If there’s one thing the British should excel at, it’s exercising indoors. Goodness knows we haven’t got the weather to do it outside.
This was recently hammered home when, after days of psychological preparation, I finally decided to go jogging. It’s not a practice that comes naturally to me – throw me into a swimming pool and I’ll splash around quite happily, but the idea of plodding around the pavements of Cardiff, swigging energy drinks and dodging dog mess, fills me with dread. On the plus side, it doesn’t require any specialised equipment, I can start the moment I step outside the front door and, most importantly, it’s free.
Having worked myself up to it, I was a bit disappointed to open the door and find it had started raining. Within minutes the gutters were overflowing and the pavements were choked with standing water.
No problem, I told myself – I’ll go tomorrow. Except it rained the next day. And the next. By the time we had an evening of fine weather, I’d given up and decided to stay in with a drink and a movie instead.
With weather like this it’s no wonder Britain leads Europe in the obesity stakes, yet we cling to this bizarre insistence that healthy, life affirming exercise has to take place outside, no matter what the weather.
Take school PE lessons. I remember rugby matches where the biggest challenge of the game was finding the ball beneath several feet of snow, or interminable games of football that rendered both teams indistinguishable beneath thick coats of mud that had to be endured for the rest of the day.
My solution to these problems was to skip PE altogether, find an empty classroom and read. I wasn’t against the idea of exercise but I saw no reason to put myself through such misery for the sake of a few calories. If we had only had a gym at school, I might be a veritable He-Man by now.
I can’t help thinking this is a disastrous oversight in our cultural makeup. Just think of all the great British inventions that have come about due to our climate – covered shopping arcades, the thermos flask, cozy pub lounges and hot rum toddies. Bold attempts, all of them, to make the most of the fact that nature is not on our side.
But why stop there? Let’s do everything indoors! Plans for Cardiff’s enclosed ski centre have been in development for years but I say we go the whole hog and build an indoor beach. It’s not as crazy as it sounds – the Japanese already have one, complete with salt water, palm trees and tropical fish. Can you imagine making the trip to Cardiff Bay on a bleak November morning to soak up the rays for a few hours and cool off with a dip in a simulated ocean? Or stretching out on warm sand with a cocktail and the latest John Grisham?
It would make great economic sense as well. With rising fuel prices and the increasing misery of airport security checks, travelling abroad is only going to get harder. Why slog all the way out to the Med when we can bring a bit of the Costa Tropical to Wales? It has to be warmer than the Bristol Channel.
But perhaps we should start with the basics. Before we try recreating the Caribbean in Cardiff, let’s make sure there’s a friendly, expansive, well-equipped gym in every neighbourhood. An inviting, laid back kind of place where you’d be happy to while away some spare time, meeting friends and stretching your legs, without feeling like a hamster in a wheel.
At present, too many gyms are heartless, overlit dungeons crammed with whirring machinery, and the only people who visit regularly are those who absolutely have to – the annoyingly toned and the chronically unhealthy. And could someone please explain to me why these places spend a fortune mounting plasma screens on their walls, only to play an endless stream of daytime television with the sound switched off? Not that you would be able to hear anything over the thumping dance music that invariably accompanies any workout. It may be an effective system, but where’s the joy?
Wouldn’t it be better to throw in a little mood lighting, some artwork on the walls and a lounge where we could feel free to catch our breath, buy a drink and chat with our fellow indoor athletes instead of rushing from one self-inflicted hardship to the next?
Maybe then, when we’ve all got used to the idea of actually enjoying exercise, we’ll be ready to spoil ourselves with something a bit more exotic. And just think – we’ll already have our beach bodies.
Originally a men’s lead article for the Western Mail’s WM Magazine.