The trials involved in joining a gym

Getting a visa to North Korea with 'investigative journalist' in my passport would have been simpler

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Being ahead of the game is not usually my forte but at least a month before Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical adviser, suggested that all adults should take 30 minutes' exercise every day if they wanted to keep fit, I joined my local gym. What a performance. Getting a visa to North Korea with "investigative journalist" written in my passport would have been simpler.

Being ahead of the game is not usually my forte but at least a month before Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical adviser, suggested that all adults should take 30 minutes' exercise every day if they wanted to keep fit, I joined my local gym. What a performance. Getting a visa to North Korea with "investigative journalist" written in my passport would have been simpler.

My children have been urging me to take exercise for years. They, of course, belong to gyms and have the latest trainers, tracksuits, sweat bands and anti-jog devices on their Walkman. When I went to the gym my student son belongs to in Newcastle, I was dazzled by its sophistication. As well as the rows of gleaming computerised exercise machines, there was a health juice bar, a video library, a chill-out room and a corridor lined with stripped pine doors that said Massage, Aromatherapy, Personal Trainer consultancy etc.

My gym falls into the basic no-frills category. Before it became a sports and leisure centre it was called the Corporation Baths with all the glamour inherent in that title. At least a dozen local schools used it. The first time I set foot in its gloomy interior was to see my daughter compete in the under-eights backstroke quarter-finals. One of the other mothers persuaded me to go swimming with her once a week and for a while I did, trying hard not to notice the flotsam and jetsam bobbing about in the water beside me - used sticking plasters, cotton wool, clumps of hair. One morning taking a breather in the shallow end I stood on someone's dental plate with three forlorn teeth attached to it and decided I would run round the park instead.

So anyway I bit the bullet and made an appointment to see the admissions secretary. The problem was trying to work out what sort of member I wanted to be - comprehensive, off-peak, with family but without use of pool, with use of pool but without exercise classes, weekend only including yoga; the combinations were infinite. No pool, no classes, no yoga, no family - just half an hour on the running machine every day, I said, and when I had filled in the monthly direct debit form I was referred to someone called Dan for induction.

It's a curious thing but now, standing in a bus queue or waiting to check out my library book, I can glance around and pick out the people whose body language suggests they have recently been induced by a tall blonde muscle-bound Australian called Dan. They're the ones staring vacantly into space or biting their nails or looking nervous. I was doing all of these after my induction with Dan.

I thought I was going to be shown how the machines worked, but induction turned out to be a quick-fire question-and-answer session about what I thought I was going to achieve by taking regular exercise. And if you are daft enough to think that the answer is "well, to be healthier I suppose" then think again. We talked about happiness, fulfilment, satisfaction, the meaning of life and being at one with ourselves and the world. We talked about harmony, inner peace and the incomparable joy of being in control of our own special space. When I say we, I actually mean Dan because after that first travesty of an answer about wanting to be healthier, I shut up and let Dan do the talking.

Having convinced me that within three months of joining the gym I would have the body of Carmen Electra, the motivation of Hillary Clinton and the confidence of Germaine Greer, Dan showed me how to work the running machine. It was dead easy, he said, standing me in front of the sort of control panel that lands spacecraft on Jupiter. "You just punch in your weight," he said, "then your age, pulse rate, blood pressure, speed, distance, time, gradient, mother's maiden name, expiry date and away you go."

I spend an hour at the gym every morning, half an hour setting the machine and half an hour running. Of course I feel better but the main satisfaction comes from how many audio books I've managed to get through in a month. I'm halfway through Proust, for heaven's sake. Sometimes I get distracted by the weightlifters, one in particular, a well-built young man who wears a skimpy vest and shorts ensemble.

A recent survey revealed that 60 per cent of people who join gyms give up after two weeks and another 20 per cent after a month. I wonder how long I'll last. Tesco apparently has introduced a new German-designed trolley that helps you to exercise as you shop. Maybe I'll stop running for my life and shop till I drop instead.

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