Being bad at sport doesn't mean being unfit

I'm training to be a pilates teacher, despite being "unfit"

Posted by for Strength

Just because you were no good at PE, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy all kinds of movement as an adult – and that includes becoming a fitness professional.

If you weren’t in the netball team or particularly good at PE, the chances are that at some point, you’ve thought of yourself as being “unfit”. My own poor performance at school left me thinking that I was chronically unfit until I stumbled across Pilates. It’s only since discovering a form of fitness that I’m actually good at that I can see how wrong it was for my school to being “unsporty” with being “unfit”.

I’m not alone; the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation commissioned a study in 2012 that found that “girls are put off sport and physical activity because of their experiences of school sport and PE”, something that not only can negatively impact teenage experiences but which can scar us well into adulthood. My own anti-exercise sentiments continued into my university years, despite actively trying to change. In my second year, I attempted to run a marathon which was met with ridicule by almost everyone I knew. Needless to say, I ended up not training properly for it and having to walk the majority of the course; subconsciously, I’d assumed from the off-set that I wouldn’t be able to do it.

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The anxiety caused by school sports stopped me from enjoying exercise

Despite my terror of the sports world, though, I’ve long harboured a secret dream of becoming a yoga or pilates instructor. Yoga and Pilates have always been a rare safe space in the fitness world for me: a world where I’ve otherwise felt fear, insecurity and antipathy. I’ve never struggled in those classes like I did in sports lessons at school. These classes have always come bizarrely naturally to me. A few years ago, I lived in Florence and to deal with almost unbearably homesickness, I went to the same Pilates class every morning. It was conducted in Italian, but I managed – Pilates was my saving grace while I was there. Whenever I thought about becoming an instructor, however, I’d brush the thought off before it had even had time to fully form. The idea of me devoting my working life to fitness felt totally ludicrous. 

During the first UK lockdown, however, I started doing intense amounts of Pilates – more than I’d ever done before. I finally realised that this wasn’t just something I could do without fear of embarrassment, but it was something I was actually good at. 

As the weeks went past, I felt my body get stronger. I was holding a plank for longer than I’d ever imagined; after a while, it was - dare I say it - easy. As I moved into advanced versions of “hundreds” and found the “teaser” hold for the first time, I could feel the visceral strength in my abs. 

From hobby to side hustle

I’m now doing something I never thought I would do – my pilates teacher training. Because of all those years at school being forced to sprint 100 metres as fast as possible with no running training, or messing up an easy catch in netball, I never imagined that I could have a place within fitness. While I still have a lot of work to do to improve my practice, this feels right and I couldn’t be happier. 

2020 showed me that early experiences of sport aren’t the be-all and end-all, and that hating one form of exercise doesn’t mean you can’t fall in love with another. I never would have thought I’d end up devoting part of my working life to fitness because I always took others’ opinions as gospel. 

I’m still unsporty but I’m not unfit. You still won’t catch me playing rounders on Clapham Common but my body is fit and strong. Somehow, despite those horrific sports lessons at school, I’ve managed to form a positive, life-affirming relationship with exercise, and you can too. 

How to overcome fitness anxiety

If your first introduction to fitness was negative, here are five tips for owning your space and thinking of exercise and strength training as an act of self-care”

  1. Take it slow. Don’t rush yourself into a brand new intensive fitness routine; if it’s not what your body’s used to, take the time to ease yourself in. The last thing any of us wants is a pulled muscle or injury, so start off slow and simple, keep the exercise sessions spaced out to give your muscles time to recover and then gradually build up – if it’s something you’re enjoying and want to continue doing.
  2. Don’t stress if you don’t see instant results. None of us becomes instantly fitter overnight; reaching a new level of fitness takes time and it’ll take different amounts of time for all of us. Allow yourself to get fitter gradually and avoid putting any time pressure on yourself.
  3. Avoid comparing your fitness levels to those of other people. Every body (and its corresponding strengths) is different. Don’t panic if your friend can run for longer than you. or if they can easily chat and run at the same time. All our bodies respond to exercise in different ways; allow your body its individuality, and cater to its unique needs rather than forcing yourself to meet the needs of others.
  4. Experiment with different types of fitness (e.g. yoga, HIIT, jogging, walking). As I’ve learned, just because you struggle with one form of exercise, that doesn’t mean you can’t fall in love with another! HIIT may not be for you and that’s OK – it doesn’t have to mean the fitness world is closed forever. Have a go at a few other disciplines and see what works for your body.
  5. Keep it fun! We know that exercise increases endorphins and that it can make us feel better if we’re feeling blue, but if you’ve only had a couple of hours’ sleep and the idea of getting onto the mat is utterly abhorrent, that’s also fine. Take a day off, or  go for a walk instead of churning out those mountain climbers. Listen to your body and what it needs rather than forcing it into doing something it desperately feels it can’t do that day. It’s pretty good at letting you know what it wants. 

Follow on @StrongWomenUK Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Getty

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