Progress at the gym

June 21st, 2011

Hit the gym yesterday for the first time since returning from the Midwest, and my oh my did it feel good. At some point over the last year or two, working out has finally started to feel like a thing I do for myself. Not for my doctor, not for sexist notions of female beauty, not for feminist notions of female strength. For me, because I’m the only one who can do this for myself, and if not now, when? (With apologies to Hillel, who would have been a great personal trainer. Shammai, not so much.)

Most of us pick up dysfunctional messages toward food, exercise, and/or our bodies when we are growing up. One that held me back for a long time was the unconscious belief that if I wasn’t good at exercise, I didn’t have the right to do it. That was certainly what the peers who teased and bullied me for my embarrassingly incompetent attempts at team sports or solo dancing appeared to be suggesting, and going along with their assessment seemed to be the wisest and easiest course of action.

As an adult, of course, I didn’t fear getting a wedgie from the 75-year-old grandmother at my neighborhood co-ed, gay-friendly YMCA featuring water aerobics for the seniors and day care for the stay-at-home-moms. But I still hung on to the notion that taking up space in a gym or scheduling time to work out was something I had to earn. That exercise was a privilege, not a right. So I was prone to hugely overdoing it in an attempt to become as fit as the kind of person who deserved to belong to a gym. Which of course led to burnout and disillusionment when I didn’t transform into Linda Hamilton (the early-1990s touchstone for female kickassery) in 10 days.

I give a lot of credit to my gym, Healthworks, for slowly turning this attitude around. There was never any major “aha” moment, just a gradual realization that exercise doesn’t have to be about self-judging and angst and feelings of painful duty. That it can be, and should be, a place to get away from mental minefields and focus entirely on the moment, the physical, the subjective. I wish it hadn’t taken me quite so long to get there, but I’m glad I did.


8 Responses to “Progress at the gym”

  1. Kate on June 21, 2011 10:18 am

    I just started to really focus on my health and body (at age 33, sad, really) and I told my nutritionist that I felt awkward and hated the whole “gym” thing. I also stated that I felt like I wasn’t doing it “right” at the YMCA. She said “what do you do there?” Swim & take yoga. She said: you are an activity-based person, not a gym person. I feel 6 inches taller now in the Y— going to swim each morning and then heading up to yoga class after. :) You’ll never see me on the treadmill, but that’s okay!

  2. Amy R. on June 21, 2011 2:12 pm

    A good gym environment makes all the difference. I went to a BSC location with employees rabidly monitoring how long people used machines. It was hard to feel truly comfortable there. When a super expensive gym opened up in my neighborhood, I side eyed the hell out of it but ended up joining due to the location. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The staff are so knowledgeable and no one has ever pressured me into personal training or anything. I’m greeted by name when I walk through the door. They’ll high five me after my longest run ever or offer advice if my workout didn’t go so well. It’s been such a good experience.

  3. RP on June 21, 2011 4:59 pm

    Oh, I adored Healthworks when I lived in Cambridge! It was really a great environment and kept me working out during a very stressful year. Alas, there is no equivalent within walking distance of my current locale, so I keep doing beginners yoga and telling myself that it’s ok to remain a beginner.

  4. Lisa on June 21, 2011 5:18 pm

    Context is all. I’d say you WAY deserve this:).

  5. veronica on June 21, 2011 6:00 pm

    I can’t afford the Y right now (even it’s economical plan is out of reach for me) so I’m a Planet Fitness person. It doesn’t have the perks of other gyms, like classes and whatnot. But it’s a corporately owned location so all the machines are BRAND NEW. And it’s 10 dollars a month. So I don’t feel as bad when I don’t go one week.

    I feel like if I paid 30 or 40 dollars a month, I’d feel compelled to get my money’s worth and force myself to go. I’d much rather go when I feel like it.

  6. Amy R. on June 22, 2011 8:09 am

    Me again…

    RP, I like the idea of staying a beginner! It’s probably one of the easiest ways to not get burned on out something.

    I saw a commercial last night, probably for running shoes or something, that said something along the lines of “know your strengths and know your limits and know they are the same.” It resonated a lot with me because I do think knowing I have limits is a strength. It bothers me when people act like because someone has achieved x, they need to then do y. There isn’t a universal natural progression for yoga or running or whatever. If you run a 5K and feel good about it, that doesn’t mean you *have* to run a 10K next and then a half marathon, etc etc. We’re not all meant to run 13.1 miles if we can run 6 or do crow or a headstand. We’re all built for different things. For me, just because I can go deeper doesn’t mean I should!

  7. Eeeeka on June 22, 2011 8:46 am

    I just rejoined the gym at my work place. It’s been weird, since I see many of these people in a work context. But it’s really convenient. I just wish I could afford a place which had a pool. I *love* swimming, and I really miss it.

  8. EA Week on June 22, 2011 11:27 am

    I’ve been exercising in one form or another since I was a kid, and though I’m hardly the most graceful, swift, strong, or coordinated person you’ll ever meet, that’s never stopped me from participating. I’ve gone from ballet to jazz to swimming to weights/ cardio, with walking being a constant. I’ve never been able to run–given my family health history, I would almost certainly blow my knees out–but I’ll walk for miles and miles and miles.

    I’ve discovered that for stress relief and sheer physical pleasure, exercise can’t be beaten. As well as the endorphin buzz, you get the feeling of accomplishment. Even if you never, as RP says, go beyond the beginner stage, refining those basic skills can be an end in itself.

    These past four years, I’ve been focusing more intensely on swimming, through a master’s class that started up at my workout club. I’ve often said that taking up fitness swimming was the single best thing I’ve ever done for my health. Joining a master’s class has expanded that one good thing into something really tremendous. The new skills I’ve learned–in my early 40s–astonish me. When I joined the class, my strokes were a mess. I couldn’t turn a somersault in the water, let alone do a flip turn. I couldn’t even dolphin kick, let alone do the butterfly. And I was slower than cold molasses going uphill. Four years later, I’ve improved my strokes, gotten faster, learned butterfly, mastered flip turns, and generally gained a sense of accomplishment that I wouldn’t have dreamed possible at the outset.

    Over the past year, I’ve also gotten back into weight training after an absence of many years. This helps with the swimming, and the upper-body work also helps to improve my deplorable posture. I may never be ripped like Dara Torres, but hopefully, at least I won’t look like a turtle.

    The other thing swimming gives me is a sense of pride and confidence in my own body. Swimmers at the master’s level come in all shapes and sizes. Most everyone looks a little silly and bug-eyed in their suits, caps, and goggles. After a while, any sense of self-consciousness begins to fade away. I never look in the mirror now and think, “God, I’m such a wreck.” I look now and see someone with a killer backstroke, someone who dropped ten seconds off her standard interval in the 100 free, someone who mastered butterfly at age 44, someone who finally went sub-2:00 in the 100 IM. And it feels awesome! I look at myself now and think: I’m awesome.

    I wish everyone could have that feeling!

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