I watched my first YouTube fitness video aged 21, at a time in my life when I was starting to realise that, rather than being "naturally skinny", I was merely "someone who did a lot of mephedrone". When pints became my drug of choice, my waist began to thicken and my cheeks grew plump; my friends and family began remarking on how "healthy" I looked, with what seemed like genuine relief.
As someone who had based my identity on being a heroin-chic waif, this was the last thing I wanted to hear. To make matters worse, I'd started working in a gastropub that specialised in pie-and-mash, where I would take home everything that was left at the end of each shift. In a chilling echo of that age-old playground taunt, I had, before long, quite literally eaten all the pies.
It was towards the end of my degree and, after years of living off Golden Virginia, Cup-a-Soup and ketamine, I felt lethargic and old before my time. I woke up one morning with a particularly vicious hangover – such moments have been the basis for almost every major life decision I've ever made – and decided I wanted to start exercising. More than that, I wanted to become the kind of person who exercised, which was also the kind of person who didn't have crooked teeth, and handed their essays in weeks ahead of the deadline, and whose boyfriend hadn't just broken up with them.
But to visit the university gym was unthinkable: I was convinced I would pass out after two minutes on a treadmill and get jeered at by the lacrosse team, that someone would film this and that the video would get picked up by LadBible, and then someone else would write a snarky op-ed about me in the uni newspaper. On some level, I believed that my sincere desire to become a healthier person made me a fraud, and that the world was just waiting to expose me. If I was to attempt exercising, I needed to do it in shameful secret.
I picked the first video I found on YouTube and did it every day for a week. Each day it became easier, and I was infused with a feeling of vitality, a newfound power in my body. I was fucking smashing it. I was a fitness guy now.
So it was extremely deflating when, after six days, I realised the video I had been watching was a deliberately easy, low-impact one aimed at pregnant women. Looking around for something more difficult, I noticed that underneath most fitness videos there were comments from people who had watched without taking part, but with a vague plan to do so one day. I found this sad but also kind of inspiring. Even the act of watching represented a will to do something different, the dream of becoming someone else. When I eventually attempted a work-out aimed at people who weren’t pregnant, I found it agonisingly difficult. At this stage, I’d been a smoker for years and could barely walk up a flight of stairs without getting out of breath. But I kept at it. It was the first time in my life I'd tried something and not given up.
That summer, I graduated from university and found myself in the strange limbo where a normal holiday bleeds into "being unemployed" so slowly you barely notice it happening. Living at my parents' house, I had no idea what I wanted to do, no sense of purpose, and in the absence of these things I leaned into exercise hard. I was doing longer and longer videos, lifting my brother's weights, beginning to see muscles developing for the first time, and so relinquishing the sense of myself I had as being an innately thin, fragile creature. It was during this time that I discovered the YouTube fitness channel that would go on to play a large role in my life: Fitness Blender.
Fitness Blender is a YouTube channel with over 5 million subscribers, run by a hearty American husband and wife duo named Daniel and Kelly. For half a decade, on-and-off, I have been obsessed with it. I can do a brilliant impression of Kelly's quasi-catchphrase (a chirpy "let's go ahead and get started!"), which is a real tragedy for me given I've never met another living soul who knows who she is – it's the kind of party trick that would swiftly see me stop getting invited to parties.
Daniel and Kelly have staked their worldview on the importance of fitness as the panacea for everything, and they don't want you to miss out on that – it's a sensibility based on a seemingly genuine sense of compassion. They never shout or lambast you in the way that many other online fitness instructors do. Instead, they forgive you, whether that's for not making it to the end of the video, switching to a lower impact version of a difficult exercise or even having a few beers with friends ("everyone needs to blow off a little steam from time to time!").
Every once in a while, Kelly gets serious for a second and reveals her own troubled journey towards not hating her body (it might surprise you to learn this, but she wasn't always the impossibly toned fitness guru you see before you). I find these moments of vulnerability oddly touching, even if they're playing into narratives of losing weight as redemption, which may well cause more harm than good.
Around the time I got into Fitness Blender, my parents were going through a divorce that I can only describe as "loud". It was a period soundtracked by doors slamming and frantic recriminations, temporary ceasefires and then one or the other stomping down the stairs to continue their lines of attack. Was it any wonder I found Fitness Blender and its vision of marital harmony, where everyone was kind and spoke only in calming tones, so inviting? I think what I really wanted, as a 21-year-old man, was for Daniel and Kelly to adopt me: I wanted to move into their LA condo and spend my days doing power skips and lateral steps, as they told me, "Great job!" I also kind of wanted to fuck Daniel, which complicates this analogy.
Eventually, I got a job and moved out of my parents' home. Since then, I've used fitness videos less and less, but even now they perform a function for me. I go to the gym a lot, but if I'm away from home or unwell, physically or mentally, it's easy for me to slip out of the habit. One of the sad ironies of depression, which I experience on occasion, is that the things you know will make you feel better are often the hardest to do. When I'm depressed, finding all my gym gear and heading into the rain to take a half-hour bus to the gym is a task so far out-of-reach it's absurd. Of course I'm not going to do that.
At times like these, when the thought of returning to the gym and being faced with my body's loss of function is unbearable, YouTube fitness videos have allowed me a way to slip back into exercise. They have provided me with a space where no one is judging me, where I can go as gently as I like, where I can do nothing more than prance about in my kitchen to a Cardi B song for ten minutes if that's all I can manage. I wouldn't say a YouTube fitness video has ever saved my life, exactly, but they have me helped through some bleak times. It always comes back to the same promise of becoming different, better, no longer sick.
As reluctant as I am to credit YouTube with providing a "public service", it's hard to think of a more accessible way of exercising. Although I don't use fitness videos much now, I know that if I'm ever too depressed to leave my house, or can't afford to keep up my gym membership, I'll be able to go back to them. Daniel and Kelly will be waiting for me, lycra-clad, bobbing gently on their feet, smiling wide. "Let's go ahead and get started…"