Get fit for free: Simon Hattenstone on jogging

I’m running along the canal with my friend Dave the Glaswegian miserabilist. Dave calls it a trot, I call it a sprint. He’s laughing himself silly, and I would be if I had the breath. “Who wid want tae join a gym, wae awe they sweaty posers admiring thir wee peely-wally boadies in the mirror, when ye can huv awe this fresh air fir free, tho’ yon canals ur a bit mawkit? An the weather’s great doon here compared tae Glesga. Ach, dinnae be stupit ya wee heid-the-baw.” Which roughly translates as: why fork out for expensive gym membership when one can have a perfectly jolly time running along the canal for free.

We do this about three times a week, and never look forward to it. We grumble as we go down to the changing rooms, we whinge as we apply the anti-chafing Vaseline (not to each other, I hasten to add), we exaggerate how achy we’re feeling, and say we’ll never make it to the first bridge. That’s the protocol.

Then we start, and it is initially a struggle. But after a while the endorphins start to flow, especially if the sun’s out, and we feel that heady serotonin buzz. We ease past the first bridge, run past Camden town and the gorgeous red Virginia creeper, inhale the myriad smells from the food stalls along the lock, talk about the pint we’ll treat ourselves to later because we’ve earned it, pass the weeping willows and wonder if trees really can be miserable, say hello to the coots and geese and swans and remark on the fact that it’s mad the Queen can eat them but we can’t, race past sailing barges and convince ourselves we’re actually pretty quick, jump out of the way of pit bulls, cyclists, tourists, alcoholics and dope peddlers, complain about the walkers who never move out of the way for us, or the cyclists who creep up on us, pass the Snowdon aviary at Regent’s Park zoo and the wild dogs on the opposite side who look more hunted than hunting, stride past the huge Georgian mansions where we always discuss which one we’ll buy when we get the money and whether John and Yoko made the film for Imagine in one of them, look out for famous people (a few months ago we saw Paul McCartney who gave us the traditional Macca thumbs up), past the final tunnel, up to the bridge and back again.

It’s a ritual – same conversation, landmarks, observations. Same aches and pains, and best of all, the same feeling of utter brilliance when we get back.

Yes, I’ve visited gyms in my time – I’ve even been to the odd spinning class at the Hornsey YMCA in north London (which was great), and ran on a treadmill in some plush private club when they’ve had a bring-a-friend-for-free offer on. I’ve even talked about splashing out on a posh club. But I never have.

It isn’t just the expense and indulgence and antiseptic privilege that puts me off – organised workouts feel so much like the ritual humiliation of school-time PE and that’s something I never want to go back to. I’ve always been rubbish at following instructions and found it impossible to coordinate – the humiliation of having this pointed out in public is not something I want to pay for.

And then there are the mirrors – who wants to look at themselves when they are exercising? Or, even worse, look at the svelte/pumped body beautifuls. It’s enough to give you a Woody Allen complex.

Anyway, says Dave the Glaswegian miserablist, you can make your own gym at home – as he has done. “A hame gym, that’s the way tae go, pays fir itsel in a year. Ave goat a runnin machine, a cross-trainer, a dip/pull-up-thing, a bench, loadsa weights, and a punch bag wae a photie o’ the managing editor oan it. Awe ye need’s a hauf-empty lock-up.” Which roughly translates as: you can save a fortune by turning an unused garage into a gym.

I’ve also got my own customised gym at home. Though, to be honest it’s not quite as customised as Dave’s. What I do is put the telly on, watch the football and run on the spot till I’m knackered. Sure, the floorboards might be sinking, and it infuriates the rest of my family, but, hell, it’s cheap and it’s enjoyable.

The other day my boss suggested we pay another friend – an ex-marine – to take us circuit training at lunch. He said it would be tough but worthwhile in the end. I tried to muster up some enthusiasm and failed miserably. What? Twelve quid an hour to be screamed at and made to feel (even more) inadequate? No thanks, not when you can be out on the canal doing the do with Paul McCartney for free.

This article was amended on 12 January 2011 to clarify the YMCA location referred to in the piece.

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