How the girl who hated PE became the woman who loves to run

A woman running along a path by the sea

It’s finally spring on this side of the world, and one of the reasons why I feel like celebrating is that the warmer, lighter evenings will allow me to start running again. I’ve written on here before about how much I love to run the streets of Hobart – not in any attempt to set records, simply because it makes me happy.

This year I’m hoping that my running routine will be even easier to keep up, because as part of the redevelopment of the oval across the road the council has installed a new track around the perimeter. It’s a huge improvement on the bumpy, soggy ground that I had to contend with previously, and while running short laps isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, it’s a great way of getting started again.

Voluntarily choosing to go out for a run or a cycle still feels strange – it doesn’t sit very comfortably as part of my identity because it’s something I didn’t start doing until my mid-twenties.

As a kid living out in the country I stayed fit without really trying – walking the dogs, shooting hoops, and kicking a soccer ball against the side of the house for hours on end. And as a university student in Edinburgh I got good workouts walking all over the city each day and dancing until the wee small hours several nights a week. But I hated school PE lessons with a passion. So how did the girl who hated exercise become the woman who loved it?

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Stand up straighter!” my PE teacher shouted across a crowded basketball court. “Come on Ruth, lift your boobs up!

I was mortified. I could feel my face flushing bright red, and hunched my shoulders even more than I had been already. What a thing to say to a fourteen-year-old girl. Unfortunately, it was just the latest in a long run of horrifying experiences that I’d had in high school PE.

From the Scottish country dancing lessons, where I had to grasp the clammy hand of an unwilling partner; to the badminton session where my best friend caught me with a racket and gave me a black eye. From the cross country runs that started at the bottom of a steep hill and had me reaching for my asthma inhaler before we’d even begun; to the term – pre-contact lenses – when I tried softball and could never see the ball coming.

There was the stink of Impulse body spray in the changing rooms. The efforts at contortion as forty girls tried to switch from their uniforms to their sports gear without revealing a glimpse of bra. The swimming gala where I had to be hauled out spluttering during the ‘fun race’. The sports day 800 metres where I gave up after 400.

The only sport I could find enjoyment in at high school was hockey, and even then I would only go as far as attending the after-school training sessions, never the games themselves. I didn’t feel competitive enough to care about the results, wasn’t keen on travelling around the region with the other girls, and didn’t want to give up my Saturdays.

(I had a habit of making that kind of defiant decision at school – I also signed up for French lessons in sixth year to learn about film and literature but refused to sit the exam…)

And perhaps that is the key. High school PE comes with innumerable pressures, and not just the pressure to adopt public nonchalance about your awkward, fast-changing body. Even within the core, compulsory lessons, there is pressure to improve, to compete, to push your boundaries. It is taught – or at least was taught twenty years ago in rural Scotland – in a way that provides rewards and incentives for competitive, extrovert personalities. If you don’t want to be the best, the fastest, the highest points scorer… well there must be something a bit wrong with you.

It has taken me many years to understand that it’s okay to challenge that way of thinking – to find quiet pleasure in something for its own sake.

Even as adults, a lot of people who enjoy sport and exercise as a social activity are surprisingly intolerant of those who prefer to do it alone. When I posted on here last year about how I always run alone, I was bombarded with messages from well-meaning strangers telling me to join the local park run, that I would surely love it if only I gave it a chance. But in my mid-thirties, I am finally able to say that I will only exercise in the way that I want to.

It has been interesting to realise that I’m not alone in this. Among my friendship groups there are literally dozens of women who have only fallen in love with sport in their late twenties and early thirties. For many of them, it has been running. But I also know people who now play netball every week, who swim in the ocean all year round, and who participate in martial arts.

The sole common factor for all of us?

It makes us feel good. It makes us happy.

Sometimes, that is enough.

 

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Some further reading that you might find interesting.

BBC: How fear puts girls off PE.

Independent: Why do teenagers hate doing PE at school? Let me count the ways.

Research Gate: I hate Phys Ed. Adolescent girls talk about physical education.

The Guardian: Are PE lessons too traumatic for teenage girls?

The Guardian: Exercise is more precious than ever. So let’s stop scaring kids off PE.

The University of Edinburgh: Arts and PE help pupils to thrive at school.

 

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Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

12 responses

  1. I always enjoyed some exercise, but was miserable in school PE lessons as I was bullied by my games teacher – I was good at athletics (she accused me of cheating on cross country runs), swimming and gymnastics but rubbish at the ball sports the school favoured like tennis and lacrosse.

    • I’m so sorry – it’s terrible the impact that a bad teacher can have like that – they can really destroy your passion for a subject and your confidence. Also a shame when school clearly preference certain kinds of sports – surely giving the broadest options possible makes it more likely that everyone will find something they enjoy.

  2. When engaging in any activity, it must first provide ‘happiness’, otherwise move on!
    I loved moving as a child through dance then sport, such that my dual major were Elementary Education/Physical Education. Have taught both and managed international fitness centres. I ran 10km a day for years, taught high end aerobics on the same days, played football, field hockey, surfed, windsurfed, I put ticks in all the boxes. I loved it all and respect everyone that enjoys ‘their thing’ both for self and competitively. Today at seventy, what makes me happy is walking and looking carefully at what the road passes by…

    • Agree completely with that – walking is itself such a joy, provides the time to slow down and appreciate your surroundings. Also good for thinking-time!

  3. The reason that I go past your house twice a day is because I – GASP – have become addicted to the gym. I go every weekday – and when I can on weekdays. When anxiety means that the smallest decision is too much, I go to the gym. No decisions. I work through the exercises the exercise physiologist gives me. My reward is swimming laps and then just floating in the pool. I’m finding it ridiculously relaxing.

    • That is so awesome! I’m really happy that you’ve found something you enjoy doing 🙂 I find that regular exercise really helps my anxiety too – gotta love those endorphins. And the headspace that exercise provides x

  4. I’m training for the Point to Pub in November. Every weekend I see groups of people doing the same but every time I go out on my own. I’m 51, I don’t WANT to train with people. I cherish my solitude. This struck home for me. I was fit as a child for a similar reason. I loved movement for movement’s sake and how I felt during and after. Now I’m remembering and recreating.

  5. I can’t believe your PE teacher actually said that – how humiliating. I was actually quite sporty at school and took to running every morning before school when I was a teenager. I haven’t run for a while now – I love swimming (although I haven’t done that for a while either) and yoga – at the moment I’m taking advantage of peri menopausal early morning waking – about 5.30am – and doing yoga for an hour – certainly helps to set me up for the day. And like you, I prefer my exercise to be solitary too. X

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