What's really worth getting right
Over time, I've got to know what I actually use and what's just a way of throwing hard-earned cash out of the window.
Some of the things I rely on most of all turn my 45 minute cardio exercise from something to be braved and endured into recreational me time.
This knowledge definitely came through trial and error. In some cases, it’s taken me years to discover what works for me and what leaves me in tears of frustration and embarrassment.
I’d like to share my top 10 exercise essentials, in order of most expensive to free.
And stay away from this lot - in my opinion not worth the money.
The right shoes for the job
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.
The right sports bra for the job
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.
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.
Ahem. I favour Shock Absorber myself. I’ve got 4 or 5, so that I haven’t got an excuse for not going out because I don’t have a clean, well-fitting sports bra.
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 less supportive (and therefore also less expensive), bra which covers a larger area over the top – makes me feel a lot less self-conscious.
Sunglasses that stay on
There’s nothing worse than being out on a blindingly hot, sunny day without protecting your eyes - unless it’s being out on a blindingly hot, sunny day with a pair of ill-fitting sunglasses that you won’t stay on, so that you have to carry them home. I generally wear prescription sunglasses. For running I can use normal lenses because I can manage without the correction and because they’re cheaper. For cycling, though, prescription sunglasses are a must for me if I want to stay safe, so I’ve made sure to get ones that fit properly.
H3 Comfy trousers that don’t make you feel self-conscious
Little did I realise, when I first went to buy exercise leggings, what a minefield of misery it was. Almost as traumatic as finding a suitable sports bra.
Firstly, it turns out that hardly any close-fitting exercise leggings that are actually the right size don’t give you camel toe. Why? Because they have seams in all the wrong places. Again, this is natural and we shouldn’t be embarrassed by it, but, again, we always are.
I have 2 pairs of quite expensive pants made of fancy, sweat-wicking fabric that I never use unless I can go out in a very long t-shirt or jacket.
Secondly, it also turns out that some exercise leggings - especially light-coloured ones - draw sweat in such a way that it looks like you’ve peed yourself…. I have one pair of quite expensive pants made of a fetching, light grey fabric that wicks sweat into some very specific areas. I have used them twice. I thought the looks I was getting were admiring my running style. Not so.
I’ve found a brand and model that work and I own three identical pairs.
A good 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 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 was surprised enough to ask 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 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, because it will still keep your phone safe as you go.
Nordic walking poles
When I want to get a bit more out of a walk, I grab my 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. They turn a stroll into an all body, low impact aerobic workout.
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. Disclaimer: I live in a Nordic country, so this is very easy for me to say.
Earphones and entertainment
These don’t need to be expensive but they do need to be comfortable. Bluetooth earphones are more versatile than wired ones, although of course you do need to remember to keep them charged.
It’s amazing how the spoken word or a bit of music can really bring exercise to life. I’ve no time for purists who proclaim that using headphones outdoors is a sign of civilisation losing its way. There are much more obvious signs of that and besides, nobody gets to listen to nothing but birdsong in the urban jungle that is modern life.
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 the best solution.
I use a pair of cheapo Bluetooth sports earphones which hook snuggly around my ears and don’t fall off.
When it comes to what you might want to listen to, talking books, podcast downloads and offline music service subscriptions - whatever floats your boat.
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.
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.
My go to measurement app is Strava, and for entertainment I turn to inspirational, mindfulness and wellbeing podcasts. I don’t listen to these when I’m not exercising, but somehow for me they make the perfect accompaniment for a turn round the block.
There’s my top 10. But I can’t stop there, I’ve just got to include:
A bonus item
(because I can’t just stop at 10 and nobody ever lists their top 11 of anything)
A cheap, versatile and highly compact alternative to any home gym equipment you might find on a shopping channel. ‘Nuff said.
Try before you buy
Well, there you are, that’s my top 10 exercise essentials (plus bonus). Their cost ranges from just under €200 down to free, but I value them all equally. I didn’t get all of these at once. I’ve acquired them over time and the only risk I really needed to take was to splash out for shoes that fit. The only money I’ve really wasted has been on sports bras that aren’t fit for purpose and embarrassing leggings.
Here’s hoping that what I’ve learned about exercise gear, and about choosing them over the years, will give you a shortcut to more comfortable exercise sessions.
My top tip for choosing stuff? If you’re going to be wearing them, try them on: shoes and bras for support, comfort and ease of use and leggings for what they might reveal. Good light and an unforgiving mirror are your friend.
But if you still love those leggings, even if they are anatomically very, very correct - well go for it, girl! I have nothing but respect!