Can a non-gym goer be converted by the six week F45 Challenge?
I’m not a gym person, so I’d never heard of the F45 Challenge. Never in my life have I spent more than 15 minutes in a gym, and when friends talk about the gym, I zone out. Gym-going is one of the things that I just don’t do, like owning a dog, or watching football. It’s for other people. But. I used to think that having children and caring about your garden was something other people did, until I did them too. Also: baking cakes, mountain biking, unblocking the sink. I do all of those things now. Obviously, things change.
In middle age, the gym begins to beckon. The combination of lockdown, working from home, a sedentary job and my advancing years is an unfortunate one, leaving me wondering what was happening to my clothes. They just didn’t feel quite right. Maybe they had shrunk in the cupboard. I must have known, subconsciously, what was going on because somehow I found myself in the gym standing on a scanning machine in my bare feet. The F45 phenomenon is well-known – everyone I have talked to has heard of it but I hadn’t (it’s for other people). F45 is a global phenomenon originating in Australia, and the popular signature 45 day Challenge is designed to deliver tangible results in just six weeks. Could I become that person?
The journey starts with a body scan that delivers alarming results: my body fat percentage (high), muscle mass (low), visceral fat level (also high – and this is the bad one, an indicator of future stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other nasties). Plus, of course, weight (almost 10kg more than I was used to). The scanner delivers me an overall score: 64 out of 100 – which is worse than it might sound, because the best scores are in fact over 100. The message is clear: I am a candidate for the Challenge.
My first class at the Kensal Green studio is eye-opening. The instructors give us a brief demonstration, in a very upbeat way, of each movement to come, and they all look harmless enough. There are nine different stations, and the idea is to do 40 seconds of work, then 20 seconds of rest; three sets in each station, then move on to the next one. Equipment includes kettlebells, dumbells, barbells, ybells, resistance bands, sandbags. Staff are so friendly and encouraging that the whole thing seems like it’s about having fun. But once we start, it’s a different story. Each of these harmless-seeming exercises is not harmless at all. To start there are jumps and burpees, which make 40 seconds into an eternity. One exercise involves running sideways across the room – again, looks fine, but feels torturous. And then there are the weights. Even the lightest weights defeat me. I’m easily the worst in the class. But because each exercise is relatively brief, with small breaks in between – and because the whole thing lasts just 45 minutes including the intro and warm-up – I manage to get to the end. Simona, the lovely instructor, texts me after I leave to check if I’m ok. She admits it was a hard class, because “the cardio ones are the worst”.
The F45 Challenge’s winning formula is all down to psychology. Everything is geared towards pushing you hard, but not so hard that you give up. So I’m back the next day, for a resistance workout that focuses on the upper body. It takes me a while to get the hang of the circuit – it’s faster than yesterday’s and seems to be over quite quickly, but then I see we have to do it again. Almost instantly I’m experiencing extreme arm fatigue, even though I am lifting much lighter weights than everyone else. Still, I’m not humiliated, though I’m grateful for the lack of mirrors in the room. There’s another congratulatory text when I get home, and I’ve been added to a Whatsapp group where people share baffling screenshots showing their progress graphs.
Each class has an aspirational name that makes it sound more glamorous than the reality. Miami Nights, for instance, might imply a pool party on Ocean Drive but in fact it’s sweating in a basement in Kensal Green. Foxtrot is not a dance. Mont Blanc is not downhill. But it’s all part of the winning F45 psychology, which clearly works. There are no clocks, but screens show a live countdown of how much of the session is left. With class content changing on a monthly basis, there’s enough variety so that it’s never boring – and the idea is that if you’re doing the Angry Birds class, say, then so is everyone else in the F45 world. Classes are the same everywhere, so if you want to continue training as you travel, you could visit the nearest F45 franchise, as if it were an AA meeting.
The Challenge also includes a nutrition plan, which is much better than it sounds, and there’s an idiotproof app that gives you a menu for each day (three meals plus two snacks) including recipes and even a shopping list that you can add straight to your supermarket order. Obviously there’s no sugar – and no alcohol – and the focus is on protein, but the recipes are in fact pretty good and you’re even allowed (some) carbohydrates and sweet treats, most of them featuring oats, peanut butter and protein powder.
After about five classes, it’s getting easier and I’m choosing heavier weights. Two weeks in I’m no longer in pain the next day, At class 21, I realise that I’m finding it quite manageable (though the class after that wipes me out). The progress is clear: my posture is better, my shoulders feel freer and my clothes feel more normal. After six weeks, it’s time for another scan and results are impressive. My body fat percentage is down, my muscle mass is up. I have lost several kilos of fat and gained significant muscle. And mentally? Having completed four sessions a week for six weeks, I’m not ready to stop. I’m now officially a gym person.