A couple of days ago I was changing in my gym locker room and I heard “Around the World” by Daft Punk blasting from the gym, with that incessant “around the world..around the world…around the world.” I laughed out loud which probably confused the other people changing, although it’s a pretty anything goes gym, which is what I like about it.
The reason I laughed is because to me gyms are really funny places. They play all of this high octane, up-tempo music to get you into working out, and it’s almost like they’re indoctrinating us in gym culture — for our benefit, but still indoctrinating us.
I was never a regular workout person in high school or college, or at least not for healthy reasons (I became a biking nut for a couple of summers to try to keep weight off). Exercise didn’t become a part of my routine for mental health purposes until my early 20s when I realized, largely from my ex-boyfriend, that it is an unparalleled reliever of stress, better than alcohol or drugs or other things that people think will relieve stress (not that I’m against those things).
Before I really began to incorporate exercise into my life, I felt alien from this world. I wasn’t a jock in high school. If one wasn’t very good at a sport at New Trier High School – eg if one had not been playing tennis since age four– it was hard to break in. Teams were incredibly competitive to place on, because the school is great in virtually every sport and went state very frequently. There were intramural sports but they were mostly disorganized because what really mattered to everyone was not so much doing sports for fun but doing sports to win. And I would never win at sports, and since my high school was all about winning at something, I mainly focused on those things I could win at, which were writing and AP classes.
So because I felt like a rejected athlete, I rejected athlete culture. I thought the kinds of things I hear in gyms, stuff like “It isn’t a workout if there isn’t pain” and “don’t cheat your body,” were trite. But now I love it, in part for its triteness and in part because it actually helps me move beyond limits I had always set for myself and feel good because of it. And many gyms, especially the one I go to, a +1 gym at New York Presbyterian Hospital, are not about selecting the best people, as New Trier was, they are about encouraging members and helping them feel healthier and better. The regulars like myself have a shared goal of keeping ourselves going, staying healthy, and de-stressing. Once I realized that this is what’s important to me as far as exercise goes, that I didn’t have to be amazing at athletics to be athletic, and that it was really more about personal improvement and fulfillment, I began to embrace the clichés. Clichés often ring true, after all.
Gyms are also so much the hallmark of our civilized, mundane lives. They aren’t at all connected with nature, which is where humans until recently did most of their exercise. Gyms are all about “fitting in a workout” to your busy schedule. They’re not about taking a nice run in the park or going on a long bike ride along the river. They’re about condensing a workout, losing weight, toning up. Gyms service the aspirational and kind of demented aspects of modern society. And yet I’m okay with that because they also create a sense of community, and hey, society isn’t perfect.