Getting comfortable with exercising alone was the best thing that senior writer Chloe Gray did for her fitness routine. She explains why you don’t have to join a sports team to challenge yourself.
I always assumed that I was bad at exercise; I hated playing netball, I was crap at rounders and I was not in the slightest interested in football. Growing up in the noughties and attending an all-girls school (where PE was forced, not enjoyed) meant that these sports were the only form of exercise I was led to believe existed.
Even though I was a member of a gymnastics club and trained there umpteen times a week, I didn’t see it as a ‘sport’. It was a hobby, like playing the piano or reading. It can’t have been exercise, I thought, because that involved being shouted out by a captain or watching people blur as they quickly moved their way around a ball.
As an introvert and someone who values (read: needs) their alone time, only seeing sport through the lens of group competition was problematic. Exercise felt like a chaotic, energy-draining, messy activity that I wanted to avoid. I moved through the first 18 years of my life assuming that I wasn’t sporty, that I hated being out of breath and that I didn’t need to move my body.
When I then discovered exercise in the form of home HIIT workouts, I felt… embarrassed? This wasn’t the stuff that you bonded with your mates over, made new friends or celebrated at the pub with a pint. It was me, sweating alone for 20 minutes in my university halls. We don’t clap for people working out solo in the way we do those who join a team and get sweaty together. Yet, it made me more confident, happier, more in touch with my body, fitter. Eventually, I realised that I did love and deserve all of the benefits that came from exercise. I came to accept that I am just as much a ‘sporty’ person as those who are part of a tennis club or rugby squad.
We need to celebrate the benefits of solo training in the same way we do those who fall in love with moving as part of a team. If lockdown taught us anything, it’s that time alone is important for everyone. But there’s something extra special about using those solitary moments to prioritise your mental and physical wellbeing.
The hour or so I spend in the gym, on a walk or doing a virtual yoga class is my time to prioritise myself and my health before I start giving it to other people. Knowing that I’ve started the day doing something I love and that’s made me feel great gives me the headspace to gladly prioritise other people and things.
“My exercise time is my biggest indulgence,” says Jo O’Connell, a PR consultant. “The thought of doing team sports has always struck me with dread – the pressure of performing in front of others is just awful. But exercising alone, especially in lockdown, keeps me sane. I need to get away and have time to myself, whether it’s running, HIIT, weights or yoga. My two kids and husband know better than to interrupt me when I’m exercising in the back room.”
You may also like
“I hate running – here’s why I’m OK with admitting that”
For Alison Stockton, a wellness entrepreneur, exercising alone is more of a practical decision, saying that while she finds “team sports and group classes are great, the times don’t always work. Solo training is a joy – I don’t feel tied to someone else’s schedule.”
This is crucial to me, as exercise is something that I want to feel free with, not constrained by. That way, I end up getting more from my workouts. While some people might love the feeling of collaborating towards a win or run faster when they have someone else relying on their speed, the opposite is true for me. I find the days that I go to the gym, headphones in, seeing no one I know, are the days that I feel the most accomplished.
I love the fact that there’s no one to fall back on but myself, that I am responsible for whatever weight it is that I lift off the floor. While that does mean I can get stuck in my own head sometimes (if I’m solely to thank for success, I’m also solely to blame for failure), it’s added huge value to the rest of my life. Team sports might teach you to trust in other people but exercising alone teaches you to trust in yourself.
It’s also important to remember that working out by yourself doesn’t necessarily have to mean feeling isolated. I’ve ended up as part of a huge community thanks to the type of strength training that I do, and I can talk to other members about our training, celebrate goals and give advice. It’s just that we do that after the session, not during.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re only a serious runner if you run as part of a club, but given that I work as part of a team and I spend my social life hanging out with people, running solo or going to gym classes on my own feels like space to breathe and concentrate on my own wellbeing,” agrees Strong Women’s editor Miranda Larbi.
The thought of walking into a gym alone or heading out for a jog by yourself can be an intimidating one. Many people find that having a gym buddy boosts their motivation and enjoyment of training. But thriving alone shouldn’t be dismissed. You’re just as great a sportswoman if you don’t belong to a team.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).