I was never what you’d call a “gym person.” In high school, I often snuck out of phys ed to go hang out in the art room down the hall. Up until this year, I hadn’t bought a pair of sneakers intended for actual athletics since I was 17 (over a decade ago), which means that I’ve occasionally hiked mountains in flip-flops.
For years, my exercise routine loosely revolved around unregimented solo yoga practice in my bedroom, 5-mile strolls throughout the city, hours of dancing at the bar, and contending with the subway stairs.
Periodically, I was inspired to start working out in a more intentional way, but everything I looked into just didn’t seem to be for me.
I danced for 12 years, so I thought a dance-oriented class might be a good fit, but the classes I found were full of perky Brittanys to my totally-over-it Daria, and left me feeling merely tired and goofy. Due to having pernicious anemia, which affects my heart and ability to breathe, and a heavy set of D’s, cardio has never been my strong suit, so I shied away from anything under the “let’s do as many things as we can as fast as we can” umbrella that’s been dominating fitness for a while.
Then so many other things seemed impenetrable, like they were solely for those people who appeared to have emerged from the womb with rippling biceps and actually enjoy that weird, chalky texture of protein shakes. I was intimidated, and couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a world I simply didn’t belong in.
So how did I wind up here, currently chomping at the bit to return to weightlifting at the gym after a six-day hiatus (thanks, summer cold)?
Earlier this year, I was inspired by my most powerful motivator: proving people wrong. And that includes myself. The thing is, the more excluded I felt, the more I waved off the idea of joining a gym because it just wasn't something I would do, and the stronger my desire became to try it simply to show that I could if I really wanted to.
I was also tired of struggling to carry my week’s worth of groceries home, or to lift paintings onto shelves above my head at the gallery where I worked, and started to hone in on wanting to have stronger arms. The obvious solution was lifting weights, but in order to do so I knew I needed to do the unthinkable and join a gym.
I hated the thought of those upscale, sexy gyms that are like clubs you need to wait behind velvet ropes to get into when I’m much more of a gastropub type of girl. And I didn’t want to intrude on the spaces populated by grunting men training to pull cars with their teeth, or whatever. Thankfully, I learned one of the gyms within walking distance from my apartment had a reputation for being pretty friendly, so I recruited my roommate to come with me during my trial session to teach me how to go to the gym.
I had gotten it so in my head that I was not suited for any serious attempts at fitness, that I was surprised when I didn’t have to start with the lightest weights on the rack, which I figured were meant for beginners. As a person who hates people seeing me doing something I’m bad at, that was all I needed to get encouraged to try again. I immediately took to it. I liked that I could move slowly, work at my own pace, and create my routine independently. I liked really feeling my muscles working with every rep.
As an intensely cerebral person, it felt good to feel connected to my physical body again and realize just how powerful it had been all along.
Without much room left in my brain after listening to my music and counting reps and sets, my mind would be blissfully free from ruminating over the news and various stressors in my life. Lifting came to be downright meditative.
My typical visit now takes about an hour and a half, and I’ve yet to leave because I’m too tired or bored. It’s always just because I’ve run out of things to do. I’ll even sometimes tack on an extra mile or two for my closing cardio so that I can stay longer.
I’m thrilled each time I increase my weight or reps or set a new personal record, stoking my inner competitor. I decided to only track my progress in personal bests and measurements once a month to avoid obsessing over it, and braced myself for merely incremental changes the first time I compared notes. (Just to be clear, I personally wanted to have specific numbers to track my changes against, but taking measurements is definitely not for everyone and what we all see as “progress” depends on our individual fitness and health goals.) When I saw I far exceeded my expectations—I more than doubled what I expected to gain in weights lifted!—I was hooked.
But there was a nagging voice in the back of my head: This isn’t who you are. You write in coffee shops and talk about “sportsball.”
When I looked at myself in the mirror in the cute workout clothes I’d gotten myself as a reward, I felt like an entirely different person. Nearing 30, I felt pretty confident that I had figured myself out. To discover this whole new part of myself felt almost deceptive.
But then I realized, while I may have evolved into a Ginger Spice, up until my early teens I was arguing with my friend over which one of us got to be Sporty. I used to spend hours running through the woods, playing baseball in my backyard, and swimming. I used to launch myself in the air in firebird leaps, control a thousand-pound horse over jumps, and attempt to climb up the rock faces of the mountain I grew up near. Maybe rather than being a new part of myself, I was actually uncovering something I had hidden long ago.
I still don’t know if I would classify myself as a “gym person,” but at least now I’ve pushed past the idea that you need to be one in order to go to the gym.
I've found a way to make the experience my own, and to connect it with different facets of myself that I've long been overlooking. Working out in a gym can be a part of who I am even if I don’t have the personality and lifestyle I’ve always assumed must go along with it. It doesn’t make me any less worthy of my place at the squat rack.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some heavy lifting to do.