Hit or Run

by Maria on August 23, 2013

To boxercise or to jog, that is the question. After a couple of months of forced inactivity, I’m back to pursuing some sort of mid-life, peripatetic aspirational fitness programme. Not for me the triathlons and ironmen of Quiggin. We can’t all be uber-achievers in every aspect of life. But for some reason – probably a recent move away from the beaches of Bournemouth into the centre of London – jogging palls. At least I think it does. I haven’t broken into a trot since early June, except to chase buses. And anyway, I increasingly feel the need to de-compact my lower back and do some activity that recognises I also have upper limbs. So I’m trying out new things.

First off, reformer pilates. The one with the table or platform on a little dolly and ropes or bands to pull on. It’s basically just posh resistance training. I first heard of it in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. The man has a genius for spotting the little sub-cultural phenomena of today that act out his famous maxim of the future being here already, just unevenly distributed. Cayce Pollard’s natural habitat is a culturally rarefied world that’s so bleeding edge, she is a cool-hunter (remember when that was a thing?) who is far to cool to ever use that term. Anyway, she gets to London horribly jet-lagged – I think it was this book when Gibson said jetlag is the feeling of lack you have while waiting for your soul to catch up after a long piece of airplane travel – and does this weird exercise I couldn’t even visualise, involving a table and pulleys and a kind of deep, highly specialised procedural knowledge that beautifully illustrated her character. So I did a class of this on Wednesday, at the less than half price introductory offer of eleven pounds and fifty pence.

It was … ok. Very good at provoking sweat. Satisfyingly exacting at isolating a defined set of muscles. Highly effective at stimulating an all-body tremor of muscular protest. And utterly joyless. First exercise class I’ve ever gone to where no one cracked a grin the whole way through. And the changing room was even more morose. So, reformer pilates; po-faced, probably quite effective, horribly expensive, and with a whiff of cultishness. I think I’ll stick with old-fashioned mat pilates which is both cheaper and more likely to elicit a muffled giggle if someone farts. (Not that I did.)

Tomorrow, I’m doing a free session of power plate. This is basically resistance training on a vibrating surface, which makes the muscles work harder. I’m a bit dubious about it seems faddish and likely to bring on a migraine, but hey, anything once.

Another option is, somehow, to finally learn how to do a proper front crawl. I wonder if you can really learn this as an adult? I’ve been trying for about fifteen years and every one-on-one instructor I tried basically said ‘yes, keep doing that till it gets easier and you inhale less water’, and I keep doing it, but in the same substantially crap way. I think swimming would be a great exercise if I could do something other than breast-stroke, which grinds my lower back and provokes red speedo men into elaborately rude strategies of passive and not so passive aggression.

Boxercise. I tried this at a boot camp a couple of years ago and it is the only exercise that makes me smile, just to think about it. As a de-stressor, it’s just so literal. It’s also vaguely transgressive in gender terms and really great for the upper body. So I’m going to try and find out if there are cheap classes nearby.

Zumba. I get a little rash when I think about the whole corporate side of this, but mostly I failed at it because I went alone. One of my sisters says the only way to crack it is to go with a similarly klutzy friend who you can laugh with to ease through the embarrassment of being unable, essentially, to dance.

Spinning. This one makes me not grin but half-smile, in the sense of it being the class everyone wants to have done but no one wants to do. Or, as an old lecturer told me when I requested a reading list for a class I couldn’t take – having already graduated – reading lists you don’t have to and therefore won’t actually read are truly the best kind. You get a lovely dopamine wash of newness and potential, and a glimpse of the person you would be if you were to read all the books, but you don’t have to open a single one. I quite like the cheesy music of spin classes, though I always bring ear plugs as the volume is often unhealthily high. The beauty is that no one can tell how hard you make the bike’s resistance, so you can whoop and sprint with everyone else, even if you’ve only been three times in your life.

Tracey Anderson. Tracey Anderson butt and thighs. Tracey Anderson abs. And, oh lord, Tracey Anderson arms. All on Youtube, all free. The woman who trains Gwyneth and Madonna doesn’t need to reel in every tuppence ha’penny off punters like me. One of my sisters got me into this a couple of weeks ago. We sweated dutifully to Apple TV while a nephew who’d been required to move his lego from the carpet dismally counted each contortion to thirty. My dad was said he was impressed at our flexibility, which was a gentlemanly thing to say as he had only come in to get a dose of the best exercise of all, Sky Sports, and found our sweaty business ends pointing his way. I couldn’t sneeze or breath deeply for a couple of days after a thirteen minute session, yet also felt like a million dollars. Maybe the low-level euphoria Tracey Anderson triggered was just my muscles gratefully reminding me they exist, but this one is the winner for now. And free. Did I mention it’s free?



Random Lurker 08.23.13 at 10:59 am

As an officially licensed “would-be judo coach” (yes this is a real title in lombardy) I can’t refrain from asking:
Why not judo?
Depending of the gym, there are courses that aren’t physically demanding, it is a very complete and healthy exercise, it generally favours socialisation (because most exercises are performed in couple with physical contact) and ground fighting is real fun and praticable at every age.

In general there are a lot of martial arts courses that offer light exercises, so if you liked boxercise (assuming that it is the same thing that in Italy is called “fit boxe”, punching a bag with music) I think you would like martial arts.


suzicatherine 08.23.13 at 11:05 am

I used to really enjoy Body Combat. Similar to boxercise but probably more corporate (they used to release a new official work-out every few months). And taking in a wide range of martial arts. It’s great exercise and hilarious: if you haven’t done faux Kung Fu to Zombie by the Cranberries you have’t lived! And the cage-fighting themed routine was particularly… memorable. Nowhere near fit enough for it since having my daughter but I’d like to get back there one day.


MPAVictoria 08.23.13 at 11:16 am

Good on you for being open to so many new activities! If you liked Boxercise why not try actual boxing? My partner and I joined a local boxing club together a few years ago. We hired a boxer there to train with us a couple of times a week. It is fantastic exercise! Plus it is a lot of fun and very cathartic.

It might be worth a shot. :-)


Tom Slee 08.23.13 at 12:19 pm

Years of intermittent, half-hearted attempts to slow my bodily decay rate have convinced me that the *only* worthwhile exercise program is The One That a Co-Worker Is Also Doing, so that we can nag and guilt-trip each other into actually going to the gym instead of eating sandwiches at our desks.

As a result, I have learned to tolerate the banal corporate feel-good rhetoric of a chain, to appreciate the contradictory messaging that insists we Push Ourselves to the Limit and be Extreme Everything, but that we also check with our doctor before doing anything that would elevate the pulse rate, and to jettison the sense of smug superiority that would come from doing something actually worthwhile instead of joining the other drones in our lab-rat-like metronomic flailing.


Matt 08.23.13 at 12:49 pm

Another option is, somehow, to finally learn how to do a proper front crawl. I wonder if you can really learn this as an adult?

I can’t say for sure that I do a _proper_ front crawl, but a small amount of coaching (from my wife) helped me, as an adult, to at least learn to do a passable one that allowed me to use swimming as a regular part of exercise for a while (when I had access to a good pool and a convenient schedule.) It sounds like you’ve had bad coaches who don’t care. If you want to try again, you should see if you can get someone who will break down the moves for you into little bits, including the breathing. It still won’t be easy until you build up the relevant muscles (they go away quickly, too, I find) but then it can be fun. (I also switch stokes regularly when I swim, both to work different muscles and to be able to go longer.) Obviously, you should do what you find enjoyable- exercise as a sort of ritual penance is awful- but with a bit of help swimming can be very good, easier on the joints than most types of exercise, and of course practical in certain situations.


John Quiggin 08.23.13 at 12:53 pm

I started on Boxercise five years ago,and it was great. The only problem is you need bigger and bigger doses. Now, I look at Tough Mudder and think it’s for weekenders – if you can do it in 3.5 hours, it can’t really be hard.


PatrickinIowa 08.23.13 at 1:20 pm

Just came in from pilates reformer, which I do every Friday with a social worker and a violin teacher who have become friends. The trainer also works at the university I do, and I’ve helped her edit some of her writing. The four of us aren’t real close, but we go to each others’ biggest party of the year, and we can recommend books with, “I know you like this sort of thing.” We laugh our asses off, we work hard, and if one of us doesn’t show, she/he feels like she/he has let the others down. It’s great.

It’d be just as great if it was spinning or Zumba or anything else, I reckon. I know a dean here who, after a bad day at the office, and there are many, just loves to go break boards at Taekwondo.


Maria 08.23.13 at 1:47 pm

The message really coming through is how important the social aspect of exercise is. I think a lot of the reason I’ve gone off running is I no longer live in army housing with the Loveliest Running Buddy in the World just next door, and a good assortment of acquaintances to nod to, while slogging up – or mostly just along – the Pentland Hills.

MPAVictoria, I was wondering to myself just the other day if I’d have the gumption to do actual boxing (how outraged will I be when someone actually hits me..?) and whether I should get in touch with someone I’ve not seen in a while who does it. Hmmm. Thanks.


harry b 08.23.13 at 1:58 pm

I jog. Or, as a neighbour commented once, shamble. It is necessarily solitary, because what motivates me is being able to listen to Radio 4 plays/quizzes/commentaries without any fear of interruption or distraction (I’ve learned how to capture them on mp3s!!). So, 28-44 minutes at a slow pace, most days. But I couldn’t do it if I were in the middle of London.


The Modesto Kid 08.23.13 at 2:07 pm

Boxercise is exercise done in boxer shorts?


The Modesto Kid 08.23.13 at 2:10 pm

(As a counter to the social aspect being important, the only form of exercise I can really get into is bicycling, and not with other people. For those who like the social aspect, my brother has been doing capoeira for years and swears by it.)


Displaced Person 08.23.13 at 2:11 pm

You may have the motivation to put in the work and the time to get in shape and make it a habit (it will take 8-12 weeks). You should experiment until you find something that you actually like and want to do again. You may need to find two things to alternate. You want a minimum of four days a week in 45 minute sessions. Cardio-vascular exercise is your first priority, with strength and flexibility close behind.

Boxing is a big jump and getting hit hurts (I speak from five years in Shotokan Karate). Imitation boxing or play/dance boxing can be fun I suppose. Consider Tai Chi (if you can find a convenient class). Swimming is excellent exercise but you need to master the strokes – which, as an earlier commentator said – should not be difficult if you have a decent teacher.

A personal trainer at a gym may solve the ‘social’ side of exercise – it is working for my wife. Best wishes.


Dr. Hilarius 08.23.13 at 2:14 pm

The best exercise is the one you actually do on a regular basis. Spinning and actual cycling are excellent for cardiovascular improvement but research has consistently shown them not to maintain or increase bone density. The latter is a real issue for many women. Why not weight lifting? You will be surprised at how quickly you can increase strength. Body weight exercises (push ups, pull ups, squat thrusts) are very effective and don’t even require a gym. It is beneficial to have a partner for weight lifting to spot you and assist on completing that last repetition (the one you can’t complete on your own and which greatly adds to strength progression). Rock climbing is terrific for all-around fitness but does require equipment, suitable location, and competent instruction. Good luck!


molly l 08.23.13 at 2:20 pm

For swimming, get Doc Counsilman’s book. I got back in the pool, years after childhood “swimming,” but used Doc’s counsel to work on my stroke. Very effective, but then the pure sensuous delight of cool water kept me working on that stroke, lap after lap, until I was swimming a mile a day. Very good for cardiovascular health, but the water, alas, does not do much for muscle definition. And, by the way, I also discovered that the men in red speedo suits become quite aggressive if you pass them in the circle swimming lanes; for the rest of your workout, you have a fierce competitor who is determined not to let a girl get the best of him. As if I were trying.


MPAVictoria 08.23.13 at 2:20 pm

“how outraged will I be when someone actually hits me..?”

To be honest I still haven’t done any of the actual boxing part of it. Just doing the training that boxers do to prepare plus learning the technique. Not sure if I ever will actually get in a ring for a match. For now I am enjoying learning a new skill and getting the exercise.


Ronan(rf) 08.23.13 at 2:24 pm

Cycling around London is quite nice, lets you get to see the city (and save on tube fares) .. go down the Hackney canal, chat to the barge people, stop for a drink, a fish and chip in Victoria park, lovely! (not intensive but its something)


SamChevre 08.23.13 at 2:53 pm

I’m with the Modesto Kid; cycling for me. I spend enough time around people already, but riding for transportation ensures that I exercise regularly. (It’s not a complete fitness regime, but it beats doing nothing.)


Jonathan 08.23.13 at 3:12 pm

“I wonder if you can really learn this as an adult?”

Echoing some others above. I started swimming some time ago. You need a routine; I’m in a morning program and after a while it started seeming normal.

My point is that if I can do it anyone not somehow crippled can do it. Find a good teacher; I guarantee that they exist.


Chris Bertram 08.23.13 at 3:17 pm

Cycling to get around. The rituals and equipment of exercise aren’t for me, unless you count walking around a lot with a camera.


dr ngo 08.23.13 at 3:21 pm

I don’t exercise, and have never been seriously tempted to, but I cherish this, and have already quoted it on another blog:

Or, as an old lecturer told me when I requested a reading list for a class I couldn’t take – having already graduated – reading lists you don’t have to and therefore won’t actually read are truly the best kind. You get a lovely dopamine wash of newness and potential, and a glimpse of the person you would be if you were to read all the books, but you don’t have to open a single one.

So thanks, Maria.


Walt 08.23.13 at 3:24 pm

There’s only one proper exercise for men and women, young and old.


ajay 08.23.13 at 3:35 pm

stop for a drink, a fish and chip in Victoria park, lovely!

On special occasions, Ronan goes wild and has two chips.


Random Lurker 08.23.13 at 3:35 pm

@Maria 8
“MPAVictoria, I was wondering to myself just the other day if I’d have the gumption to do actual boxing (how outraged will I be when someone actually hits me..?)”

Woah! from the OP I assumed you were interested in much lighter exercise!
So, since you are in London and you are apparently interested in more aggressive sports, other than judo (that still is a good choice imho) I will advertise “Nippon Kempo”, a not very well known, but extremely fun, martial art that is praticed with extensive body protection, but permits punching, kicking, throwing and a minimum of ground fighting at full strenght.
This is very adrenalinic, but also very safe. This art is uncommon out of Japan but in London there is at least one gym (dojo?).

This is a promotional video for nippon kempo (incidentially, I’m the yellow belt at 0:18):

This is a tournament in Italy (women):

Those are the website of the UK nippon kempo association and of a nippon kempo dojo in London:

Also, I still stress that, from the “social interaction” point of view, matial arts (including combat sports like boxe) are the best.


Ronan(rf) 08.23.13 at 3:42 pm

Indeed! Just to clarify, more than one chip comes with the meal deal (btw 35-55 I guess)


mud man 08.23.13 at 3:46 pm

Aikido … Serious martial training with a pacifist attitude that won’t embarrass a humanist. Weight-bearing exercise without rigid repetitive patterns. Social, yes, very. The single thing that will get you through a high-function old age is knowing how to take a tumble properly.

http://www.britishbirankai.com … near you: http://www.londonaikikai.com … there are others, these people particularly recommended. ANY martial art, go observe first.


Scott Swank 08.23.13 at 4:12 pm

I second aikido.

Purely in terms of exercise, it is a nice combination of cardio and strength training. You get a full range of motion workout, and you particularly engage your core muscles.

And I’ll add London East Aikido to the above recommendations. http://www.londoneastaikido.co.uk



ajay 08.23.13 at 4:18 pm

22: reminds me of the story about Chic Young in a tearoom, where they served honey in those tiny individual jars. “Ah,” he said, “I see you keep a bee”.


Glen Tomkins 08.23.13 at 4:36 pm

Your best bet is free-style/front crawl swimming.

I would advise dispensing with coaches. They tend to teach a form of the stroke that is designed for competition, that minimizes times and helps you win races, but gives me rotator cuff problems. Just keep at it, in a form that feels natural for you, going for ever greater continuous swimming time, and eventually the breathing coordination will kick in.

If you are having trouble especially getting the breath cycle coordinated with the stoke cycle, perhaps the problem is also the advice of racing oriented coaches. The simplest breathing cycle to master is one breath per stroke cycle, but that’s not efficient, you don’t really need to breath nearly that often, so the race coaches spit on that.

Don’t worry what other people, especially racing oriented coaches, say about your form (this isn’t golf!) or your breathing. Just modify it in the direction that feels natural for you. It’ll take a while, but you’ll get there. If you’re in this for fitness, and not racing, you don’t care how long it takes to get there.


LFC 08.23.13 at 4:58 pm

I’ve played tennis since I was about 9 or 10 or so, don’t remember exactly how old when started. Was not a ‘natural’ and as a teenager I found it to be mostly frustration. I’ve improved somewhat over the decades and now the enjoyment-to-frustration ratio has changed, though the frustration element never entirely goes away (at least not for me). Good exercise, but may not be that ‘cost-effective’ to learn as an adult.


Random Lurker 08.23.13 at 5:00 pm

I left a comment at 3:35 that is still in moderation, so to summarize:

if you are interested in stuff like boxe but you don’t want to be directly hit there is this martial art, that isn’t very common but googling I found a gym in London, that is called “nippon kempo”. [important: there are completely different martial arts known as kempo or american kempo, I’m speaking specifically of NIPPON kempo.]

Nippon kempo uses extensive protection gear (almost an armor) so that it is very safe, but fighting is very adrenalinic and performed at full strenght.

Search “nippon kempo” on youtube to find videos, it is great fun.


Fearghal 08.23.13 at 5:23 pm

I’ll second Taekwondo as being a great stress reliever – particularly if you picture that day’s frustration on the face of the breaking board. I also like the mix of the intensity of the sparring/conditioning and the precision of the patterns/traditional. I did Aikido for a couple of years as well and really loved it. I completely agree with mud man about the importance (for older people in particular) of knowing how to fall properly, and think it should be taught in schools. Ten minutes of falling at the start of every PE class would save, ooh, I’ve no idea – billions, probably – in avoided fracture clinic visits. I’m not sure that I’d say I got a great work-out in the classes though.

I think there are two things about exercise, and sport – the general health and fitness benefits, and also the sense of “Wow – I never thought I’d be able to do that!”. Whether it’s finishing a deca-ironman or breaking a board with a 540-degree spinning kick, or getting to the top of the climbing wall, it’s a really great feeling that’s a complete bonus on top of the health effects and can make you re-evaluate just what you’re capable of, in any context.


Turbulence 08.23.13 at 5:49 pm

Have you considered aerial silks? It is loads of fun, but I imagine it has some completely different name in London.


Matt 08.23.13 at 5:53 pm

I’m going to disagree, at least in part, with Glen in 28. Not just on swimming (though it was certainly the case for me w/ swimming) but in many types of activities, “just keeping at it” has a strong tendency to reinforce your bad habits. You can become an expert at doing things the wrong way, too, after all. Some people can pick a movement up very quickly by just seeing others. If you’re not one of those, at least for a particular activity, some good coaching can make a huge difference. It doesn’t even need to be a professional. I’d recommend someone who teaches adult swimming classes, or recreational classes for kids, and who knows what you’re interested in, if you want to try this again. (Of course, there’s no need to try swimming again if you don’t want to.)

I’d say this applies to all sorts of things. Improving your form will help you do activities more efficiently, so you’re able to do them longer, with better results, and less chance of injury. Most types of movement used in even modest exercise and athletics are not “natural” in the sense that you’d be able to do them on your own with no training, except for luck. A small bit of good coaching can make a huge difference.


Matt 08.23.13 at 5:54 pm

I forgot the part where I was going to agree with Glen. Some coaches want to train everyone as if they were going to compete or they were training for events. That’s great, if that’s what you’re in to, but if you just want to enjoy yourself, there’s no need for that type of coach. Thankfully, there are all kinds to be found.


Glen Tomkins 08.23.13 at 6:18 pm


If the goal of taking up swimming is the exercise itself, you don’t really care about “efficiency” in any sense other than efficiency at getting you the kind of exercise you want, without injury.

Getting through the water most “efficiently”, most rapidly and with the least effort per meter, is efficient only if you want to compete. It doesn’t minimize injury, though proper racing form does have to have as a subsidiary goal the avoidance of injury. But injury is easier to avoid if you’re not trying for speed. And it doesn’t maximize the exercise benefit, not exercise as an end in itself, though it will train you best for the type of exertion useful in winning races.

Of course you’re not going to get it right at first, and of course you’re going to need to have a process of continual improvement until you learn how to swim in a way that meets your needs. My point is that coaching from others, as opposed to letting your body tell you what and how to change, is not the best such process if your goal in swimming is exercise. Maybe there are coaches who do that, try to help you swim for exercise. But the only ones I’ve ever talked to, formal or informal (and you can’t swim in a public pool without getting all sorts of informal coaching), can only talk to you in terms of efficiency at winning competitions, not getting exercise.


Meredith 08.23.13 at 7:03 pm

I’m tempted to take up Prancerize (thanks for the tip, Walt @21)! In fact, instead of joggers everywhere, imagine everyone prancercizing in the streets, in the hallways — now that would be fun! Fulfill the dreams of Martha and the Vandellas.
Swimming is excellent exercise especially as you get older and develop joint issues and such, but as someone said above, it’s not useful for bone density. You need weight resistance exercise for that. And as I think it was Matt stressed, doing exercise right is hugely important, both to derive the intended benefits of specific exercises and to prevent injury.
How about yoga? You may find yourself getting plenty of aerobic exercise just because you’re living in London now (I think London is supposed to be like NYC, no?), where people get tons of aerobic exercise just walking. Or soon — could this be the future? — prancing.


marcel 08.23.13 at 7:09 pm

and more likely to elicit a muffled giggle if someone farts. (Not that I did.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with that!


Tom Hurka 08.23.13 at 7:12 pm

I dispute Glen Tomkins’s comment @26 about golf coaches and “form.” Two of the wisest statements ever about golf are “There are no pictures on the scorecard” and “It’s not how, it’s how many.” I say this as someone with no form at all. But exercise? I don’t know about fancy this-muscle and that-muscle stuff, but walking 4 1/2 hours in the heat has to do you some good.


Glen Tomkins 08.23.13 at 7:42 pm


Well, spoiling a perfectly good walk by interrupting it with swinging at a little ball may do your character some good, but I prefer to assume that the characters of my interlocutors are already perfected.

And, if there are golf coaches out there who are not wedded to some Platonic ideal of the One Perfect Form, more power to ’em. That’s just not what I’ve seen. And even insofar as you find a coach willing to be flexible on means, it seems to me that the whole point of golf is lost if you don’t try to minimize your score. And if that’s your goal, you’re inherently going to play according to the need to achieve that goal, and not to get the exercise that your body wants and needs. Why spoil a perfectly good walk, ideally in the company of good friends, with any need to have any sort of form — individual or not — to your swing?


Barry 08.23.13 at 7:43 pm

As somebody with a chronic shoulder injury, I’ve found that proper form while swimming is important. I’ve had swimming aggravate a number of joint problems, when I did it wrong.


Glen Tomkins 08.23.13 at 8:31 pm

I have rotator cuff problems, and I have found that the form for freestyle that is good for keeping my shoulders happy, is not the approved form for getting good times. I don’t care about my times, so I swim with an inefficient form to keep my shoulders happy.


Metatone 08.23.13 at 8:32 pm

As someone living in Central London, I highly recommend that whatever you do, you choose an indoor activity. The air pollution has been out of control this summer and who knows if it will get better.


stubydoo 08.23.13 at 9:32 pm

First of all: front crawl is a horrible name. Freestyle is much spiffier.

Regarding technique/training issues: standard freestyle technique is not easier on the shoulder than crappy freestyle technique, and in any case, freestyle swimming is not any kind of injury threat for a normal shoulder.

Assuming your goal is to get exercise rather than to outrace somebody (and assuming your shoulders are sound), there isn’t much need to worry about what your arms and legs are doing, but sorting out the breathing is crucial. If you don’t figure out a way to continuously supply sufficient fresh air to you lungs, your workout fails. You have to tilt your head so that your mouth is just above the waterline, and suck in a heaping helping each time. It also takes a little while (though actually not very long) for your lungs to train to adjust to the combination of workload and supply that you’re giving it. I use one breath per stroke – if I had a coach insisting on one breath per two strokes I’d simply be screwed as my lungs just can’t do that.


john in california 08.23.13 at 9:54 pm

First, I would reiterate Matt’s comment above, that in swimming, for sure, continued practice at bad form is creates a real barrier to ever getting to a point where you can enjoy the sport. I have coached a lot of adults, some, often Asian emigrants, who have never swam the crawl before and others who think they know how to swim it but have never gotten proficient enough to really enjoy it. The latter a much tougher to train, or really retrain. The breaststroke is often taught in water safety classes as well as too 3 year olds because it is a synchronized version of the dog-paddle, something we all do naturally. In the version usually practiced by non trained swimmers, the head is always above water and while this gives the swimmer a sense of security it is also means one cannot swim very fast and the inefficiency renders one tired after relatively short distances. The crawl, on the other hand, once learned is actually an easier stroke to perform and can be done at range of speeds during a workout by only changing turnover while keeping the same form. This means what you learn how to do correctly at a slow speed is directly translatable to higher speed.
So, how to learn.
I just looked and there are a lots of utubes giving tips on learning the crawl. While I don’t think you can learn to swim by watching a video, you can get a sense of what professionals think you should know, especially things they all emphasize, as these are things you should hear from a live coach. A good coach is worth a few bucks as he or she is teaching you something that will last you whole life. A good coach will break the stroke down into manageable, and most importantly, practicable elements by using dryland exercises (a big mirror helps) , flotation devices, fins and in-the-water body support. group coaching is good once you have the fundamentals but start one on one. You need instant feedback . I found that 15 minute to half hour sessions worked best with adults, followed by an immediate half hour on their own practicing whatever we had trained followed by a few minutes of assessment and correction followed by anther 10 minutes or so of practice. I was able to coach this way because I was interleaving several learners. And to start, you need to practice every day. There are lots pools and lots of Masters programs so that shouldn’t be to difficult or expensive.
Learning to swim well gives one a great sense of confidence and freedom around water. It is a shame so few schools, even those with pools, don’t require a minimum level of proficiency.
Good Luck.


Emma in Sydney 08.23.13 at 9:58 pm

I have developed an exercise habit successfully in my 50s after many previous attempts, by taking up weight training at a local ‘Ladies’ gym. A lot is due to the particular proprietor who is both encouraging and challenging , but sticking at it for a couple of years so that I know lots of other members is also part of it. I really like having strong muscles and it has changed my metabolism too. You could look into the women’s circuit and weight training gym near you. Contours or curves are the local brands here, could be the same in the UK.


BG 08.23.13 at 11:02 pm

Do this.


I am getting freaking jacked.


John Quiggin 08.23.13 at 11:03 pm

I saw a funny setup at the hotel gym for the conference I’m speaking at, and it turns out to be the Reformer Pilates thing of which Maria speaks. So, I’m going to give it a go.


Anon 08.23.13 at 11:04 pm

The advantage to doing real boxing, or some other martial art, is that learning technique is fun and mentally engaging. Even when you are just working with the trainer, actually learning to punch and slip and parry is way more mental effort than just hitting something. That makes it much more fun than just exercise. I think there is a lot to be said for weight bearing exercises as opposed to cycling or swimming. I have seen more studies recently that say weight bearing exercise is key to aging well.


Matt 08.24.13 at 12:08 am

John in CA- yes, that’s very much what I was trying to get at, in a more clearly expressed way, especially about efficiency of movement. Thanks.


Greg 08.24.13 at 1:29 am

I was always turned off by the violence, but after a friend talked me into it I discovered that light boxing sparring is awesome. Best done with friends who you know aren’t going to try to hit you very hard, but sparring in any boxing gym should always be light. Really, truly, I found yoga much more painful.

Find a boxing gym with a proper ring and a bell. The first round is all nerves, dizzying adrenaline and giggling. As you get more used to it and more confident, it just gets more and more fun. And the workout is much, much better than boxing training because your fight or flight instincts are driving your cardio and your muscles harder than your willpower ever could.

You don’t actually get hit as much as you would think. The first time you get hit is memorable, there’s the surprise first (you don’t see the one that hits you) and then the realization that actually it’s really OK. You even start to get a bit of a rush from being hit, and if it’s your friend in front of you, you end up wanting to congratulate them. That’s what I remember best, my mate Mark hitting me, and me just grinning from ear to ear because it was such a lovely punch.

And I got as fit as a butcher’s dog.


Random Lurker 08.24.13 at 8:38 am


Matt McG 08.24.13 at 12:18 pm

As per Greg in 50, sparring in martial arts or boxing needn’t be painful. It can be just hard enough to get the adrenaline going and provide the encouragement to get better, without being hard enough to be painful or running the risk of serious injury. I’d be very wary of any club that threw beginners into heavier contact sparring, at least until they’ve had a chance to get used to lighter contact sparring, and discover if they like it or not.

I’d be wary of any kind of ‘$thing-ercise’ class, too, where $thing is boxing or some kind of martial art. Sometimes they are good [and taught by people with legitimate experience in $thing] but sometimes they aren’t. I’ve stood and watched kickboxercise classes in a gym [I’m a (junior) instructor in a kickboxing type martial art] and the techniques being taught were horrendous. Not horrendous in the sense of being ineffective in the ring, or poor for self-defence. Rather, horrendous in the sense of being almost certain to injure the joints or muscles of the people doing it if they kept it up for longer than a few months.


Dan Hardie 08.24.13 at 1:20 pm

I’ve left online addresses for two boxing gyms I know below,. Both are female-friendly, and do classes for people who have never boxed before. You’ll be wearing a padded vest in the ring, unless you ask them to take it off, and taking body shots only (ie no punches to the face). Sparring will only be a small part of the workout anyway.

One’s in North London, near Archway tube, one’s in Shadwell in the East. I trust the people who run both gyms, and last time I went to either, there were plenty of women training. I got lots out of boxing and I’d recommend it.



As to wanting to run in beautiful – or at least pretty- surroundings when you happen to live in London, I’d strongly recommend going to Hampstead Heath. If you need somewhere to get changed, secure your possessions, and take a shower afterwards, use the changing rooms at Parliament Hill Fields running track. Well-maintained and not expensive, though it closes at 4 on weekends. Very close to the Hampstead Lido or to Gospel Oak railway station.

And for anyone who’s in London, regardless of whether they want to train or not: visit Kenwood House when it re-opens (I think sometime this autumn)- nice teas, free entry, and one of the great Rembrandt self-portraits.


Eszter 08.24.13 at 5:50 pm

This has been a tough question for me and I still don’t have the answer.:( While I’m quite good at maintaining 10K steps/day in walking, I need to do something more rigorous and have had a hard finding something that fits my days conveniently enough that I actually do it regularly. I don’t have a ton of excuse, my office is right next to the gym. I just haven’t found fun things there to do.

I tried Zumba and loved it, but there was only one class a week, which is not enough (haha, although you’d think it was better than nothing!). The reason I could do it was that I’ve taken years of ballroom and Latin dance courses, which are a necessary basis for that exercise. I really don’t know how those without such background do it other than what you said, the humor angle through social support.

I don’t think local social support is a viable option for me (my friends are either way ahead of me or have no interest), but I’ve wondered about virtual support for such activities. Has anyone tried that? There are all sorts of online communities, but I haven’t seen one that worked in a way that I liked. Any recommendations on that front?

As to exercise, I’ve been told by a runner friend that she took up weight training and that really made a difference (that is, even though she was running regularly, she needed something else and that’s what worked). So I’m looking into trying that, but have no idea where to start.

I’m generally good with routines (photo projects, art projects, getting through to-do lists), but have had a horribly difficult time finding the right angle on exercise. I don’t understand why that is.


Donald Johnson 08.24.13 at 6:08 pm

Interesting sociological fact (I’m half-kidding, but only half)–nobody is recommending strength training and dissing mere cardio. Whether this means anything (i.e., whether it really is an interesting sociological observation) I don’t know, because cardio-bashing is quite the fashion on some parts of the internet fitness scene. Those of you recommending martial arts are sort of straddling the fence between the cardio and strength camps.

There’s a lot of people out there who insist that their brand of exercise is the One Truth Path to Physical Perfection. I think the weightlifters resent decades of pro-jogging propaganda and so you see lots of resentment there, but there are also little wars between various subfactions, even within the strength training camp. The runners don’t seem to hate on anyone as best I can tell–they’re just too involved in their own world to care what the muscleheads think of them, I guess. The weight people divide between those who think short sprints are worth doing, while long distance running is of the devil because it shrinks your muscles, vs. others who basically don’t even think sprints are worth doing if it cuts into your training to squat double your bodyweight. But they all unite on hating steady state endurance exercise (long slow distance, in runner’s parlance).

Here’s a guy making reference to the hating of steady state endurance, who doesn’t agree with hatred–

steady state and interval training


Simon W 08.24.13 at 7:58 pm

If it’s the lack of social that’s putting you off running, why not join a running club? There are plenty around London, and in my experience there are normally a wide range of abilities so no need to worry about being too ‘slow’. London’s also a surprisingly good place for running – as well as the centre parks, H Heath, and the Thames, it’s easy to get a train to the outskirts for more countrysidey surroundings.


Matt 08.24.13 at 10:31 pm

Donald- a few people did mention weight training (though not at length) and I’d assume that many of the martial arts suggested involve strength training as much (or more) than cardio. I actually do as much or more weights than cardio these days (though, I must say, w/ pretty low weight for my over-all size. I have no interest in bulking up) and enjoy it, but I like working out alone, too.


Helen 08.26.13 at 12:13 am

Walking more, just as part of the daily routine, and taking stairs instead of lifts or escalators. But I’m sure you do that already.


Sancho 08.26.13 at 1:15 pm

Chessboxing is the only sport worthy of the name.


Maria 08.31.13 at 8:28 am

Belated thanks to everyone else for the comments and suggestions. So much good stuff here. (Thanks especially, Dan) I hope lots of other people find this a helpful thread.

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