There I was, pounding away on the treadmill: 23 years of age, in the bloom of youth and at the peak of fitness, rocking my lycra pants and crop top, while two young guys eyed me openly from across the gym. Yeah, you can look, I thought to myself, enjoying a rare flash of smug pride. It wasn’t until a kind instructor approached me and made a quick, discreet mime in the direction of her nose that I realised the attention I’d attracted was down to a large, crispy bogey I’d had on display for goodness knows how long.
I gave up on the gym soon afterwards. I was naturally slim, after all, so why bother? I was more interested in going out drinking and dancing, and quite enjoyed being on display with my friends (though to this day, while any admiring glances ceased years ago, I still obsessively check the state of my nose). I was in my twenties, and a lifestyle comprised of late nights, little sleep, smoking, moderate to heavy drinking and noshing fry-ups for breakfast with takeaway curries for dinner seemed absolutely fine to me. And it was fine. I was in my twenties.
It wouldn’t be fine now. As the mum of a small child I still manage the limited sleep thing, but my IBS has rendered takeaway curries a thing of the past, I genuinely prefer toast and marmite to a fry-up most days, and I can’t remember the last time I smoked a cigarette. Where alcohol is concerned I tend to alternate between long stints of teetotalism and an uneasy glass or two several nights a week. To me this all signifies getting older and frankly it’s a relief to have an excuse to be kind to myself.
I started at a new gym, my local one, on my 36th birthday. This was because of a specific health reason (one that had mystified doctors), and give or take a few ropey patches I’ve stuck with it. The health issue is completely sorted. And I enjoy going. I’ve found this is vitally important when a) you’re a mum and the way of things is to put yourself last; and b) you have very little available time. Some of my friends blanche at the thought of entering a gym, but I love mine. It’s familiar, people of all ages, shapes and sizes attend, I know how everything works and of course, these days nobody looks at me. For someone who bears the scars of never having been picked for netball or hockey sides at school, and who has developed into a comfortable introvert over the years, the blessing of solo exercise cannot be overemphasised. I plug into my ears and train. Sometimes I even wear my Walmart kids’ t-shirt that reads “Leave me alone”. Being mini, as well as being older, has its upsides.
Everyone has their own reasons for exercising. In my twenties mine were vague at best and shallow at worst. Today they are consolidated into a comprehensive rationale: I want to maintain the gifts of youth I used to take for granted (strength, supple joints, flexibility, energy, the ability to just run) for as long as possible, and I appreciate that these gifts are not going to hang around for long without upkeep. I am ready to surrender the things that do not matter whilst valuing more than ever the things that do. My legs, for example, will never again be pretty with their spider veins and baggy knees, but they are strong. I can run and climb and carry my three-year-old. Not all at once, sadly.
I also want to set my children a good example. As they get older I’ve realised you can get away with less. How can those Converse be too expensive when you can afford your wine every night? Actually, my kids are not that obnoxious: I’m paraphrasing. Adopting a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach to parenting is risky, though. When my 14-year-old daughter or 11-year-old son want to come to the gym with me and train for Race for Life, I experience a flush of parenting success. Sure, they’ll both wipe the floor with me on the day, but I’ll be happy about that too. Needing to be the best is another happy surrender; wanting to be the best I can be is far more appropriate these days. It’s a movable feast, too, which is even better.
As for Little Daughter, she is perhaps my biggest motivation to delay the onset of serious ageing for as long as I can. I am fully aware that I made the decision to become pregnant in my late thirties, and that I will be in her life for a full ten years less than I will be in my older daughter’s. This is a sobering thought, but not necessarily a negative one. So what if I’m ten years older than a lot of the mums at the park? I can still chase my little one around and play with her. And I’m not ashamed to make a spectacle of myself having a bash at the assault courses my older kids enjoy.
I discovered in recent years that I enjoy running, although my speed is glacial and my distance seems to be limited to 5k (despite what Earnest Steve at the gym tells me, loading up my training programme with things called intervals – aren’t they to do with music? – and something else that sounds like Fart Lick Training). As well as keeping me fit, running boosts both my mood and my self-esteem. Every time I manage another 5k I am proud of myself.
Many other mums my age can run further and faster, while some cover less distance at a slower pace. It doesn’t matter. I have one friend who takes part in those crazy superwoman mud-and-electrodes events (she’s also just signed up to abseil off some insanely high tower). I have nothing but admiration for her. I mean nothing. No envy. No sense of failure by comparison. Just admiration, thank you! There’s my friend Anne who cycles all over the place with and without her family while I take the car to the corner shop, and another friend Claire who, at 51, regularly cycles 40 or 50 miles up and down hills on a racing bike. Then there are my wonderful swimming icons, a group of local friends in their forties and early fifties who cover length after length after length, often clocking up half a mile or more per session (arthritis, two knee replacements, another knee op and serious illness notwithstanding).
It doesn’t matter what exercise you choose or how accomplished you are. If you enjoy it and it benefits your health and wellbeing, then it’s a win-win situation.
I’d like to wish all those amazing people taking part in today’s London Marathon the very best of luck. What you are doing is incredible. And to the middle-aged mums who continue to fight for, find and pin down that elusive bit of ‘me’ time to jump on the bike, shake their stuff at a zumba class, go for a run or swim a few dozen lengths – POWER TO YOU!