I’ve always hated gym class. Well, it was fine in kindergarten and first grade, when all we did was play duck-duck-goose and wave a rainbow-colored parachute around and roll around on tumbling mats. But once kids started getting competitive—and belittling the kids like me who weren’t the fastest or most coordinated—PE quickly became the bane of my existence. I can’t count how many times I fell on my butt and got laughed at trying to kick the kickball or got hit in the face with a basketball, baseball, or volleyball or had the wind knocked out of me in the school-sanctioned brutality known as dodgeball. I had no idea why any of this was considered “fun.”
There were a couple of things I was relatively decent at—swimming, gymnastics, and ballet—but since I’m kind of a perfectionist and once it became clear that I was never going to be Inge de Bruijn, Gabby Douglas, or Anna Pavlova, I quit them all by seventh grade to join stage crew. The annual President’s Fitness Challenge that I failed every year seemed to reinforce the fact that I was not an athlete and so my time would be better spent hanging out in the theater with the artsy kids.
I happily took on the stereotype of the punk rock kid who hated and avoided any athletic activity like the plague—I was too cool for anything physical except for moshing and walking my dog, which got my frustrations out and gave me some peaceful time to myself respectively. But eventually, after struggling with depression, insomnia, and just being really bored sometimes, I realized how important it is to have some sort of physical outlet. Besides the stuff you hear constantly—exercise is good for your heart, your body, your general health—there are also all kinds of not-strictly-physical benefits to moving around on a regular basis: It’s good for your brain, it relieves stress, and it reduces symptoms of depression. It helps keep you awake when you need to be and asleep when you need to be, and it helps you feel good about yourself.
For those of you who already love to exercise or play for a team, kudos! I’m glad you’ve found a way to make being active fun. In fact, I want everyone to experience what you have. This article is not for you (but here are some that are). This is for the rest of you—the ones ditching pep rallies to read a book in a dark, empty classroom. I was you, so I totally get you. But I don’t think we need to curse ourselves with lifelong unhealthiness just because gym class sucks. You’re a smart, creative, nonconformist individual, right? So blaze your own path! Exercise can be simple, it can be totally goofy (in fact that usually makes it the most fun), and it might be something you are already doing without realizing it.
Here are a few ideas from me and other members of Team Rookie of stuff you can do that will make you feel like a champ even if you aren’t normally the athletic type (and if you are, you’ll probably get a kick out of them, too). In some cases, you won’t even think you’re exercising, and in the rest you will know it and LOVE it.
- Playing with pets is one of those just-feels-like-a-game-not-a-workout type activities. It looks like your cat or dog is doing most of the work, but you are tugging when you play tug-of-war and you are throwing that ball or Frisbee or cat toy—in fact, with cats you are probably chasing the toy, too—when you play fetch. Going outside with your dog can lead to running around a park or a backyard. I have created elaborate ribbon dances while trying to amuse my cats. Anaheed’s dog, Piney, loves be chased around the apartment or park when he has a toy. If you have a pool or there’s a lake nearby, swimming with your dog or playing fetch with her in shallow water is crazy fun for both of you.
- Walking was something I did nearly every day to and from school, but as soon as I started making friends with cars, I didn’t do it nearly as much. Walking is a great way to spend time by yourself (or with your dog!). If I’m sad or worried or restless, I grab some music, head out the door and wander. Sometimes I think through my problems and figure them out, sometimes I let them go and take in the scenery. Rookie staffer Hannah points out that if you’re new to a city, long walks are a great way to explore your surroundings. You might also discover hole-in-the-wall fruit stands like I have while wandering around Seattle, my new home. Even if you’ve lived in the same place forever, depending on the weather and the time of day, you might see your neighborhood in a totally different light.
- Hiking is just walking taken the next level and farther into nature. You don’t have to be hardcore and buy special shoes and become a mountain-climber or anything, just use it as a chance to get a way from your neighborhood and explore the larger landscape. I’ve been finding a new park or trail to check out every Sunday. At first I went with city parks where the paths were wooded, but mostly smooth and flat and I walked a mile or two. Recently, I tackled a five-mile path that was a little bit steeper. I could definitely tell I was exercising then, but when I got to the top and looked out over the trees and the city below, it was all worth it. I also love listening to the birds and being in a spot where my cell reception isn’t great—it totally helps me escape my daily life and all the stress that comes with it. While I generally walk around my neighborhood alone, hiking is fun to do with friends.
- I used to loathe running with every fiber of my being. It made my knees and ankles hurt. I could never keep up with other people, and when I tried I got stabbing pains in my ribs. But I discovered that when I was on my own and I had the right music (Pink on some days, Savages on others) and the right scenery, it was OK—as long as I wore the knee and ankle braces that my doctor recommended, which were relatively affordable and easy to find at a drugstore. My new neighborhood has a really scenic view of the mountains and Puget Sound, which definitely motivates me to get outside every morning, but I recently started running in a cemetery by my house because I like cemeteries and I don’t feel self-conscious there because there are rarely any other people around. I run at my own speed, which is pretty slow, and if I cramp up, I switch to power-walking. Before long I stopped comparing myself to serious runners just enjoyed the same sort of me-time I got from walking. I must say that building up a teeny bit of running endurance has come in handy when I’m late for things, and it’s nice to feel OK at something I always thought I sucked at. If you want to feel that way but this kind of running isn’t for you, you can try out Maggie’s daily routine of running up and down the stairs while listening to this song, or you can get a group of friends together for an old-fashioned chase game like freeze tag, or a solo game like Dylan suggests: “I’ll play games with myself such as ‘Run up those stairs as fast as you can go!’ and then walk and enjoy the scenery at the top, then run down all like FREEDOOOM and then jog for a little. Going on run-adventures is a joy!!”
- Biking and skateboarding are both fun forms of exercise and green modes of transportation. Biking is a great way to get around independently, and even if you live in a city with good public transit, it’s cheaper and you don’t have to wait around for it. Plus, it’s feels great to have the wind in your hair, and you can accessorize your bike with cool streamers, easily carry on a conversation with a friend on a leisurely ride, and, unlike most exercise-y things, you can even do it in a dress! I always wished I was good at skateboarding, but I got scared off when I fell too many times. Anaheed loves it, though, even though she is still a beginner, and says that infiltrating the skate park (almost always 90 percent boys) with a crew of girls is one of the funnest ways to spend a summer afternoon. (On that note, she and Allyssa are forming a no-presh, beginners-welcome sk8 club; email anaheed [at] rookiemag [dot] com if you live in New York and are interested.)
- Roller-skating and in-line skating have always been a little bit easier for me than skateboarding, and I’ve had amazing luck thrifting cheap pairs of roller skates. You can use them at the park or see if there’s a roller rink in your area—it can make for a boredom-killing group outing. In my experience, roller rinks often play retro music, which only adds to the fun vibe. And if you get really good at skating, you could join a roller derby team! I used to watch the Windy City Rollers in Chicago with great admiration because they were tough girls who weren’t afraid of getting a few bruises, and they always had great outfits and creative names like Juanna Rumbel and Sister Sledgehammer (the founders of the Windy City Rollers).
- You don’t have to be awesome at swimming to enjoy it. I like going to my neighborhood pool alone and taking slow laps back and forth using stuff I remember from childhood swimming lessons (mainly breaststroke and backstroke). I do this for the same reason I go on walks by myself: to unwind, clear my head, or think through something. But when I’m in the pool with friends, mostly we’re just splashing each other or seeing who can do the most flips in a row (it’s way more doable to try to be Gabby Douglas underwater!) or doing cannonballs off the diving board, and I’ll get out of the water just as happily exhausted as I do after doing laps. If your town doesn’t have a public pool or other body of water that is easily accessible, call your local community center to ask if there are any affordable swimming spots nearby. Or you could go the risky route and sneak into a pool. I did this a few times with my friend in Madison, Wisconsin. We looked up which hotels had pools and then just snuck into the lobby, acted as if we were coming from the elevator or one of the halls of rooms, and headed for the pool. The key to this is to act like you belong there—we would usually have a faux motel-guest conversation like about how Uncle Billy and Cousin Sue would be down to meet us soon and we were so excited about the family reunion. Have your suit on under your clothes like you would at a hotel, and don’t bring a towel because they usually have them by the pool (if they don’t, you have to decide if you are brave enough to ask for one at the desk or just hang out until you dry off). And of course, try this at your own risk and don’t act too rowdy or you’ll get caught!
- The playground is another good place for solo or group fun. Swinging has always been my favorite form of stress relief, and I was so happy to discover how much better I am at the monkey bars and the jungle gym now, compared to when I was eight. The playground is kind of a magical place—you forget you hate running when you’re racing a friend to the slides—so why not revisit it?
- Jumping rope is one of those rare things that was always fun in gym class or at recess, and Amy Rose has a way of making it even more fun post–high school: She jumps rope through entire episodes of The Golden Girls. Jumping gives you that nice thrill of being buoyant, and it’s one of those things that makes you feel like a silly little kid in a good way, so why not combine it with your favorite sitcom? You can use a rope or a Skip-It, or go retro and look for one on eBay. You could also seek out a gym, park, or maybe a friend who has one of those cool outdoor trampolines. And if you’re looking for a more social activity, learn how to double-dutch: Here’s a good tutorial.
- Laia sings the praises of the actual gym: “I started going to the gym this summer and I loved it. I was going three times a week. This is after a literal lifetime of avoiding all exercise (last PE class I had was in sixth grade) the trick is to make a killer soundtrack.” I actually first tricked/forced myself into fitness by using an elliptical, because it meant I could watch TV while I exercised. Eventually I started to look forward to it, because being on the elliptical meant getting my celebrity-gossip fix by watching E! or reading Us Weekly. If you have a gym membership or access to this kind of equipment at your school, the stationary bicycle and the Stairmaster are other things you can do while reading or watching TV. Some of the fancy new equipment even has internet access so you can read Rookie! If you don’t have access to a gym, hula-hooping, doing exercises with a stability ball or an elastic band (this book is helpful for creating a routine with those), and lifting weights are things you can do while multi-tasking at home without any fancy equipment.
- If you prefer a mellower vibe, maybe try Pilates. I tried it when my doctor recommended that I find a regular form of exercise to help with my insomnia. I will admit that I picked it because at the time it was the thing everyone in Hollywood was talking about in magazine articles, so I figured it might make me somehow feel glamorous? What it actually made me feel was relaxed—the routine my mat class followed had a nice flow to it and my instructor dimmed the lights, so it had a very meditative vibe—and strong. It’s all about your core, which put most simply is the group of muscles at the center of your body that are involved in just about every movement you make. I always struggled to do pushups and sit-ups in gym class, but my Pilates teacher showed me ways to modify exercises so I could do everything, and sure enough I got stronger over time. I also felt taller and more stretchy, so in the end, I guess it did make me feel pretty glamorous. (And by the way, you don’t have to go to a fancy studio and shell out big bucks to do Pilates. See if your local park district or Y offers classes, and if you want to go totally cheap, see if they’ll let you try a class for free (many places will if you ask!) just so you have an instructor there to show you the form for the very first time, and then YouTube it! POP Pilates has a great beginner workout that you can start with and a bunch of other videos of varying lengths that you can continue with.
- Yoga is another exercise that has the meditative and relaxing rep. Naomi likes it because she tenses up when she is stressed or anxious. She says, “Focusing on loosening muscles relaxes me like nothing else. I just love the feeling of stretching my body and feeling loose and agile—even though I can only just touch my toes.” She recommends this YouTube channel, especially the teacher Esther.
- In my informal Rookie staff poll of fun physical activities, nearly everyone mentioned some type of dancing. I went back to ballet my sophomore year of high school. I knew I was never going to perform in even like a community center version of The Nutcracker, but I found the fluid, precise movements to be almost meditative. I liked having an hour once a week to escape all of the drama of my life and point my toes and twirl to some classical music. Marie and I are both really into Zumba, an aerobic blend of hip-hop, salsa, reggaeton, Bollywood, and belly-dance moves that was born in Colombia in the ’90s. I thought I would feel totally goofy at first because I don’t have a natural sense of rhythm, but it was so much fun and the music was so poppy and upbeat and happy, I forgot entirely about how I looked and enjoyed the fact that I hadn’t felt as uninhibited about shaking my butt since preschool. Trying a belly-dancing, hip-hop, or tap (the awesome shoes!) class would be a blast, too. Leeay shares my love of dancing at concerts, and Tavi likes watching music videos and learning the dance routines. She suggests “Bad Romance,” “Love on Top,” and, if you dare, “Single Ladies.”
- Does your school offer a self-defense class? If so, I think you should try it! It’s practical—you hope you’ll never have to use it, but if you do, you’ll be so grateful you learned the basics—and it can make you feel really powerful. I took one in high school and I liked it so much that I went on to try other martial arts—aikido in college and cardio kickboxing—and nothing was more satisfying than punching and kicking the air after a particularly frustrating day. My favorite cardio-kickboxing DVD is this one, because it breaks up what can be an hour-long workout into 10-minute sections, and the instructor is very positive and has a great British accent.
- Even aerobics can even be fun if you find the right videos. Don’t roll your eyes at me! Listen to Gabby, who loves doing the ridiculous workouts she finds on-demand, like Cheryl Burke’s Disco Abs Workout, that make her feel like she’s “in an ’80s business-lady montage.” Added bonus: “the instructors are so happy and motivational.” Dylan’s mom got her a Tracy Anderson video for her birthday, and, she says, “I actually love it. It’s dance cardio plus a really intense but varied 30-minute toning workout. Dance cardio is fucking fun.”
- Speaking of fabulous fashion, bowling is an activity that I’ve always kind of enjoyed being terrible at. Visiting the bowling alley is something fun to do when you’re bored and if you go to a dive-y one there is always excellent people-watching. Pool and darts (which if you’re lucky might exist in your dive-y bowling alley) are similar activities—good for chilling with a group of friends, totally OK to suck at, and when you do start to get the hang of them (or just have a lucky break), success feels pretty damn awesome. I haven’t tried it yet, but I bet this might also work with things like kickball, softball, flag football, or a friendly game of horse.
There are so many things to try—you could take ice skating lessons if you’ve always liked watching figure skaters or check out a trapeze or silks class if you’ve got a fascination with acrobatics. After years of being a hater, I’m willing to try anything, because I’ve learned that when you take the competitive/oppressive gym-class mentality away, embrace your skills or lack thereof, and allow yourself to be silly, you will actually have fun. Even if you aren’t a natural at them, if you’re enjoying yourself, you’re doing it right. ♦