It is one of the great mysteries of modern life: why is sports kit designed for people who are already fit? The love-handle-hugging racer-back vest, the rinky-dinky shortie shorts, these are garments for people who have already been to the gym, on a regular basis, for a number of years.
They are not suitable for the reluctant beginner or the weary irregular whose body is less of a temple and more of a derelict shopping mall. Newish jogger Lorna Gibbs sums it up, “My problem with nice running gear is that it all assumes you are already thin and want to show off your body. Where is the nice gear for people like me, who are not quite there yet?
The alternatives are the sagging trackie bottoms, the holey Runrig T-shirt, the swimsuit with bald patches where the Lycra has given up the fight. No one looks good in these. Most of us can find plenty of reasons to avoid taking regular exercise without adding hideous trousers into the equation. “If you are a size 14 or more, there are enough barriers to going to the gym without adding another one,” says Kerensa Sheen.
“It can be very intimidating – you don’t know how to use the equipment, you think you look fat ...”
Sheen should know. A former size 12 tennis and basketball player, since becoming a size 16 she has found it almost impossible to buy smart kit. Things came to a head when her similarly sized sister, Michaela Milne, was packing for a posh boot camp. “She tried online but there were none of the colours or styles she liked in her size. She tried all the best shops but there was nothing in the ladies’ department. She eventually found herself in the men’s department and had to buy things in ugly beige that didn’t fit.
“She ended up on this really expensive holiday, hiking up a hill, worrying that her walking trousers were halfway up her bum.”
This frustration prompted Sheen and Milne to set up their company, State of Mind, to fill the ‘what do I wear while I’m getting fit?’ gap for women sized 16 to 20, and they hope to expand their range to men and children – it isn’t just the ladies’ ranges that is beige and hideous when it gets above gymnast size. “I see it in men and women,” says personal trainer Ray Scott. “When people start coming to the gym or to classes, especially if they are a bit overweight, they wear big baggy clothes in dull colours. As the weight starts to come off, they start buying Nike, they wear brighter colours and they’re more co-ordinated.”
Personal experience has convinced him that there is a connection between making an effort to look sharp on the treadmill and working longer, harder and more efficiently. “I was ill and couldn’t train for six months. I put on quite a lot of weight, and when I went back I was wearing a grotty old T-shirt. As I got back into shape, I started wearing nicer gear and enjoying it more.
“If you look in the mirror and feel good about yourself, you have a better workout. If you feel that you look crap, you work less hard. I also think brighter colours make people feel better. I buy new kit all the time.”
Sports psychologist Kris Dun, who works with elite athletes, can see that kit has a huge effect on top-tier sportsmen and women. “When it’s the national identity, and you put on the strip, you are part of something bigger, channelling the energy of all the other athletes who have gone before you.”
But they care about how it looks as well as how it performs. “It has got to look good in the fashion sense, and their bodies have also got to look good in it. If their sponsors, or the national team, get it wrong, they will moan about it.”
But when it comes to mere mortals, she is not convinced that a brand-new and flattering extra-long vest that refuses to ride up and expose the rippling muffin overspill area is enough to get a terminal loafer off the couch. “If you are thinking of going to the gym and the choice is to wear one thing that makes you look awful and another that makes you look hot, then it might help. But I’m very nervous of saying it’s going to get someone out of bed.”
Others are not so sure. Dawn Bartlett, who buys her size-20 workout gear from State of Mind, gave up a swanky gym membership because she was “so intimidated by the skinny minnies working out there”. She now goes to Zumba classes and aqua aerobics. “I feel held in, fashionable, confident and the swimsuit holds me in all the right places. These pieces have made me more confident to move more – something I didn’t feel in my M&S kit at all.”
There is definitely a market for sportswear in more generous sizes, says Ray Scott. He often sees new clients hiding their comfortable, efficient, sweat-wicking sports vest underneath an ancient T-shirt – which makes for a clammy workout. “Nike and and other big brands are for skinny people and young guys with six packs.”
As someone who sells this stuff for a living, Sheen has no doubt that comfortable, efficient and funky kit motivates women to exercise. “I am convinced of it. I know myself from gaining weight that, when I’m invited to do something, the first thing I worry about is what I’m going to wear. I don’t want to play tennis or go to a Zumba class if I don’t have anything nice to put on.
“One of our customers told us recently that she loves wearing our fleece on her bike, so she can go cycling without showing her bottom cleavage. That’s great. The more barriers we can take away, the better.”
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Friday 24 May 2013
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