To All The New Year’s Fitness Newbies: Find Your Joy

When I went to the gym early-early on Monday morning, I was shocked: Three of the four squat racks were occupied, two personal trainers were working with clients, and people were already on the Stairmaster (I don’t know why the Stairmaster is the first machine to get used at my gym every morning, but there it is). At 5:30 in the morning, at 10˚F, on a Monday, the gym was relatively packed. I wondered if I should skip my barbell workout and do a free-weight workout instead. Fuck that, I thought. I didn’t come here this early for nothing.

It didn’t hit me until later in the day that, oh yeah, people made New Year’s resolutions that they’re trying to get started on. I mean, that’s fine, so long as I can get a squat rack. Thank god I don’t go to a gym that’s so saturated with elliptical machines that it’s more elliptical than gym, leaving only a tiny little corner for a squat rack and some benches, for which there are always long queues of gym dudes who take ten minute breaks between their sets to chat with their spotters.

Tuesday morning was great: I got there later than expected — 5:30 again, but I’d been planning to get there around 5 — and it was a ghost town. Oh, New Year’s resolutions. How quickly you betray us. But who knows? Maybe everyone just really loves going to the gym on Monday morning. I’ll find out in a few days.

There are a lot of people, right now, who are forcing themselves to go to the gym on the basis of New Year’s resolutions despite the fact that they fucking hate going to the gym. I know this, because I was one of those people once upon a time. What I want to say to those people is this: I give you a pass. If you hate going to the gym, don’t go to the gym. Don’t do things that make you miserable. If someone tells you that going to the gym makes everyone miserable, don’t believe them. When I was walking home from the gym yesterday morning, I thought to myself, God, I love going to the gym! and also, I feel awesome!

What changed for me? I figured out what I really love doing for physical activity. When I hated going to the gym, I was forcing myself onto ellipticals and treadmills and stationary bikes, using strength machines without any kind of a plan and without knowing what challenging myself physically really felt like. When I started lifting, I read Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, started slow, worked into it, and fell in love quickly.

I’m not usually one for long, repetitive workouts like stationary cycling or running on a treadmill because I get bored, and when I get bored I get anxious, and then I feel like the right way to avoid feeling anxious is to not do the boring thing that makes me anxious. Lifting heavy takes a lot of effort, but you do it in spurts, and you don’t just do one thing the whole time you’re at the gym. In other words, I lack endurance as far as my ability to focus goes, like a very small dog, and I need a lot of toys to keep me engaged.

But that’s me. I know that spin bikes, for example, pose a huge challenge to some people and they find that challenge fun. I find it, like, emotionally painful to use a spin bike because riding a bike on the street is so much fun and riding a spin bike is so not. Some people can zen out and find their happy place on a treadmill; I can tolerate it for about three miles before I’m ready to leave. Some people feel empowered by martial arts, but I just feel nervous. I do love going for huge, long walks (think, like, four hours at a time); I like swimming. I hate team sports. I know a lot of people are less hermit-y than me and enjoy teamwork and socializing.

The point is, there’s a physical activity for everyone. There are so many things you can do with the human body that matching up your personality with a mode of exercise is really just a matter of trial and error. That being the case, I don’t mind New Year’s gym newbies: They might be scared of putting a barbell on their back, they might be painfully shy, they might be using bad technique, they might not know etiquette, but hey, one of them might actually end up coming back every week, and then every few days, and then every day.

On the other hand, they might find out that they hate it, half-ass their sessions through the month of January, wind up making excuses, and then never come back. I hope they didn’t choose the one-year payment option, if that’s the case. I also hope that they don’t interpret their hatred for the gym to mean that they’d hate any kind of exercise. I happen to be someone who is actively, terrifically happy to wake up before dawn to walk through snow and subzero temperatures to put an ice-cold barbell on my shoulders and squat it, or to press dumbbells that are so heavy that my arms fail. I feel real, visceral joy because of it. I get a sense of satisfaction that I can’t replicate elsewhere. I’ve seen that joy and fluidity of being on other people when they ice skate, or dribble a ball, or climb rocks, or dance, or even just go for a walk and feel fresh air on their face. Like those people, I make sacrifices of time and energy and financial expense, not because I value a lean body, but because I value the happiness that I feel when I lift weights.

So it’s not even an issue of saying, “You ought to get fit” — fitness is a side effect of using your body to do something that you think is neat and that makes you joyful. Fitness newbies, try a lot of different things. Use the one-week passes that gyms give you in January to sample a lot of different things, and once you’ve sampled a few, figure out which one you’re craving to do again. Figure out which one you could do poorly at and not feel like a failure, but feel instead like you’re practicing and working toward something better. Find your joy, keep at it, and revel in it.

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