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Why gym won't fix it

ANNALISA BARBIERI stopped her rigorous exercise regime, and guess what? She feels fantastic
Since I was 16 (I am now 32) I have exercised. Initially it was quite humble: running round the park, home exercise videos, stretching. But in more recent years I have belonged to a gym, progressing from council- subsidised places to posher and more expensive ones. There I would swim, lift weights, do cycle- Reebok and body-pump classes; run on a treadmill, intensifying my workouts with interval training; climb thousands of flights of stairs on the Stairmaster and trek past miles of imaginary cross-country-skiing scenery. Then suddenly I stopped, last November, on the 15th. I know the date quite precisely because I kept a "workout" diary, although I always hid it because owning one of these is just not cool.

Initially I stopped because my workload was just too much and something had to give. Then financial restrictions forced me to consider cancelling my gym membership of pounds 67 a month. I really had to think about this because, having been a member of a gym for 14 years, the thought of cutting loose made me uneasy. (I gave myself a three-month safety-net, time off before I finally cancelled it.) But, luckily, while pondering all this, the decision was made easier. Strange things had started to happen to me and staying away from the gym turned into a sort of experiment. I wanted to see what would happen next.

The first thing I noticed was the release from the grind of having to get up at 6.30am. It was tremendous. Although once there I had always loved the gym, leaving a warm bed while it was still dark was nearly always hard. Late-night drinking sessions had to be coordinated with "gym days". And because missing the gym traditionally meant massive guilt, I was nervous that not going at all would make me permanently guilty. It didn't; having let myself off the hook I felt peaceful and completely guilt-free.

About that time, quite coincidentally, I heard Madonna on Oprah Winfrey's show saying that she had given up the gym too, to do yoga instead. I felt smug, ahead of a trend, except that I didn't take up the yoga. Each non- gym day (every day!) seemed precious and I could go to bed cosy in the knowledge that the next day (every day!) meant a lie-in. A lie-in. Even now I can repeat those words and really, truly understand - appreciate - the meaning of them. For years I'd heard much about breakfast television. Finally I discovered it for myself.

When you've worked out for years and, like me, are still human shaped, it's easy to think the gym is doing nothing for you. But how wrong I was. Each day new bits of me started to soften. I could never understand why doing 200 sit-ups a day still left me with a tummy but then I discovered the bit betwixt breast and belly button: the stomach.

I had never even thought of this part of my body before because it had been flat, non-existent. It stayed right out of the way. But, two, three months of doing no sit-ups whatsoever and I started to appreciate the benefit that had been gleaned from those crunchies.

Nevertheless, with the same thoroughness that I had once exercised, I was now keen to lead a completely, totally exercise-free life. I did no sit-ups and inevitably my tummy grew a bit larger.

Then something really unexpected started to happen. You won't believe it because I could scarcely believe it, but as my body curved and softened, a new confidence overtook me. My boyfriend spent an inordinate amount of time making my bottom wobble and I watched, as if detached and thought, "I am a woman and that's what my bottom does". I even started to love the small fleshy folds that had delicately started to form. I was turning into a human Viennetta, and I loved it. I also held myself differently. I wasn't breathing in all the time: I felt free. A bit like when you know no one can see you and you suddenly let yourself breathe out and hang out (maybe like when you're pregnant and you feel like you suddenly have an excuse to have a big belly).

But I didn't just catapult into gluttony, which was another oddity. Because going to the gym puts so much emphasis on the pursuit of a perfect body, I realised it had also, subliminally, made me more hung up about what I ate. And thinking about what you eat is never a good idea because "slipping up" (or slipping down a huge slice of cake) makes you feel guilty, which leads to more obsession with food. Not going to the gym shifted this focus and I naturally ate less - there's nothing like removing the guilt from food to make it at once more enjoyable, yet also making you eat from hunger, not comfort.

I also felt like I had "grown up" and going to the gym was just not as important anymore. Now when I look at women of a certain age who have obviously never worked out, I think how interesting they look, whereas once I would have thought, "God they've let themselves go". And I realise that they're very probably happier and more confident than their gym-going sisters, because not exercising in itself takes a certain amount of confidence.

It doesn't make me want to join them; apart from anything else let us not forget how beneficial exercise is for our health. There are days when I'm stiffer, slower, more stressed and have less energy than when I worked out. Not to mention considerably less toned, which after a while, is not so great. I put my hands on my hips and they reach their destination rather sooner than they did. But I would recommend having a gym sabbatical to anyone who has exercised steadily for years.

A break makes you realise many things. Going to the gym shouldn't be just about trying to get a beautiful body, but to keep you strong and supple for as long as possible. The re-entry into the gym (for I will go back) will somehow be easier knowing this.

There's also nothing like watching yourself soften up to realise that the gym did actually yield results - which I have found heartening. Not working out also makes you remarkably more tolerant of your body and other people's and it gives you a glimpse into what your body would be like if left to nature (and this I found fascinating).

Like fields, we can all benefit from being left to fallow every now and again. But most importantly, it makes you let go and watch what happens. And it really isn't that scary.