Having better workouts now that you’re back in the gym? Or found working out from home a huge relief? It turns out, where we train really does matter.
I wish I could say that I spent lockdown two looking after my physical and mental health by exercising regularly. But I can’t – which is both a little embarrassing as a fitness writer, and also quite alien to me as someone who gets restless and bored if I don’t move every day.
And yet, my dumbbells have been gathering dust, my yoga mat in my closet that hasn’t seen the light of day in over a month probably smells a little musky and I now have to peel the rubber of my resistance bands apart from a lack of use. I have never been so lax in my training – having completed a total of three actual workouts over the course of a month, when I often train five times weekly.
At times, I could barely face walking into my kitchen (aka my home gym) in the mornings. Something felt wrong, out of place. My body felt almost paralysed with boredom, frustration, and a lack of motivation. You see, when exercise becomes something you do every day for fun – keeping in mind I also write, think and talk about fitness daily for my job – it can feel like a piece of you is missing when you suddenly everything about your training frustrates you.
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I knew that I was going to be excited about a return to the gym on 2 December when the restrictions in England lifted. I didn’t expect for such an immediate difference to be felt, though. Rather than asking myself ‘can I get away without doing another set?’, I found myself asking ‘how many more of these shall I do?’. I was glancing at my watch to check that I had enough time left to do everything I wanted, rather than to count down the seconds until I could finish. Instead, I had to force myself to leave the gym so that I could get to work on time.
Sure, this comes down to the fact that I was able to train again in the way that I love (getting under a barbell for eight reps is always more enjoyable to me than using light weights for cardio-based workouts). But ultimately, the exercises that I did and the way I set my workout up was pretty similar to my lockdown workouts. During Thursday’s upper body session in the weights room, I didn’t lift more than a few kilograms heavier than the weights I had access to at home. So if nothing majorly changed, why was I enjoying my training at the gym so much more?
The problem is that I have never associated my home with working out. In fact, pre-pandemic, I never actually spent much time in my house other than to eat, sleep and watch TV. Walking in the lounge does not trigger ‘exercise time’ in my mind – it triggers ‘watch New Girl and eat Lindt bars time’.
Conversely, I have exercised in a gym for over five years. Even on my most tired days, there’s something about the bright lights, clinking metal and sticky atmosphere that makes me feel a little more ready to push my body. Particularly in the time between the first and second lockdowns, the gym became a huge escape for me, both mentally and physically. I was excited to go there because I knew it was one of the only times I’d be leaving my house that day. I cherished that change in environment because being stuck at home made all the other parts of my life (such as friendships, work, dating) feel very small and suffocating.
Walking in the lounge does not trigger ‘exercise time’ in my mind – it triggers ‘watch New Girl and eat Lindt bars time’.
Then there are the people, or the “tribe mentality”, as Dr Hilton puts it. “Being in a group of people who are doing something you value helps to fuel and facilitates your core beliefs. In this case, being in a gym has a motivational and facilitatory effect that exercise is important to you.” Essentially, looking around before starting my set of squats to see other people exercising, rather than the sofa I want to lie on or the fridge I want to open, is hugely motivating. Even if those people are the same grunting men who you swear at in your head.
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However, working out at home has been a huge game-changer for many women. This could be because the benefits we get from the small environment changes, like moving from the house to the gym, can also apply to changing our long term environments. “We know that when regular exercisers switch leisure centres, they feel more motivated or push themselves more in their exercise,” explains Dr Hilton. “So, people who used to exercise in the gym and have now started to exercise at home may have found that the change to their routine has given them a bit of a boost.”
Not to mention, many women have found enjoyment from the freedom that moving in their home gives them. Numerous friends and family often talk about feeling ‘gymtimidation’ – being intimidated or made to feel as though they don’t belong in the gym, usually because it is traditionally a male-dominated environment. Being at home allows women to feel more comfortable as they exercise, without the fear of being harassed or judged when working out in public spaces.
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For example, one friend of mine took up yoga – something she had wanted to do for ages, but was too nervous to do in front of others. “I feel 100% more comfortable doing it in my own house and in my own space rather than in front of others,” she said. “Even when lockdown lifted and my friends were asking to go to yoga classes with me now that I had started practising, I still didn’t want to. I hate exercising around other people and I feel like there’s so much pressure to be as flexible as everyone else in class.”
Ultimately, everyone finds different settings motivational, comfortable and productive, but the reasons for that is both intrinsic (our own values) and extrinsic (environmental and circumstantial). Yet, I’m still surprised by what a difference being back in the gym has had on my motivation. In just 24 hours, my mood had completely lifted.
“My feeling is that for someone like yourself, who is regularly active and values that for mental and physical health, the reason why you might be struggling a little bit more recently is because of Covid fatigue. I feel that we were all very positive at the beginning of the pandemic, but we’ve been subjected to huge changes in our lifestyle for quite some time. That inevitably has an impact on our exercise behaviour,” says Dr Hilton.
Whether or not the gyms will remain open is unknown. So for now, I’m just cherishing the time I get to feel like my most motivated self myself.
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