The Reluctant Exerciser

The Reluctant Exerciser

I was a reluctant exerciser. Not that I disliked exercise per se. It’s just that I sucked at it! You name the sport; I sucked at it. You know that fat kid, that’s always last to be chosen for teams at school? The kid who wears glasses (from age 4!) and has what was known in my day as “butter-fingers? That kid was me.

There I’ve said it, I was a fat child! (In those days, people liked to say “plump”. But honestly, to me plump sounds like a juicy roast chicken or a well-rounded plum, neither of which I aspire to be.) So, I in the spirit of calling a spade a spade. I was an overweight kid. – Not big enough to earn the title of the class fatty but too corpulent to fit in with the athletic, skinny types. Add to that my complete lack of eye-hand-ball coordination, and you will begin to understand my aversion for exercise.

Now, that doesn’t mean I was a sedentary couch-potato. I count myself lucky to have grown up in a pre-television/computer/cellphone, pre “mum’s taxi” generation. Movement itself was natural to us. I walked, played games, (hop-scotch, on-on) swung in swings and rode the merry-go-round like every other child. But, I avoided institutionalized exercise at all costs. After all, who wants to do something they repeatedly fail at?

I became adept at avoiding; an art that I perfected in “gym” class;, that mandatory period in every school week where exercise was foisted on every school going child. Almost invariably, at some point in this lesson we would be lined up to take turns at running, climbing or leaping over some or other ghastly apparatus. That weekly torture that was labelled “gym class” soon became the dread of my life.

My solution, keep retreating to the back of the line in an attempt to avoid the ignoble embarrassment of having to clamber over the equipment (or crawl underneath). I developed this tactic in junior school and persisted with it right through high school. To date, the only class I ever flunked was physical education.

Avoidance, however, came it a cost. It meant I never got to practice the very things I needed to practice, which, in turn, meant I never improved. (Subsequently, life has taught me to embrace the things that challenge me. When faced with a seemingly insurmountable wall, start climbing. Sure your feet will slip and time and time again you’ll find yourself back at the starting block. But keep going at it. You’ll end up surprising yourself (and developing skills you never thought possible).

Scaling the Wall

Exercise was one of those walls for me. I have stated that I came to exercise reluctantly. Given my reluctance, why did I come at all? My decision to embrace exercise seriously was compelled by numerous factors, not least of which is my penchant for acquiring fat, or rather, fat’s penchant for me.

As I matured from girlhood to adolescence one thing became patently clear, while I was leaving the puppy behind, the fat had other intentions. Let me explain. If some random fat cells drifted into a room full of people,and I was there, they would make a beeline for me. In short, fat is drawn to me like lemmings are drawn to the sea. Fat loves me. And at thirteen, I was not loving it.

I have already said that it wasn’t exercise per se that I avoided, just anything involving balls, gym apparatus and other people. Which left the solitary pursuits. I would gladly walk, skip and dance. And then, at thirteen I taught myself to swim. This little skill helped to ease the misery that was compulsory sport in high school. In summer I could swim.

Don’t get me wrong. I was no competitive swimmer.. A self-taught swimmer, with no speed, a future Olympian I was not,  but I could get from A to B in a swimming pool and that little skill was to be my salvation in high school. It meant that when others were chasing tennis balls in the heat of a Cape Town summer, I was swimming.

For better or worse, I am a person who will face a problem and proceed to find ways to resolve it. The problem, when I was fourteen was (as it is for so many girls) my weight. So I determined that this overweight girl-child would not be a fat teenager. The solution: a drastic reduction in fuel intake and lots and lots and lots of swimming. The result… a leaner, fitter, happier me. And there was more.

Through swimming I learned something about myself. My snail’s pace aside, I discovered that if I put my mind (and body) to it I could swim and swim and swim. I worked my way up to being able to swim 100 lengths in the 25 metre public swimming pool. So that’s what I did. Just about every day in summer I swam.

Thanks to exercise, by seventeen I had learned three valuable lessons that have changed my life. I have fierce determination, exercise is invaluable in living a healthy life and I can endure. And, probably the greatest revelation of all, I had discovered the joy of movement.

In the intervening years, those attributes, forged through my hours in the pool, have enabled me to learn to play squash, run marathons and ultimately gave me a fall back when chronic illness ruled out other forms of exercise).


The benefits have not been restricted to the physical. Exercise has enabled me to manage chronic health challenges, to stave off the onset of genetically inherited health risks, expanded my world, connected me with people I would never have crossed paths with and helped me endure (and overcome) the countless emotional, relational and physical challenges that are part of every life.

In short, exercise has shaped, changed and, on occasion, saved my life – but that’s a story for another time-. Age, rather than bringing me answers, seems to give rise to new questions. At eighteen I thought I knew everything; at going on 58 I am keenly aware that I don’t. But one thing I know irrefutably, I am the woman that I am today because I came (albeit reluctantly) to exercise.

Leave a Reply