Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Don DeLillo’s Underworld will always remind me of lockdown. Not because I have read either of them, but because I have been doing bicep curls with them most days since March. At 1.4kg and 1.35kg respectively, they make passable improvised hand weights.
Along with most of life, fitness has taken unexpected turns in 2020. Joe Wicks was a middle-ranked YouTuber eight months ago; now he is a national treasure with an MBE who has been on Desert Island Discs. Weighted hula hoops have been tipped as a hot Christmas gift. Of the million ways in which 2020 has changed our world, exercise is one of the few areas in which our horizons have expanded, rather than shrunk.
When it is warm enough, I do online barre classes outside, using a garden chair for a ballet barre. On cold days, I stay indoors, doing downward dog with the hood of my sweatshirt yanked tight with the drawstring. I look like ET when they wrap him in a blanket in the bike basket, and I can’t see much, but it stops the dog from licking my face – which adds insult to a position that is not dignified to begin with.
I have become borderline obsessed with pilates instructors I have never met, spamming their Instagram feeds with emojis and DMing them to ask where they get their eyebrows done. On Friday, I ran around the park pretending I was on a treadmill, with a voice in my earbuds telling me when to speed up and when to slow down.
It is not just me who has turned their usual keep-fit routine on its head. “Over lockdown, I became obsessed with being able to do a handstand,” says Katie, 39, who has spent much of this year working from home in St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex. “Falling out of one had always terrified me.” With the gym closed, she signed up to online classes. “Amazingly, I finally learned to do one – in my home office.”
Perhaps it is because fun has been curtailed in so many forms that the way we do fitness has shifted away from aspiration – from a world ruled by the ultraflexible yoga bunnies at the front of class and the guys with six-packs hogging the gym mirror – to being about enjoyment. My favourite fitness motivation hack came from my husband’s cousin James, who switched to smaller cans of beer during lockdown and started storing them in the cellar so that he had to walk down and back up a flight of stairs every time he wanted a drink.
I am not – and never have been – particularly fit, nor do I take exercise remotely seriously. I have never owned a Fitbit. I time my runs only if I am trying to make it back for the Waitrose van. I have an ancient yoga mat, but I don’t own dumbbells. (See above, under Tolstoy.) I can only do press-ups on my knees and I would never dream of inflicting jump lunges on my 47-year-old knees. However, like many people, I exercise for my sanity. If I skip exercise for more than a day or two, I get sad and anxious. Before March, my routine was pretty standard: reformer pilates classes before work, a few laps of my local park now and again, the odd cardio session at Barry’s Bootcamp – the fact that David Beckham was sometimes at the 8.20am class was not totally not a factor.
Under lockdown, the need to keep sadness and anxiety at arm’s length was even more pressing. I dragged my yoga mat out into the garden for Instagram Live classes. I developed a major girl crush on Chiara Becuti, the head of pilates at Fly LDN, happily enduring brutal sessions for her delicious Italian accent and beguiling everywoman lockdown patter about pizza binges and the neighbours, whose music was driving her insane. I became obsessed with how all the buff HIIT instructors have identical chubby little dogs. I distracted myself through the burpee section by working out which twentysomething trainers were in their own flats and which had escaped to their parents’ homes for lockdown, developing elaborate backstories for them in my head.
The amateurishness and chaos was part of the charm. Kids running into shot or an instructor having to dash off to answer the doorbell added a welcome dose of levity to those hermetically sealed days.
“We had a dance cardio session where the instructor left her camera on by mistake, so the whole class watched her make and eat dinner afterwards,” says Pip Black, the chief creative officer of Frame gyms. “We had the host of a hypnotherapy workshop fall asleep halfway through. One of our instructors didn’t realise he’d left Loose Women on the TV in the background while he was teaching. But we learned that what was important to Framers was variety, the incredible personality of our instructors and upbeat energy. They are not bothered about leaderboards or heart-rate monitors.”
It is a funny thing, but online classes have, if anything, more camaraderie than studio sessions. People who would do little more than nod hello in a studio will fill chat boxes with strings of emojis. (The fire and devil emojis are the go-tos. And sometimes the peach, if the squats section was hardcore.)
The rules of the UK-wide lockdown in March, which permitted one form of outdoor exercise a day as one of a limited number of reasons to leave the house, reframed exercise as one of life’s highlights. More than 858,000 people downloaded the NHS’s Couch to 5K app during the first three months of lockdown.
But I had Covid in April. Although I was lucky to have only a mild case, I discovered – after I had been up and about for a week and felt well enough to go running again – that I had not got off as lightly as I had thought. Anything more than the very slowest jogging pace made me feel as if I was inhaling drawing pins. It took me a couple of months of stop-start runs to get back to normal and by then – well, I was a bit spooked. I had lost my mojo.
So, when I got an email about a new socially distanced running “class” from Barry’s Bootcamp – you listen via a video call to an instructor telling you to run a bit faster, or sprint, or pull it back – I was in. Paying good money to play pretend-treadmills and be fed Insta-positivity via the soundtrack (“Pay it forward for future you!” “Make strong choices!”) while you run in the open air is a bit eye-roll inducing. But you know what? It was the best run I had done in months. I let myself in the front door with a smile on my face.
In the second English lockdown, the world of fitness is better organised, more sophisticated and, for the most part, no longer free. Gyms have rents and salaries to pay. Video classes, where the instructor can see you, have overtaken classes live-streamed on Instagram; where classes hosted on IGTV were accessible, many have moved to on-demand online.
But prices are still much more affordable than fitness studio fees. Anya Lahiri, a trainer at Barry’s Bootcamp, relocated her 8.20am classes to her home. “When the first lockdown began, we were like: let’s do an Instagram Live! But we had no idea how that actually worked,” she says.
Soon, up to 1,000 people were tuning in each morning for mountain climbers and plank jacks, along with cameos from her son, Finn, and her dog, Crusoe. Sometimes, she did chest presses with a stack of Jamie Oliver cookbooks. “This time around, I’ve got a routine. At 8.17am every day, I’m moving Finn’s dinosaurs out of shot and balancing my laptop on a stool. It’s still a madhouse, but I’m lucky, because I’ve got space. One of our other trainers had to reimburse his downstairs neighbour after a light fitting fell off the ceiling.”
Most of the week, my Zoom screen is the neat grid of faces and curated backdrops of work meetings. But last Sunday morning, halfway through my Frame pilates class, I toggled to gallery view and was treated to a kaleidoscope of knees and bottoms, some in baggy trackpants and some in neon leggings, along with a few shots of curtain rails and coffee tables where the camera was facing the wrong way. A cat tiptoed behind its owner, unseen. Someone wandered off during the ab section and reappeared with a fresh mug of tea. At this point in 2020 – well, whatever keeps you smiling, right? Maybe that is a tea break in yoga class. Or picking up War and Peace.