EVER since I stopped smoking, I’ve been on a bit of a health kick. After taking the necessary steps to clear the tar out of my lungs, I thought it would also be good idea to address the build up of goose-fat that had accumulated around my arteries. Reader; I joined the gym.

Having avoided any kind of formal exercise for most of my adult life, I trudged along to my local leisure centre with a degree of wariness about what I’d be walking into.

I imagined muscly men with glistening biceps and constipated expressions alongside long-limbed women pounding away at the treadmill, barely breaking a sweat. But when I crossed the threshold into the gym, I encountered a smallish, not at all intimidating space.

It was busy, and aside for a few under 40s, like me, everybody working out was of an age where they had undoubtedly benefited from a concessionary membership. I was absolutely thrilled.

Picking a treadmill between one elderly man in brightly coloured shorts, and a svelte older woman who was power walking at such a pace that her legs were almost a blur, I thought: “I can do this.”

Feeling confident, I upped the treadmill to match the pace of the woman to my left, before quickly punching the arrows to slow it down: as a tight, sharp pain stabbed at my calves and a familiar burning sensation encircled my utterly useless ankles.

Over the weeks that followed, I got into a routine and the exercise became easier. The same wrinkled faces were there each day and we exchanged nods and smiles of recognition.

It soon became clear that my wee local gym is far more than just a place to get fit. It’s a meeting point for friends and a place to socialise and connect with other people. Community buses travel back and forth throughout the day, picking up older members and those with mobility issues and taking them home again. The gym is accessible, so those in wheelchairs and members with disabilities can utilise its benefits.

My time there is carefully planned out. I do a specified distance on the treadmill, followed by 10 reps on five different weight machines. All the while, I’m counting down the minutes until I’ve done my time and can leave.

In contrast, the older people always seem to be enjoying their time far more than I am. They chat as they walk from machine to machine. They laugh too, which I didn’t know was physically possible while exercising.

I go armed with distraction devices: I’ve got playlists, podcasts and Marian Keyes on audiobook. The other members aren’t plugged into anything. They seem to endure each workout session through conversation and determination alone.

The three rowing machines nearest the corner are nearly always occupied by the same group of women. If I could befriend any one of the gym gangs, it would be theirs. Not only because I admire the bold puffed body warmer that one of them wears, but also because they seem like great fun. They are shirkers and gossipers and make no attempts to hide it.

On the wall, there is a typed sign asking members not to exceed 15 minutes on the rowing machines because they are in high demand. I’m almost certain it’s aimed at the body-warmer gang; but they don’t take any notice.

Elderly gents work their way around the strength training machines, chatting amiably and offering each other encouragement, very few exercise alone.

I feel strangely protective of the little space – with its colourful characters and pockets of pals. In every snippet of conversation, there is the familiarity and warmth that only comes with a close-knit social circle.

This week I went to aqua-aerobics, in an utterly shameless attempt to infiltrate the cool lady gang and be accepted as one of their own. They mostly ignored me, but in the sauna afterwards I sat with an older man and we chatted. It was more pleasant than the heat and lack of appropriate clothing would suggest.

With a gust of cool air, one of the social butterflies from the gym joined us. “Room for a wee one?” She laughed and squeezed herself between us (despite there being other seats further away).

“Look,” she said to the man, “I had to buy these special socks.”

“Aye?” he replied, looking down at the flesh-coloured plastic covering of the foot that she was wiggling in his direction.

“I’ve got a fungal infection,” she said.

The man shook his head in solidarity and sympathy and thus began a conversation about all the mutual friends they had who had caught a foot fungus in the changing area.

In that moment – as well as deciding that I really needed to buy a pair of those special socks – I also made a pledge that I would do whatever it took to make friends with these people.