The low-tech road to fitness

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AS I sit here at my mahogany desk with a view over the Bay and the delightful prospect of dinner at my club, in an hour, I am clearly hallucinating.

Let's try again. As I sit here at my kitchen table, fingers dyed with wood stain, clothes impregnated with brick dust and shoes caked in samples from the plain of soil I have been attempting to scrape, dig and batter into a semblance of level ground, the phrase "low maintenance garden" is taking on a faintly mocking air.

Working as a human JCB can have its attractions. Many years ago, on my first - and last - archeological dig, I experienced the physical shock of navvying. After spending the first day under a blazing sun, hacking out a long trench in the side of a Dorset hill, for no apparent reason, I was told that this task was, indeed, all we were seeking to accomplish. It was by way of being a test trench. A preliminary. Or, as I preferred to think of it, in my sweaty state, a tragic waste of human time.

Worse was to come, as anyone who has ever sought the elusive satisfactions of a neolithic dig will know. I went into the operation with visions of uncovering sealed chambers of Tutankhamun - or failing that, a decent quota of grinning skulls, skeletons and weapons.

When, after day five, of chain-gang activity, the director of the dig became very excited about a patch of discoloured earth which almost certainly evidenced the position of an old wooden posthole, I began to see the whole exercise in a new and depressing light.

And the attractions? Stopping. When you've really been working hard, there's simply nothing like it.

There are, of course, more convenient ways to work up a sweat. Somewhere in my drawer, jumbled in with children's pictures, receipts, defunct clocks and headless salt dough footballers - don't ask - there is a membership card for my local gym.

On it, as I recall, my wife and I have credits for 10 visits. But since that bright, hopeful, introductory day, well over a year ago now, neither of us has quite managed to find the time to - or even faintly want to - go back.

It is nothing against the amiable young chap who showed us around the weights room, pointing out how different combinations could exercise our upper or lower abdomens and advising us on the wisest opening settings for the computerised rowing machines in case we caught a metaphorical crab. It is nothing against the clientele. When we were there we met another parent from our children's school and spent a number of shamelessly idle minutes discussing the county's proposed changes to nursery intake. It is, simply, that the whole business is so self-obsessed. And repetitive. And Boring. And repetitive.

My short-cut into town takes me through the car park of the local aerobics centre, and as I weave between the glinting BMWs and Mercedes and here the boom of the music and the relentless amplified instructions of the group leader, I try to say to myself: "Each to their own." Or: "What a dull old world it would be if we were all the same." This doesn't usually work.

Running, assuming we are not talking about something which is performed on one of those bossy little treadmills, is a lot better form of physical activity. You can at least watch the world glide by, even if there is a danger of becoming prey to irrational bouts of shame around April because, once again, you are not running the London Marathon.

Mental rehearsal techniques can be of use here. Practice in your mind's eye crossing paths with a far older runner in a T-shirt bearing the inscription "I survived the London Marathon" and see yourself passing them without a flicker of emotion. If, and this once happened to me, they shout out something comradely like "are you doing the London?", envision yourself replying politely but firmly "not this year". That leaves open the possibility that you are on some form of sabbatical.

But if it's exercise you want - and there is no sacred reason why you should - then in my experience you can't beat navvying. It has all the repetitive thoughtlessness of the gym, but at the end of the working day you have gained as a means, rather than as an end. That is, you can point at something outside yourself that has been improved.

Such as, to pick an example at random, a back garden featuring a line of half-painted trellis, stacks of as yet unlaid bricks and a large stretch of wobbly, stony earth. All this low maintenance business - it takes working on.