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Why we need a fat people’s Olympics to reclaim sport from the sporty

Now I'm running regularly, I find myself wondering what we could do to make exercise an appealing habit from childhood – and, more importantly, give people the space to do it.

By Helen Lewis

I hate exercise. It hates me. It’s too simple to blame everything on your upbringing but in this case I do: after a skinny childhood in which I was everyone’s first choice for Goal Shooter, something went wrong at puberty that left me a bloated husk with a deep antipathy to getting out of breath. Two decades later, in the arms race between my expanding girth and high-street vanity sizing, I am beginning to pull ahead.

So I run. Well, jog. Well, trot. Well, trot with interludes of walking, wheezing, sets of “stretches” designed to buy time, and occasional dead stops where I just want to die. I don’t perspire, like women do in exercise adverts. I sweat and go bright red. No matter how cold it is, I invariably come home looking like one of those unflattering paparazzi shots of Fergie on a sunlounger in the 1990s.

And I keep waiting to start enjoying it. In 2011, the patron saint of nerds, Charlie Brooker, outed himself as a runner. “I always hated healthy outgoing types,” he wrote in the Guardian. “When they smugged on about how physical exercise gave them an endorphin rush, I felt like coughing blood in their eyes. Now, to my dismay, to my disgust, I discover they were right. If I don’t get to run, I become irritable, like a constipated bear that can’t find the woods.” For me, it’s the opposite problem: I could cheerfully never run again and pass the time by filling a room to the brim with Pringles and eating my way out.

Because there’s plenty of time to think on a run, I often wonder about how I got here. Surely it wasn’t the intention of my school to leave me vowing at 18 never to move ­beyond a brisk walk? If so, was the focus on competitive sport, on picking teams, on winning, really worth it? As far as I know, my school produced no Olympic athletes. It did, however, produce lots of girls like me, disliking their body but too intimidated to do anything about it.

The way we look at exercise is skewed, mostly because we usually see it done by people who are good at it. Sportswear advertising is supposed to be aspirational, but all those ripped abs and immaculate high ponytails feel alienating. They reinforce the idea that sport is for the sporty.

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Then there’s the Olympics, the Premier League, the NFL and Wimbledon: competitions filled with genetic freaks nurtured with expensive, hi-tech training and nutrition regimes. David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene underlined just how few of us could compete at this level, no matter how great our “will to win”. Eero Mäntyranta, the great Finnish cross-country skier, had a DNA mutation that caused his bone marrow to produce extra red blood cells, meaning there was more oxygen in his blood. Kenyan long-distance runners often have helpfully thin calves and ankles, and live at altitudes that boost red cell production. If you’re a cankled Caucasian living at sea level, you approach the starting line with a disadvantage.

Watching gloriously gened, exquisitely trained specimens fight for cups and gold medals might make great television, but it also encourages us to see exercise and sport as linked inextricably. I love the Paralympics, and its message that what matters is endeavour; it makes me wish that there was a Fat Olympics, or a Commonwealth Games for those who have overcome the profound challenge of being habitually lazy and genetically useless.

Then again, what I really want is a celebration of sport that isn’t competitive at all. Exercise needs to be seen as its own reward, something you can do even if you’re rubbish at it. When I put on my trainers, I’m only in competition with my own arteries. And because running is incompatible with maintaining a sense of your own ridiculousness, I do sometimes whisper to myself those inspirational slogans you see on trainer adverts: why yes, I am lapping everyone on the couch.

We need to make it easier to get back to exercise if the habit does not stick in childhood. There are two easy ways that the state could help, but it doesn’t seem fussed about either. In June 2015, the Treasury announced that the public-health grant to local authorities would be cut by £200m, even though the King’s Fund estimates that obesity costs the National Health Service £1.1bn a year. The think tank also found that Birmingham’s Be Active programme of free leisure centres and other initiatives saved £23 in quality of life and decreased NHS use for every £1 spent. Because public-health spending is classed as council expenditure, it isn’t protected by the NHS ring fence; however, cuts to it will be felt by the health service for years to come.

Second, we could do better in protecting our parks – which are far less intimidating to use than creeping into a gym and admitting you don’t know how to use any of the machines. There was outrage last month when Stoke Gifford Parish Council in south Gloucestershire tried to charge those taking part in Park Run – one of hundreds of free, weekly, timed 5K runs around Britain. The fee was a “health tax”, said one set of councillors; it was necessary to fund the park, said another. They were both right.

In 2014, a Heritage Lottery Fund report found that although 34 million people use a park every year, 86 per cent of managers reported budget cuts since 2010 and 45 per cent of councils were considering selling off their parks. (Ever wonder why Hyde Park hosts that tacky Winter Wonderland for two months of the year? The Royal Parks have a £56m maintenance backlog and, contrary to the name, the Queen doesn’t chip in for their upkeep.)

The threat to our parks is part of a larger story about the privatisation of public space, and one that puts at risk every good intention we – and the government – have about getting fitter. Sport isn’t just for the sporty, and it shouldn’t just be for the rich, either. 

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This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump