Pulling together a basic exercise kit for your own needs
A warm pair of gloves from one room, a woolly hat from another. And then fishing out the right shoes from under a jumble by the front door.
I often feel like I’ve done enough exercise just getting ready! However, suitable gear is one of those things that can improve any part of our lives.
I think it goes without saying that, if you take up a sport or activity that needs specialist equipment (like skiing, rock climbing, triathlon anyone?) you’re probably going to have to find a way of getting hold of suitable equipment.
But most of us just need to know what we need to look after ourselves and what might help us motivate ourselves to get moving in some way. And if you’re anything like me you’ll want to keep it to the bare minimum so all your free time isn’t taking up with getting out of the door.
As someone who’s kept up regular exercise for a few years now, here’s my list of things you ought to invest in, things that will make exercise a bit more comfortable and/or enjoyable and things you really don’t need.
Of course some Sod’s law/yin and yang/ market forces have decreed that the things you really do have to bite the bullet and buy are also the things that will cost the most. Some of these might put a very big strain on your budget and might seem like too big a financial risk. Please, please, please don’t let it put you off getting exercise. Good money spent now will pay off later on.
As far as most fitness and exercise clothing is concerned, it’s quite possible to make do and mend for most things. In fact, you can curate for yourself quite an inverted-snobbish retro wardrobe for very little expense. Even if it’s not very comfortable, it’ll make you look as if you’ve been exercising all your life. That sensible swimsuit in the back of the cupboard which is too sombre for a holiday wardrobe may be absolutely fine for water aerobics.
However, there are certain pieces of kit that you really do need under certain circumstances. These really do need to be the real thing, because they need to provide you with support and protection your body deserves. The laws of physics, biology and gravity simply must be obeyed, and unfortunately that means a couple of investments up front.
I’m going to split these up into three groups: Things you need to protect you from the effects of impact and gravity, things you need to protect you from extreme weather conditions and things to help you work on your body indoors.
Stuff for reducing the effects of impact and gravity
Gravity and repeatedly bringing our feet into contact with the ground will put some wear and tear on our bodies over time. But with the right kit we can keep these effects within normal limits and also reduce the risk of injury in both the short and long term.
These don’t need to break the bank, but at the same time it’s not a good idea to skimp when it comes to footwear. It is possible to find footwear that works for you and that doesn’t break the bank, but you might need to put in some legwork to find them (geddit?).
For some activities, comfortable shoes that you already own may well do the trick, at least when you’re starting out. You might, for example, already have a pair of tried and trusted lace up shoes that you can comfortably walk for over an hour in on an even surface.
If so - and if walking’s your thing at this point - take advantage of that in the first instance, until you’re ready to move on.
If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and starting a sporting activity for exercise which puts any kind of stress or pressure on your feet, ankles and knees - and let’s face it, most of them do - try to get the best help you can to find the right pair of shoes for you.
OK, so not everybody needs these....
.... But, when it comes to impact sports at least, everybody who’s female needs a sports bra. Even those who don’t think they need one do. A properly supportive sports bra. Not a bra top or a normal bra. One that’s designed for sports. From A to HH, sports bra. Or I send the girls round, got it?
These have 2 jobs, one of which is rarely mentioned. Firstly, they’re there for support when your feet come into sudden contact with the ground. Many of us recognise this from bitter experience as being fairly obvious.
Secondly, though, they need to take account of the fact that people sweat when wearing them - and then stop sweating while still wearing them. Moisture-wicking properties and seams in the right places are two properties you need to be looking for. This is why you might want to go for a sports bra even if you’re going for no or low impact activities.
Unfortunately, they’re expensive, don’t turn up in the sales and with larger sizes at least you need to be Harriet Houdini to get them on and off. Testing the support properties of a sports bra without buying first is difficult, to say the least.
Also most of them are awful and not fit for purpose, especially once you get above a D cup. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s a rant for another day. Back to the job in hand.
As far as aesthetics is concerned, while we shouldn’t feel embarrassed about wobbly chests, the fact is that most of us just are. I’m fairly OK with how I look when I’m out running but I do prefer to keep boob wobble to a minimum if I can. As a 38E, I’ve found that using two bras at a time - a Shock Absorber underneath and a thinner (and therefore less expensive), bra over the top - makes me feel a lot less self-conscious.
Stuff you need to protect yourself from the cold and wet
To protect yourself from the cold and wet you really need to be wearing suitable clothes - but it doesn’t always mean you need to go out and buy stuff. In a lot of climates and for many activities, this mostly means choosing the right clothes to put on from what you already have. After all, your wardrobe probably already suits the climate you live in.
That said, the fact that our bodies produce sweat when we exert ourselves can be bothersome, especially in very cold and very wet conditions. In some cases it can also be downright dangerous.
If you’re facing high levels of cold or wet, clothing that is specifically designed for the conditions you’re facing is pretty much essential.
Protecting against cold
If you’re doing any form of outdoor activities in winter in most climates, you’re going to sweat in the cold. I’ve learned the hard way (including one surgical procedure) to choose clothing that wicks sweat away from my skin and doesn’t make me too hot when I perspire. Not because I need it while I’m exercising. It’s because I need it when I stop exercising and before I can get into that nice warm shower.
If you’re going to be queuing for a ski lift or waiting for a bus in your activity gear, it really needs to be good.
Protecting against wet
Rain gear can be even more of a challenge. It’s really, really hard to find waterproof gear that doesn’t lock in your own sweat next to your body and actually prevents your sweat-wicking lower layers from doing their thing. If it’s really warm and wet this isn’t such an issue, but in the chill of autumn or winter, it’s not helpful.
Personally, I’ve never come across an ideal solution. The strategy that makes me most comfortable is to get a good windproof, water-resistant (i.e. not waterproof) outer layer and wear a single layer that is as thin as possible underneath on my top, making sure to choose synthetic materials and not cotton or wool (natural fibres soak in too much moisture too quickly). I wear close-fitting leggings as a single layer on my bottom half.
When I dress like this, the clothing does still get wet. However, it means I can keep discomfort to a minimum, by having a tighter, softer and more moisture-wicking layer right next to my skin. This kind of clothing doesn’t rub or chafe (at least not very much) if it gets wet, which means that I don’t get skin damage or blisters. It may be a bit uncomfortable on the day to get wet, but at least once those clothes are off and I'm dry again, the discomfort stops.
This strategy works quite well when I’m going straight out of my flat into the rain and then straight back in again when I stop moving about. Unfortunately, though, it’s not a lot of help if you’ve got to wait around in wet clothes when you’ve finished exercising. Sometimes, taking a change of clothing with you is really the only option.
Smaller outlays that can make exercising more comfortable or more enjoyable
These are the smaller outlays that can make exercising that little bit more comfortable or more enjoyable.
Here are a few things that will help you get the most out of your time outdoors. Even if you’re not up to going out very often, I don’t think you’ll regret having them. None of them are going to take up much storage space and hopefully they won’t eat into your budget, either.
A waterproof phone carrier
I’m talking here about the kind that you strap on to your arm, leaving your hands free and protecting your phone so that it doesn’t bash against you or fall out of your pocket. If you use earphones that are not wireless, a phone armband also keeps your earphone wires tidy. Worth considering even if you don’t use your phone as a source of entertainment.
Nordic walking poles
These don’t break the bank and will help you to exercise your upper body as well as your lower body while you’re out and about. For some reason a lot of people in the UK view these suspiciously, which is a complete mystery to me as they’re so cheap and effective. They also help you walk more briskly and for longer distances by sharing the workload over more muscles.
If I could challenge anyone to try one new thing that goes against their cultural norms, it would be to give Nordic walking poles a try.
I know a lot of people like to listen to the sounds that come from their environment when they’re exercising. Quite often I do, too. But I’m not sure I’d have kept up running for long enough to start enjoying it without my electronic pals.
These don’t need to be expensive and they don’t need to be wireless but they do need to be comfortable.
It is, of course, important for safety reasons to be able to pick up important sounds from your surroundings, so noise-cancelling headphones probably aren’t suitable.
Ah, the world of apps. There are apps to help you measure your progress, apps to help you vary the intensity of exercise, apps to compare yourself with other people… The list goes on.
They’re not always a good thing, especially if they induce guilt or make you feel bad about yourself in any way, but finding any that chime with your own interests and lifestyle is a joy. Especially when they’re free.
Talking books, podcast downloads and offline music service subscriptions
How much you invest in these is up to you, but it’s surprising how much good stuff is available for free. Why not put aside an hour to collate yourself an entertainment programme for when you’re out and about.
Whether or not you’re getting aerobic exercise outdoors, at the pool or in a gym, having some tools to help you with strength, resistance and suppleness is no bad thing.
There are a few really useful pieces of equipment which really won’t break the bank and don’t take up much storage space which can make exercising in the comfort of your own home that bit more pleasurable (and even more likely).
A floor mat
It’s a lot more comfortable doing any kind of floor activity on a mat than on a carpet. Whether you’re thinking of yoga, Pilates, aerobic exercise or a general stretching routine a mat makes a real difference to your comfort.
A roll up mat that can be easily washed with a suitable detergent and water mixture is a real investment, and doesn’t need to be expensive.
It’s worth thinking before you buy, though. Mats come in different thicknesses and yoga mats are really too thin to make most other forms of indoor exercise comfortable. I have a mat that’s about 4 cm thick and I love it. I’ve recently started doing yoga, though, and I’ve promised myself that if I keep it up I’ll treat myself to a dedicated yoga mat in a few months. The reason? My thicker mat makes some standing yoga moves a little bit too wobbly, as it’s not so easy to ground your feet on a soft surface.
An adjustable grip strengthener
This might not sound like the most important thing to be spending your money on, but bear with me while I tell you a little anecdote….
I’ve had the good fortune to have a couple of free health checkups recently. I did these tests after having exercised regularly for a couple of years, and I felt pretty pleased with myself as I went in. I felt I did pretty well in both tests and indeed some of my results were good.
However, the bottom line on each test was that my basic health markers were better than just over 50% of women my age. Being over 50 and a regular exerciser with some positive test results, I asked the testers why.
The answer was that I had weak grip strength - and that grip strength is a very good indicator of overall fitness for health.
So I got a grip strengthener. It cost me about 15 euros and adjustable, so that I can increase resistance as my grip gets stronger.
I’ve found out that as well as improving my grip, it’s a great alternative to stress balls for getting rid of some unwanted anger! Also, I can recommend keeping one in the kitchen to amuse yourself with while you’re waiting for the potatoes to come to the boil.
A cheap, versatile and highly compact alternative to any home gym equipment you might find on a shopping channel. ‘Nuff said.
An extra indulgence - a foam roller
If you’re feeling a bit flush, why not try a foam roller? This is a light, tubular massage aid which helps you give yourself a bit of a home massage, for example after exercise.
They usually come with instructions for use and YouTube has some good videos.
Foam rollers are a recent addition to the must-have list for serious runners, so you might be wondering what they’re doing on this list. What’s more, some of them look like real post-apocalyptic instruments of torture designed to cause serious pain.
Those can stay on the sports shop shelf, though. A smooth, slightly softer roller will be cheap, light and easy to store away.
Although they’re no substitute for a proper massage, if used well they can help ease some of the aches and pains you get from using muscles you’ve forgotten you had.
It can also help to some extent with easing back and shoulder pain - provided it’s used properly, of course.
These are the things you really don’t need to get started.
Exercise and fitness gear is big business and shops and online stores are full of stylish stuff that can put pressure on your wallet. While most of it is nice to have, none of it is going to make getting exercise any more effective. Here are some things you can do without if you don’t have the money to pay for it or the space to store it.
Very expensive, branded sports clothing
Comfortable clothing’s great. Sometimes it is actually essential. I spend a lot of time cross country skiing in cold temperatures and I’ve learned the hard way to choose stuff made by companies that understand the conditions.
I have also learned the hard way that branded clothing isn’t necessarily what I need even in harsh weather conditions. There’s a hypermarket chain around these parts that does perfectly good technical clothing and doesn’t break the bank. If I do use a known brand, it’s a cross country skiing specialist. I plan for these purchases - I do my research and I’ve been known to miles out of my way to check the sales or find an outlet shop.
If you’re going to splash out on the expensive stuff, make sure you’re paying for quality (not looks or names) and for something that makes you feel good. Think about the whole process: will you be able to change straight out of it when you’ve finished exercising, or do you have a walk to the car and a commute home afterwards first? You might be OK putting up with discomfort on a night out so you can wear those killer heels, but is sitting in cold sweat really worth putting fashion before comfort when you’re exercising?
Top of the range shoes
My husband uses a pair of running shoes that cost him £4. He doesn’t run very often or regularly, but those shoes are perfectly comfortable and supportive for him and for the (very small) amount of running he does do. He was really, really lucky to find good shoes at that price and they are wearing out at a quicker rate than more expensive ones, but they have got him off the sofa more than once.
Bear in mind that shoe models are updated about once every 6 months and quite often the difference is cosmetic, so discounted models are always worth considering.
The latest sports watch
Being a nerd, I’ve found having something on my wrist that gives me an Excel spreadsheet to pore over after I’ve showered is quite motivating when I don’t feel like going out.
However, if you’re not a competitive triathlete, something from the cheaper end of the range can give you plenty to think about even if you love your data. What’s more, since I started out the app stores have filled up with free measurement apps and phones come with GPS as standard. I’ve actually decided to downgrade next time I get a wearable.
No need to break the bank on kit that’s aimed at professional athletes and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
Dedicated home gym equipment
If you find yourself reaching for the phone when the home shopping channel is on, back away! You really don’t need a lot of stuff to exercise with, even if you’re (trying to) exercise indoors. Steppers, rowing machines and the like can stay in the warehouse where they belong instead of under your bed gathering dust. And don’t get me started on those contraptions that only exercise a single muscle group.
Just remember whatever you decide to take with you or leave behind when you go out REMEMBER TO TAKE YOUR HOUSEKEYS!