfect time to lean into the things you’re mediocre at. There’s actually a great amount of joy to be found in being only ‘OK’ at something, but deciding to do it anyway. It’s strangely liberating, and a nice way to keep your ego in check. I think in the age of hyper-curation there’s this fear that the façade will drop and people will realise you’re just a messy human who can’t do downward facing dog with their feet flat on the floor, or reach their toes without bending your knees. But then you embrace that mediocrity and you soon realise how silly you were for fearing it all along.

Grace O’Neill is an Australian fashion and lifestyle writer currently working and living through social isolation in London. You can follow her on Instagram.

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