5 lessons 2020 taught us about fitness, exercise and working out

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2020 has taught us a lot, especially when it comes to how we move (or don’t move). Here are the lessons learned by writer Chloe Gray and the Strong Women team. 

Never did I ever imagine a world without the gym in it. In the same way that going to a pub on a Saturday or popping back to my mum’s house whenever I fancied it was normal, going to the gym was just a part of my life. I never had to gear myself up with a pep talk on a Sunday night and set seven alarms to make sure I got up in time for my Monday workout, it just was a part of my schedule.

Now, I’m not saying I thought I had nothing left to learn about exercise, but there’s nothing like a pandemic to teach you a lesson or two. When my entire routine was thrown into disarray, I realised I had some work to do when it came to learning more about the training that works for me. 

And I’m not alone in that. Working from home has caused aches and pains that has meant many people have had to adapt their training or really learn more about their body. Others who took up running as a means to get out of the house realised that they needed to pay attention to form after injuries or sore knees. Some people realised that they needed a more spiritual connection with a practice, swapping weights for yoga and falling in love.

For me, the lesson was that my exercise should adapt to me, I shouldn’t adapt to my exercise. While I’ve never been one to follow a rigid plan, I did usually map out my week with an idea of what I wanted to get done. And I’d stick to it. When the gyms shut in March, a month after I had recovered from a foot injury, I was frustrated. I had barely been able to work out all year and now I was banned from the gym? But, looking back, I think that foot injury came at the perfect time, because it taught me that I need to be (and could be) flexible. 

Don’t get me wrong, when the doctor handed me some crutches in January and told me I couldn’t bear weight for a month, I was annoyed. I thought that workouts, as I knew them, were over, that I may as well just not bother. But after some moping, I realised that while I couldn’t change the fact that my ankle had its own pulse, I could change my workouts. I swapped standing squats for kneeling squats, utilised the machines in my gym to perform hamstring curls and leg extensions and mixed up my workouts with pilates-style leg raises and kickbacks that didn’t irritate my injury.

"I can do a handstand class rather than a HIIT workout if that’s what I fancy."

I thought that these minor adaptations would be a good lesson to run in the background of my life should another injury occur, but it went much further than that. During lockdown, I learned that it wasn’t just my exercises that I could change, but also my entire workout.

Having always been an avid morning exerciser, giving up and calling it a rest day if I hadn’t moved pre-9am, I suddenly spent lunch breaks from home doing boxing workouts. With my body not experiencing DOMS, I didn’t need to plan my workouts so that my leg days and upper body days were spaced out enough, so I trained whatever and however I fancied. While I missed my usual routine so much, I also had a new appreciation for throwing everything out the window and starting out. Heading back to the gym now, my routine is the most flexible it’s ever been. I know that I can still fit in movement even if I really need a lie in rather than a 6am alarm. I can do a handstand class rather than a HIIT workout if that’s what I fancy. I can get back to a heavy lower body workout – finally!

I guess I’ve realised that unless your plan works for you, what’s the point in it? And sometimes, the best plan is no plan at all. 

When I asked the Strong Women team what they had learned, I was also fascinated about how 2020 has helped everyone step back and take stock of their training. The overriding theme of the year has been that we should be grateful we have bodies that can move, but here are some of their individual lessons. 

“I’m no longer cruel to myself when working out doesn’t work”

Alyss Bowen, social media editor at Stylist, had a similar lesson to me in that she realised rigid structure never works for her. “In a ‘normal’ world I would be very strict and unkind to myself if I didn’t stick to a workout plan, but this year I’ve worked out when I felt like it and let it go when I haven’t. Basically, I’m just doing what my body feels like and trying to be patient knowing I’ll get back into my flow of gym classes when I’m ready, and the pandemic permits it.”

“I’ve learned the importance of taking rest days”

“I used to work out around six days a week and, although I knew the value of taking rest days for my body, it was only really this year that I realised that overrunning is pointless,” says writer and editor Miranda Larbi. “I sprained my ankle three times before August because I was running too frequently and not waiting long enough between sessions.

“Now I’m a lot more considered in my running training. I don’t just go out for 40 mins every morning but I’ll do a carefully balanced mix of runs and gym sessions. I think – and have experienced – how much we underestimate what chronic physical stress can do to ourselves.”

“Reframing workouts makes fitness fun”

It was trying something completely out of her comfort zone that taught Stylist’s digital editor-at-large Kayleigh Dray she could enjoy her workouts: “I haphazardly started up socially distanced Kung Fu lessons in my local park during lockdown, and found myself really looking forward to Thursday mornings – even in spite of the fact our trainer made us run around the entire park twice before we started.

“I’ve earned a belt (and two fringes) and I’m utterly bereft now it’s too cold and wet to continue. I’ve sworn to myself once the indoor classes start in January, I will be signing up again! I guess my lesson is that choosing to do something different, that makes you think as well as move your body, is the easiest way to fall in love with fitness,” she says.

“Including the basics has made me feel better”

“Understanding the importance of mobility work has been life-changing for the way I move and feel,” says Strong Women’s editor Meriam Ahari. “Incorporating just 10 minutes of mobility work at the beginning of every workout has made me feel more loose, limber and, I don’t want to jinx it, but injury-free. It’s not the glamorous side of working out, and it’s not as satisfying as my high-intensity workouts, but learning to look after my muscles and joints has been crucial – particularly in a year spent mostly sat down.”

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