I am – and probably will always be – a bookworm. P.E. was the only class I was ever truly bad at in school. As a pre-teen, I was reasonably active and enjoyed cycling with my dad. On one memorable event, we cycled out to a particular pub in a little village, only to realise he’d left his wallet at home. We had no water bottles, no snacks, and we had ridden for about 6 hours. By the time we got home mum was half-frantic with worry, and I drank so much water that I was immediately sick. Nevertheless, it remains a fond memory.
As puberty hit I became sullen and withdrawn, preferring to spend my time reading books or playing The Sims on the family PC, and Dad’s health declined, so the long bicycle adventures came to an end. I still liked to go out on the bike by myself from time to time. There was a particular route that I liked to take: up the rutted bridle path, up through the woods (more of a copse, really) and then down, down, down Ditchley Road – a full mile downhill on a hardly-travelled road, with a good tarmac surface where I could really pick up speed. I used to hold my arms out and pretend to fly, or lean into the corners and imagine my second-hand push bike was actually a motorbike. The whole circuit was only a couple of miles, and I’d go round it over and over, delighting in the quiet and solitude. When the bike got too rusty, and after-school snacks had added a thick layer of padding to my frame, I found that solitude in music instead.
Those brief years of cycling were the closest to fitness that I ever got. My best friend was considerably fitter and more athletic than me. I remember the awkward way she broached the subject in P.E. when she asked if I would mind if she chose a different partner. She was enthusiastic about fitness and wanted to succeed – she even selected Sports Studies at GCSE, something which completely mystified me. I couldn’t imagine anything I’d enjoy doing less.
My body just didn’t seem to be built for being active. As I grew, flat feet and fallen arches led to twisting in my shins that put pressure on my knee joints. I collapsed at school several times, my kneecap twisting viciously underneath me. I got sent to a physiotherapist, who after a brief series of tests informed me that the muscles in my legs and core were too weak to support my joints. She gave me exercises to do at home and told me that I should avoid wearing heels. Rather than motivating me to try harder, this just gave me a greater excuse not to take part in sports.
I got a letter from the physio to excuse me from P.E. activities that would put too much pressure on my knees, but my P.E. teacher thought it was fake and berated me in front of the class. I wasn’t injured, she said, I was just fat and lazy and didn’t want to try. This particular teacher had disliked me intensely since a rounders accident a few years before. I’d probably been chatting in her lesson and was already getting on her nerves; then, when I went up to bat, I caught the ball at a freak angle and sent it flying straight into her face. She was only standing a couple of feet away, and it hit her hard. She called my parents, stridently insisting that I’d done it on purpose. My general ineptitude at all things sporting was my only defence; there was no way I could have done it on purpose. Things came to a head when I flatly refused to engage in a trampolining lesson, citing the aforementioned letter from my physio. She shouted at me so much that another student had to run for the head-of-year to intervene.
In summary, none of my school experiences predisposed me to enjoy exercise. In my head, all kinds of physical activity had been placed in the ‘not for me’ category. That didn’t stop me from eyeing my active peers with envy though. I was jealous of the ‘fit’ girls in my year. My body wasn’t toned and smooth like theirs. I wasn’t strong like they were. I wasn’t capable of active, adventurous things, and I resented my body for its inability to do those things. While they were out playing sports and making friends, I was reading books and eating chocolates. When the opportunity arose to go on a school skiing trip, I told my parents that I didn’t want to go. My sister went, as did my best friend, but I stayed behind. I did want to go, of course I did, but I didn’t trust that my body would be able to handle it, and I was scared of going and failing and embarrassing myself. I hated failure in all things, so I preferred instead not to try. It was safer that way.
I took comfort in food and told myself that I just wasn’t a “sporty” person. I still poured over images of skinny girls on the internet, admiring bone-thin goth girls with large dark eyes and tiny, corsetted waists. I spent all my pocket money on clothes; I thought that if I just bought the right things, I could look like those girls and be beautiful. But I didn’t look like those girls. The outfits that looked so romantic and sexy on them looked odd and unflattering on me. I stood out alright, but not in a good way. I started comfort-eating, but would binge a whole box of biscuits in a single sitting and then throw it up afterwards, filled with shame and self-loathing. I hated myself for not even having the willpower to have a “proper” eating disorder like anorexia. At least then I’d have been skinny.
By the time I got to University, I was fatter and flabbier than ever. Friends of mine joined Tae Kwon Do and bragged about running beep tests until they were sick, pushing themselves to collapse. I admired these people and desperately wanted to belong to something as hard as they did, but I knew my body couldn’t do it. Within weeks of arriving at University, I collapsed, breathless and wheezing, in my halls of residence. A housemate provided an inhaler, and instantly I was able to breathe again. My then-boyfriend berated me for not having an inhaler on-hand until I explained that I didn’t have one. I wasn’t asthmatic; at least, I hadn’t been diagnosed. I was 18, surely someone would have noticed by now? Nope. My new GP provided me with a lung capacity test and reacted with concern when I tested at half the normal level. She couldn’t believe I’d gone so long undetected and provided me with three different inhalers to help get things under control. I admit I thought bitterly of my school P.E. teacher at that point. Fat and lazy huh? I can’t have been doing too badly for someone with such a significant handicap.
Fast forward ten years and I’d tried and failed at multiple ‘fitness’ activities. I joined a karate class at the invitation of a friend (who immediately stopped attending), lasted 18 months and progressed to purple belt before dropping out. A combination of social anxiety, chronic pain and a controlling relationship made it hard to force myself to go to the lessons, and I hadn’t ever developed that sense of belonging that I craved. I toyed with strength training programmes and personal trainers but always ended up frustrated and defeated. I couldn’t seem to make progress, and rather than relieving my feelings of anxiety and resentment towards my body, all my failed attempts just made things worse. My weight fluctuated; in 9 months I lost 30% of my body weight. I dropped to just 7 stone (98lbs / 44.5kgs) but still wasn’t happy. I admired my collarbones in the mirror but still despised my rounded face. My then-boyfriend complained that I had got too thin, and friends told me that I looked sick, so I put the weight back on with wine and chocolates. Whatever my size, I couldn’t seem to find a healthy way to relate to my body.
I was in my mid-twenties, juggling a full-time desk job with the responsibilities of being a step-parent, when I discovered Nerd Fitness. It seemed like the perfect solution to my fitness problems and I instantly fell in love with the ethos. It was a fitness platform unlike any other. The founder, Steve Kamb, found a way to mesh nerd culture references with fitness in a way that made it engaging and fun. There were hundreds of free work-out plans, diet advice, and a community of like-minded geeks to share the journey with. I plodded along with the free plans but struggled to really make it click for me, so I upgraded to the Academy. $99 bought me a lifetime membership, even more instructional videos and access to my own character profile. Steve had used gamification  theory to turn fitness into a game: assign experience points to tasks and you could literally ‘level up’ your character. There were different workout paths depending on what you were interested in (bodyweight or weightlifting), and ‘boss fight’ workouts to challenge yourself with. It was fun and exciting, and there was a Facebook group full of supportive people on the same journey.
I got into weightlifting, and really enjoyed the way that strength training made me feel. It was nice to focus on what my body could do rather than what it looked like, and focusing on macro nutrients instead of calories felt much less triggering. It was entirely different from my days as a bulimic teenager. I even made friends on the Facebook group; a few in particular who turned out to be the only people I could turn to when my personal life took a nosedive. Now, I admired images of strong women. I analysed my body in the mirrow, looking for growing muscle instead of bone. But it was the same dissatisfaction with my body I’d felt as a teenager: I still saw nothing but flab and fat. I struggled to make any changes stick, with diet or exercise, and felt the familiar old frustrations . Week after week I failed to make progress in the gym, and eventually I gave up. I felt defeated and useless. I was surrounded by stories of other people making changes and sticking to them, with amazing results. Why couldn’t I do the same?
Three years after dropping out of karate, and newly escaped from the toxic relationship, I joined a new karate studio. This time I lasted almost a year and gained two new belts before dropping out again. I had hoped to achieve my black belt before I turned 30 and was on track to do so. But once again, I failed to form friendships. I struggled with being one of the least-fit high grades there, and when the sensei began to focus more on Bootcamp drills than karate techniques, I found all my old insecurities waiting for me. I was too slow, too weak, too far behind the others. All those frustrations welled up in me again, and I began to dread the lessons. Every time I went was just another opportunity to fail. It culminated when my sensei called me out by name three times in two minutes in front of the whole class for not being good enough. I burst into tears and walked off the mats. I was told that I needed to be tougher, to suck it up. No pain no gain. Put in 120% or go home. I chose home.
By this stage, the only ‘exercise’ I engaged in regularly was walking the dog – and with a three-legged rescue dog, those walks were pretty short. But I’d downloaded Pokemon Go!, and I found that the little imaginary monsters were pretty motivating. It gave me something to do while the dog ran around chasing squirrels and encouraged me to go just that little bit further than we might otherwise have gone. Pokemon Go! has a built-in step counter, and you can hatch eggs by walking 2, 5, 7 or 10 km for a chance at special Pokemon. As summer approached and the days grew longer, I found that I enjoyed the tranquillity of being outdoors and the mindless fun of hunting for Pokemon, and I started thinking about how I could increase my steps to hatch more eggs. The solution seemed obvious: I should start running.
There was a problem with this of course – I’m overweight, asthmatic, and *loathe* cardio exercise. But I like being outdoors, so I figured I just needed a little motivation. That motivation came in the form of another app: Zombies! Run. I’d heard about Zombies! Run before; I’d even been to a talk by the creator at the Festival of Marketing, where he talked about “gamification”. I’d never considered downloading the app before because it was an app for runners, and I wasn’t a runner. But a new Couch-to-5k version of the app had been launched, and it seemed like just the thing for me.
I’d always joked that the only reason to run was if I were being chased, and Zombies! Run gave me the opportunity to do just that with customisable zombie chases to encourage me to pick up the pace. It had a training programme built right in, with voice actors delivering a narrative story in short sections to keep me engaged, telling me when to run and when to walk. It was exactly the kind of guidance that I needed as a brand new runner and helped to build my confidence. With my very first run, I felt a sense of accomplishment that I hadn’t ever found with exercise before. I was a runner. I was slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through treacle, but I was undeniably doing it.
I started slowly and couldn’t always motivate myself to go. But unlike karate, there was no social anxiety or feelings of exclusion or failure, and unlike the gym, I knew exactly what I needed to do. I just needed to get out there and move. If I ran, great! If I walked, OK. If I ran for a bit then died on my arse, fine. I found that no matter how low my mood was before my run, I consistently felt better afterwards. I still struggled with my body, my relationship with food, and my appearance, but it felt refreshing to focus on what my body could *do* rather than what it looked like.
I ran my first 5k race just 8 weeks after I started running. It was slow, and I did most of it at a brisk walk, but I did it. I got the medal to prove it and everything. I did two more 5k races before the winter hit and found them difficult but deeply rewarding. As the nights drew in, I moved to the treadmill in the gym for my runs. It wasn’t as fun, and I didn’t get that same sense of wellbeing from running in the gym that I got from being outside, but it felt a lot better than sitting indoors. I struggled for a while to find a programme that suited me on the treadmill. Interval running required that I turn off the zombie chases since if the zombies showed up while I was already running, I couldn’t speed up enough. Eventually, I found a combination of hill runs and manual running that suited me; varied enough to be interesting and feel like a good workout, without requiring me to adjust the speed manually every few minutes.
If you’d asked me as a teenager if I’d ever run for fun, I’d have laughed in your face. Me, run willingly? I ran a mile in P.E. once, and it was the most miserable half hour of my life. So I was as surprised as anybody when I found that I enjoyed it. I’ve done three 5k races so far, and I’ve signed up for a 10k and a half marathon in 2020. A half marathon! It’s not a black belt, and I still don’t belong anywhere, but my relationship with my body is better than it’s been in years. And, most importantly, I’m hatching lots of Pokemon.
 I am fully aware now of how damaging this kind of thinking is, it is simply how I thought at the time. Other eating disorders such as bulimia are no less significant.
 noun. The application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.