Exercise – one of the few things we’re allowed to do outside

Dora Thornton talks to Clerkenwell personal trainer Vicky Neal

Walk through Spa Fields, just off Exmouth Market, in the early morning and you are likely to see Vicky with her group of five middle-aged locals exercising together — often accompanied by Berry, Vicky’s black Labrador. The group has been training together for five years now – me and my husband are the newcomers – and it meets in all conditions, throughout the year. It is of course Covid compliant and socially distanced and always meets outdoors.

During lockdown, classes continue on Zoom. But meeting outside (when regulations allow) is a big thing for everyone. “Being out of doors is good for your immune system,” says Vicky. “It’s good for your mental health and it is very grounding. We all feel a little smug for being outside in all weathers. We are with nature for at least an hour, doing something which is good for us and it’s a special time for each of us and for the group.”

Vicky says that regular exercise outdoors keeps you attuned to nature and the changing seasons and bird song. The group often meets before dawn, so you notice the light and the changing skies and foliage – particularly valuable during the current pandemic.

Turning up regularly makes the group tick. “You come because you want to spend an hour with your friends,” she says. “It is much more motivating than exercising alone. Everyone has a bit of a laugh, a chat and we have coffee together afterwards in Exmouth Market.”

Vicky started working as a personal trainer with an advanced qualification in weight loss six years ago. She came to it gradually, having started as an aerialist, doing double trapeze acts as a circus artist. Then she had her three children, Ford, Paola, and Max. As a single mother, she could only start going to the gym once they were at primary school. She qualified in holistic massage and reflexology before qualifying as a personal trainer. She is also a dedicated sports climber, appreciating climbing’s meditative quality: “You’re in the moment, working out how to do the moves.” What she would most like to do now, as a qualified Pilates instructor, is to develop a local Pilates class of around ten people, and she hopes to find the right kind of indoor space.

For now, she will keep training in Spa Green. “It is the perfect community park,” she says. “People who are not coming here and using it are missing out.” Vicky is, however, the only personal trainer who keeps going throughout the winter. Not everyone likes exercising in the rain and the cold, but Vicky is clear about what they are missing: “If you flick the switch it is a joy to feel the rain on your face and you feel you have lived a bit; you’ve put yourself out in a tiny way and you’ve challenged yourself. You have made a choice to embrace the weather and the conditions and the training. There is a joy to that, and a feeling of accomplishment. Outdoor exercise brings reality to our lives.

Please check the latest government advice on group exercise.

If you’d like to make up an exercise group or join a group, or do Pilates one-to-one or with a few friends, please contact Vicky, 07944 543643