There’s just one reason I love the gym – and it’s not the exercise!

There I was at the gym, pulling weights. My personal trainer murmured her usual ‘Well done, missus!’ — and I realised I see more of her than I do any of my close friends.

Like many people, I have a love-hate relationship with the gym. Always have. If it wasn’t for Debbie Robinson I would never show up. She stands defiantly between me and the flab and is my confessor, fitness guru and friend all rolled into one.

The fitness trainer gets up close and personal in a not dissimilar way to what we see in Downton Abbey — where the grand ladies rely on their maids to keep their secrets as well as tend to their needs.

Firm friends : Bel (left) feels her trainer Debbie gives her great advice

Firm friends : Bel (left) feels her trainer Debbie gives her great advice

Modern ‘grand lady’ Madonna has a personal trainer called Tracy Anderson who works out with her famous client at least two hours a day, six days a week and probably knows more about her than any other living soul.

After all, the boyfriends don’t seem to last, but the sinewy star’s exercise regime goes on and on. So how did I, who was never picked for any team at school, end up with a personal trainer Like most life-changing moments, it happened by accident.

In 2006 I was divorced, in a new relationship and coming up to the big six-zero. Enough to focus the mind. But one sunny day I suddenly became ashamed to be so horribly unfit. I was on the beach at the famous Durdle Door beauty spot in Dorset.

My partner Robin (now my husband) had
already reached the top of the long, steep cliff path. When I started
the climb I became puffed after about four minutes. Stopping for breath,
chest heaving, I imagined him looking down on this doddery old biddy,
17 years his senior — the thought was humiliating.

Bel says the lessons she takes from her trainer go beyond mere exercise

Bel says the lessons she takes from her trainer go beyond mere exercise

The next day I saw an advert in our local glossy magazine for a ladies-only gym in the centre of Bath. There was a picture of gorgeous Debbie on a rowing machine. I didn’t know then that she was the owner, but I was sold.
When I nervously ventured in, I was relieved to see one or two middle-aged ladies in baggy clothes working out. This gym felt unthreatening.

But any notion I could wing it was dispelled when Debbie told me sternly that if I wanted her as a personal trainer then I needed to take it seriously.
Twice a week, she said. Twice! It was a grim thought. I paid upfront for ten sessions, not really believing I would stick it out. But I did.

Then two years ago Robin and I moved out of Bath and my relationship with Debbie was threatened. Seriously, I thought of divorce. Before our move I could walk down to the gym, now it became a 12-mile round trip, with hefty petrol and parking charges. I felt broke, exhausted and miserable because of what seemed like a mad decision to move to the sticks. My gym routine felt like the last straw. One day I walked in and started to cry.

‘I can’t do this,’ I said. She just smiled and said, ‘Come on — coffee.’ Down the road in a cafe, I poured out my troubles as she listened. ‘Don’t give up,’ she said, ‘coming here is time out.’

‘But it’s all too much for me,’ I sighed. ‘No, it’s not, Missus,’ came the crisp reply, ‘Just come once a week.’ Debbie needs my custom and I need her — it’s a good transaction.

77 per cent of adults waste money on gym memberships they never use, a recent survey found

She also gave me a pep talk about exercise being the best antidote to gloom — just the kind of thing I’ve told readers of my Saturday column.
Who advises the advice columnist Why, her personal trainer of course.
The stunning woman with snake-hips who knows that the human spirit needs a workout too.

Debbie has a black belt in sympathy — but it works both ways.
One year she was ground down by some serious family problems which went on and on. I never tired of listening to her sadness, frustration and rage. And she loved it when I cursed her tormenters in the language of the building site.

We share confidences and complaints about our adult children and their demands, admitting that we’re too ready to be at their beck and call.
If one feels irritated with her partner, the other will nod and say, ‘Yup, that’s men!’ We also sound off about issues like a couple of indignant blokes in a pub. ‘Don’t get me started’ she says — and so I do, because it’s fun.

When a recession bites people will sacrifice gym membership, but whatever happens I can’t give up my personal trainer. I’d rather hack at my own hair and walk past shoe shops. I need her as my conscience.
Debbie tells me I shouldn’t drink so much, and I know that — but when I work out with her I can cherish the illusion that I can lose the effects of the crisps and white wine.

When we shimmy to salsa together (‘Get those hips moving, Missus!’) I can fantasise that I’m as nifty a mover as she is. When I focus on my routine and she says, ‘That was good!’ I can believe for just a moment that I’m 48 (her age) not 65 — and getting younger every week. It’s worth every penny.

It’s strange, because the only time I meet her outside the gym is when we celebrate our birthdays, one day apart. It’s as if you inhabit your own private world — you and your personal trainer — set apart from the rest of your life. Yet perhaps not so.

The lessons I take from my trainer go beyond mere exercise. Apart from the female camaraderie, I admire Debbie as a person — she brought up two small boys single-handedly after her marriage ended, built a successful business, is a tireless mother and grandmother, puts on events for charity, and never moans.

When Debbie makes me feel my heart pumping and that painful st-re-et-ch in reluctant muscles, she’s making me celebrate the fact that I am alive. Show me a slightly glum middle-aged lady and I’d say don’t give her Prozac, just prescribe ten sessions with Debbie Robinson — or any dedicated and jolly personal trainer — to get her back on track.