What’s So Scary about Going to a (New) Gym?

A very dear friend of mine who has dreaded exercise and diets for all the 37 years of her life for some reason suddenly found it in her to go to a gym. She said she couldn’t do it alone and asked me to come along. I, on the other hand, have not been to a weight-training gym for some 15 years or so. It turns out, the things that we dreaded were quite different, so we divided the responsibilities nicely. The hard thing for me was to find a gym in a city I do not live in, make an appointment and work out the specifics on who and when to pay, what to take with me and where everything is – like the showers etc., as well as the “unwritten laws” or practices that may differ – like – where you take your shoes off and where you put your bottle of water. You get the idea. It turns out, these things did not seem daunting at all to my friend. Being a perfectionist and quite unfamiliar with most kinds of exercise she was worried about what would happen if the instructor told her to do things she would be simply unable to do. What if people laughed? What if everyone stared? We both knew there were bound to be fit people in a gym, and we don’t look like them.

So she called and made an appointment, and I did my best to encourage her not to run away.

We met up before the work-out and decided to walk to the club. It was some 20-30 minute walk, and we talked along the way. About anything BUT the workout. At one point K. asked: “Why are fat people so afraid that someone might see them as they are and call them fat?” When I asked her what she meant she said: “I know I’m fat. I know people see it. So why am I so very afraid that people in the gym will see it and say something to me about my weight or looks? Why do I shy away from jogging in the city lest someone might comment? Why do I feel quite comfortable entering a room full of executives and board members but dread going to a gym?”

I think it’s not about being overweight in a gym, and I told her that. For some reason I did not fear gym at all. What I feared was the other part where she felt quite comfortable – all the entering and paying and finding my way in the gym stuff. It’s about what we feel we know.

I’ve been running for many years now. At times I’m more in shape, at times – less so. But people have seen me running thousands of times, and not one, not ONE has ever said anything unpleasant to me. There have been some occasions when people have smiled at me from their car windows – a genuine, very friendly smile that made me sure they appreciated, they congratulated me. And if I think about it – whenever I see anyone run, I feel some sort of kinship and also pride, and a sort of “you go, girl/man!” that makes me feel like a friend to them. Never ever have I thought to myself: “Wow, you’re so out of shape, you should be lying on the couch.” So I don’t fear what people will say when they see me exercise. I know I’m very low on the scale of their priorities so most probably they won’t even notice me. Because, let’s face it, no one really cares.

So, back to the work-out. It turned out great, and at the same time it turned out quite different from what we expected.

The gym was absolutely tiny. I was quite shocked. As I haven’t been in a gym for years and also haven’t lived in the city for almost as many years, I had no idea space was so scarce and so expensive. Every nook and cranny was filled with heavy work-out machinery, treadmills and mats. If I had to change stations I would literally climb over people on the floor. The whole room was smaller than my bedroom (which makes me appreciate how much I could do in my bedroom if I set my mind on it!).

After the first 30 minutes my water bottle was dry. I wasn’t prepared for that. The instructor – a very matter-of-fact woman – seemed determined to squeeze everything out of us, to give us all our money’s worth. I was glad because I knew I would never return to that particular gym – it’s very far from where I live and not really my type – but I wanted to KNOW what to do in a gym once I would go to one nearer to my home. Because I fully intend to go to gym now.

My friend seemed spent. For some reason we both had nurtured an illusion that a workout would last some 45-50 minutes after which we would hit the showers and leave. It turns out, it was twice as long – an hour and a half. I did enjoy it very much and felt so invigorated afterwards that I wanted to run around, but my body was exhausted and moved weirdly and painfully. The strange alertness and heat did not subside, I felt like I was burning all through the night and did not get to sleep at all. The next day was hard from lack of sleep, and the body still seemed to be burning up even though the temperature was fine. I wrote to K., and she reported the very same symptoms. Of course, I googled and found countless sources on post-workout insomnia. It turns out, there’s a name for a condition I’ve experienced many times when I’ve gone for a run too late in the evening. So now I know!

I’m meeting K. tomorrow. I hope we will get to talk about this very intimate and bonding experience of going to a gym together. I hope she won’t say she’ll never set her foot in a gym again. For I certainly am. For all intents and purposes, I indent to try my local gym on August 1. And I’m going for a run as soon as I finish this post. I don’t think I’ve been so excited about anything as I am about moving my body over the course of this last year.

So why fear gym? Because, who knows – the gym might really make you want to  change. You might enjoy it that much. You might even see that the people going to gyms, running marathons and lifting weights are in fact very nice people, and that might make you reconsider your views or admit to being mistaken. And that, as we know, is always hard.



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