The Joys of Jogging

Scientists say they have proof that jogging makes you live longer. So why aren't we all doing it? The problem is that taking those first few steps can be quite an ordeal, as Emily Wilson found out.

By Emily Wilson, Guardian, Tuesday September 12, 2000

No one looks cool jogging. And no one looks clever (although they may well look big). The fact is that, for anyone who doesn't jog, jogging is for mugs. Saddos. The kind of people who freak out when they finish their 800th sit-up and find that someone is using the gym machine that they were planning to use next (which means – gasp – messing with their gym programme).

If you don't jog, jogging is also, quite simply, impossible. When you do run for a couple of minutes - when needs really must – you find yourself beetroot-red in the face, slick with sweat and barely able to breathe. It is disgusting, painful and undignified. And if in a two-minute dash to a bus stop you can be reduced to such a revolting wreck, what would happen in four minutes? Or even 10? How can it be physically possible to run for 20, which is how long they say (laugh) "beginners" should jog for?

I jog now, very slowly, but very definitely and sort of regularly (in a random kind of way), and I enjoy it. Or at least feel smug and energetic and quite holy for having done it. I don't care that people tease me for shuffling along so slowly or for chatting so much while I shuffle. I am a jogging evangelist: I think it is the best exercise anyone could possibly do and I think that it has a more profound impact on your body than anything else you can do. If you want to get fit, lose weight or chill out, there's nothing better.

There will always be people who preach the evils of jogging – we've all heard about dedicated joggers dropping dead in their running shoes at the age of 50 - but in last week's British Medical Journal, Danish researchers said that their study of 20,000 people showed that regular joggers are far less likely to die prematurely than non-joggers.

So it's good for you. But how to start? I'll never forget how hard it was at the beginning: gazing up at an Everest-scape of sweat and panting, and knowing that I would never be able to do it and that even if I did it would be terminally boring. The start of me and my jogging came roughly seven years after I had last done any credible form of exercise (hockey, at school), when I joined a gym and was "inducted". They looked at me and pinched the skin on my ribs and hips with calipers and asked if I smoked (I lied) and was told off for having drunk a coffee before coming for my induction (they smelt it on my breath - at four paces!). Then I was asked to climb on and off a box a few times. "D'you know what?" the woman said, looking at her stopwatch. "Let's leave the fitness test until later, a few months or so – it will be more encouraging that way."

Then she took me around the machines and gave me a list of exercises, with a note of how long I should do each for. After five minutes of cycling as a warm-up, my chief task was to spend about 15 minutes on a running machine. Walking for two minutes, jogging for two minutes, walking for two minutes...

And so I began. To get to the end of each two minutes of jogging was definitely on the vile side of OK, but it wasn't impossible. There was no minimum speed limit: I blobbed along awkwardly, vaguely shame-faced, at walking pace. And the two minutes of walking in between was fine. I was on a running machine, for God's sake, and I had a tailor-made gym programme: I was on the road to health and fitness. Years of smoking, drinking and sloth neatly expunged.

For the next three months or so, I stuck rigidly to my "running" routine. I went to the gym three times a week, pretty much, and I did my two minutes jogging, two minutes walking... Slowly, it became easy. I stopped going red in the face and I stopped feeling uncomfortable. The woman in the gym persuaded me to buy proper shoes (those expensive cross trainer things) and a proper jogging bra (if you can breathe or look as if you still have breasts, it is not tight enough), but I refused a further instruction session: there was no need. I was on the road: it was go, go, go.

Then one morning a friend joined me at the gym. Not a fitness freak but an ordinary woman. I watched her jog, next to me, for 16 minutes. No backchat, no fuss, no comment. No, "Look, I am jogging. I am running. I am a hero." When I got off, at the end of my programme, she continued for another four minutes, but said nothing about it. She did not take me aside and say, "I have just jogged for 20 minutes. My life will never be the same again."

It was then I realised that the jogging-walking thing was over. Jogging is like a relationship, the woman in the gym said, and a relationship is, she went on, very much like a shark: if it's not moving forward, it's dead in the water.

It was time to take the next step: continuous jogging. A big, long chunk of continuous jogging. At walking pace, clearly, but continuous. First four minutes, then six minutes... all very dull. Much duller than two minutes. It was during this period that I took the big step off the running machine and into the outside. I went for "a run" in the park. The first thing I noticed was how much faster the time went by outside. Ducks, swans, leaves, dog shit, pedestrians, people on roller blades, other joggers (how quickly they all went); a world of amusement to keep my mind from my watch. Within a month I was going for 20-minute runs. About 30 minutes door to door, with walking at each end. No equipment, no fuss and bother getting to a gym. No faffing about.

Enter another friend, a regular jogger. He watched me run (walking alongside me) and said that there was no point in going so slowly. It was doing me no good at all. I wasn't sweating and I wasn't getting out of breath and all I was really doing was walking in a sort of jogging motion. Which was better than doing nothing, but probably not quite as good as walking quickly in a normal fashion.

And so it came to pass: I speeded up. Not so many people would notice, but just a bit. Just a bit so that I was sort of running, really, although very slowly, rather than walking. A major breakthrough.

A marathon-running friend of my mother told me not long afterwards that I was doing fine. She said not to listen too much to macho male joggers anyway: they all had their own theories, and most of them were rubbish. She said the secret was to never run at a speed that it was uncomfortable to chat at. Gradually the speed at which I could comfortably chat would increase, and every now and then I should simply consider speeding up a bit, just to see if I could.

About eight months into my new life as a jogger, I returned to the gym for my fitness test. I was weighed and found that without ever actually getting unpleasantly tired or ever having gasped for breath, I had lost about eight pounds. The woman strapped wires to me while I cycled and said I was on the "very fit" bit of the scale. (A dodgy scale, undoubtedly, but thrilling all the same.)

And just like that, I was a new woman. I could run for buses without breaking into a sweat. When I tested it, I found that having broken through the 20-minute barrier, I could comfortably blob along for an hour without any bother at all.

People complain that if they run they get sore knees or bad hips, or pains in their shins, but I suspect they're simply running too fast and too long, on unforgiving surfaces, such as Tarmac, and failing to chat enough. I can't imagine that my 20 minutes spent scuffing up the grass, two or three times a week, is seriously going to damage me.

My love of jogging is now about three years old and naturally, the love is prone to dips. For the past four months, I've barely been out to the park once a week. But somehow, it doesn't matter. The point is now that however slack I am, however long I leave between runs, I can still go out and jog for 20 minutes, and feel better for it. I know that the difference between slothdom and fitness is just a few gentle jogs away. Having overcome the horror of it that once, I know it will never be that hard again.

And the best of it, the very best of it, is that not only is jogging free, but you can do it anywhere – along a mountain ridge, barefoot on a beach – wherever you find yourself.

Best foot forward: how to get started

  • Before you start, walk for a while or, if you're in a gym, do a few minutes cycling, just to warm up your muscles.
  • After the warm-up do about five minutes of gentle stretches. Get someone to come up with a routine for you if you have no idea how to start. Don't forget to stretch your arms, back and sides – jogging isn't just about your legs.
  • Start jogging slowly. You cannot start too slowly. Don't worry about feeling silly.
  • Alternate jogging with walking, until you feel happy leaving out the walking bits.
  • In the first weeks, jog or walk-jog for not more than about 15 or 20 minutes at a time. At first, twice a week is plenty. Later you can up it to three times a week (after about four sessions, though, you're in danger of becoming a freak).
  • The right kit is essential. You have to buy trainers that are specifically designed for jogging, ideally for both outside and inside a gym. And if you start jogging regularly, you're meant to buy a new pair every six months. For women, an ordinary bra will not do. You need something that squishes your breasts against your ribcage and holds them completely still while you run. Anything else is a grave error. Other than that, you can wear anything you don't mind getting sweaty and doesn't restrict your movement or chafe your skin.
  • If your muscles hurt or you have any sharp pains or complaints, don't jog. Likewise if you're clinically obese. Do something more gentle, like swimming or brisk walking.
  • Remember that just because you are a champion swimmer or a world class climber, doesn't mean you're going to find jogging easy. You only train for what you train for: every sport uses a different set of muscles.