It’s a new year now, a time to look ahead with hope and excitement and optimism and determination. Time to set goals, make resolutions, and dream big. Perhaps it’s only fitting that before we can mentally psyche ourselves up for the new year’s rebirth of passion, we have to go through one of the most depressing activities in existence: Undecorating from Christmas.
Outside of a death in the family, or receiving devastating health news, I can’t think of a bigger downer. Is there an appropriate musical playlist for undecorating the Christmas Tree? Maybe Against All Odds by Phil Collins and the sad theme from The Incredible Hulk television show playing on a continuous loop? For most, Christmas represents mirth and joy, hope and love. I think on some deep, subconscious level, we are symbolically packing our hope and joy into plastic tubs and piling them in the far corner of the storage room. See you in eleven months, Joy. See you after Thanksgiving, Hope.
And yet, every year, from the ashes of that magnificent emotional bummer, we somehow pick ourselves up, and resolve to make this year a better year – to make ourselves better this new year. For most, making ourselves better means one thing, and one thing only. I base that statement on one keen observation every year:
The gym is crowded.
Come January 1st, the parking lot is packed like the mall on the last weekend before Christmas. I don’t mind this. In fact, as a lucky self-employed work-from-home type, the new crowds don’t impact me as much as I’m sure they do others during peak gym hours. I think it’s great that people are concerned enough with their health to turn over a new leaf for the new year. What bothers me is not the influx of new people at the gym in January. Rather, what bothers me is the steady evaporation of the new people, leaving almost nobody from their crowd still standing by the end of February. What goes so horribly wrong for the resolute exercisers in less than eight short weeks?
In an attempt to help dam the steady stream of resolutioners leaking from the gym over the next month, I have prepared a sort of Welcome To The Gym Primer, explaining a few tidbits about gyms and exercise from my experience. Please know that I am in your corner. Please know that I care about people getting healthier. And please know, as a disclaimer, that I am an artist, and not a personal trainer.
Every gym will have its own set of rules regarding what is appropriate attire for working out. Most of these are pretty basic, like you must wear some sort of shirt, pants or shorts, and shoes. As general as that is, you’re apt to see a fairly wide range of clothing at the gym. For women, the modern workout/yoga pant is very popular, but it should be noted that some of these styles and fabrics are a bit more, ahem, clingy than others. Feel free to wear these extra-clingy pants, but be aware that in certain positions, every person in the area will have been able to visually appraise the contours of your vulva.
For men, there are two different types of shirts to avoid, both mutated forms of the old exercise standby, the tanktop. One of these has enormous arm openings so long that the waistband of shorts or pants is visible. I’m sorry, but this no longer counts as a shirt. It’s essentially a tabard, the sideless tunic that a knight would wear over his armor, just minus the coat of arms on the front. The other is a similar abomination of a tank top, with a neck line so low that it dips below the chest, looking more like a small cylinder of fabric around the waist held up by a pair of suspenders. These two styles of shirts are ridiculous. Avoid them at all costs.
The Locker Room
As a man, I cannot share any details about the Women’s Locker Room, regardless of how much I dreamt about it in my youth. But I can tell you about the world of the Men’s Locker Room and some of the bizarre creatures who lurk within. There are men, many of them in fact, who engage in behavior so disturbing that I normally try not to think about it. Risking my own mental well-being, I will try to explain it for you here. As far as I’ve always known, there is an acceptable and sensible order for how one goes about dressing after a shower. These men, these enigmas, either somehow missed a few lessons in their upbringing, or they have fully embraced the shattering of all conventions of propriety and modesty. For the record, I am fairly fit. I am in pretty good shape. My wife seems to think I look pretty good without my clothes on. But I would never, not in a million years, dream of fixing my hair for work, with my shirt and tie on, while my bits and pieces are left dangling in the breeze. But some men do exactly that. They will put on deodorant, an undershirt, a button-up shirt, tie a tie, and comb their hair – all before putting on underpants. I can neither explain nor condone this behavior. Just be extremely thankful there’s no picture for this paragraph. You have been warned.
Spin Class got it’s name mainly because 40 People Riding Exercise Bikes Together just sounds lame. If you’ve never done a spin class before, my advice is simple: don’t do a spin class. Why not? People in spin class are all kinds of crazy. They may be the craziest people in the entire gym. And that includes that weird dude who wears the electroshock-therapy-style mouth guard while lifting weights (As an aside, if you’re lifting so much weight that you’re worried about biting your tongue off due to the strain, shouldn’t you be equally concerned that you might crap yourself? Just saying.). Let me tell you, the people in these classes take spinning very seriously. I would bet that riders at the starting line of the Tour de France are less intense than people in a spin class. God help you if you should happen to claim a bike already “owned” by a regular – “Hey, that’s my bike!” Also, if the bikes are already set up in the room, don’t even think about moving your bike even a few inches, as doing so may upset the delicate balance of all that is good and right in Spinlandia. If you do something like that, the worst you can expect is someone verbally raising holy hell in your face, and the best you can expect is a handful of regulars burning holes in your back with their Laser Vision of Hate throughout the entire class. A laid back and easy going group they are not.
The Stinky Guy
Every gym has one of these guys; some gyms have more. You cannot get within 10 feet of this guy without being punched in the face by his body odor. At my sweatiest, and two days without a shower, I have never come close to smelling like this poor dude. You must maintain a fifteen minute buffer from the moment he leaves a particular piece of gym equipment before braving to use it yourself. Stay well clear of him lest others think it might be you with the B.O. problem. If you’re as lucky as I am, this guy will be at the gym every damn time you are. Note: If you don’t think your gym has a Stinky Guy, then he regularly goes to the gym at a completely different time than you, or unfortunately, you are the Stinky Guy.
If you regularly go to a gym, I’m guessing you can picture this person in your head immediately. This person walks around and around the weight room and chit-chats with anyone he can about whatever topic he can. In a decade of going to the same gym, I have only seen The Talker do four sets of an exercise. There is no way this guy’s heart rate ever gets more than 20% above resting. I haven’t done the research, but I’m guessing waiting 25 minutes between sets is not the most effective way to exercise.
Another breed of Talker is primarily made up of women. These are usually pairs of women who “work out” together. I put that in quotations because if you can have a lively, spirited conversation while on a treadmill or while you are actually in the process of lifting weights, you aren’t really working out. Yes, you are burning calories through activity, but the same can be said for brushing your hair – and I doubt anyone would classify that as exercise or working out. Exercise requires some sort of physical strain. For cardio, if your lungs are relaxed enough to maintain a breezy dialogue with your friend while “jogging”, you are merely burning calories. Nothing from your activity is challenging your heart and lungs, so you are not improving your cardiovascular fitness levels at all.
For weight lifting, I like to use what I call the Grimace Test. If you can lift a weight without grimacing or at least gritting your teeth, you may as well be unloading the dishwasher in your kitchen for all the good it’s doing your muscles. Yes, I’m talking to you, lady doing curls with the 2 pound dumbbells! If there’s a grimace on your face, you’re truly straining yourself, and the end result will be actually getting stronger. Isn’t that the goal? When you push your lungs and heart and build a little new muscle, you will improve your overall fitness levels and accelerate your metabolism. And that means your body will continue to burn more calories even when you’re not in the middle of a “work out.”
Stick With It
If you’ve turned over a new leaf for the new year, I’m so happy that you’ve taken this first step in the process of getting healthy. Notice that I said healthy and not skinny or thin. Being thin does not automatically translate to good health. Anorexics are thin. Terminally ill people are often thin. They are not healthy. Keep this in mind during your journey.
Also keep in mind that setting foot in the gym today does not in and of itself work miracles. How often you come and what you do when you’re here will play a big part in your success or failure. The biggest part, however has to do with what you do when you’re not here. Because going to the gym every Saturday will do nothing for you if you smoke, drink beer, and eat ice cream the rest of the week. That’s bad news, I know. But the reality is, what you put into your body is at least as important as what you do with your body when it comes to getting healthy.
So remember that health and fitness do not happen overnight. That’s a tough pill to swallow in our instant gratification culture. We all want the magic bullet that can help us drop a few sizes in just seven days, but it does not exist. Do not be discouraged if the first few weeks yield little success when stepping on the scale or when looking at your in appearance in the mirror. This is normal. Changes are happening behind the scenes, so trust the process and stick with it. If my exercise over several weeks eliminates 2 pounds of fat, but builds two pounds of muscle in the process, the scale will tell me I’ve made no progress. But in truth, I’m transforming my body into a more efficient fat-burning machine. I’m convinced that far too many people quit right at this critical point because they’re deflated over not seeing results in those first few weeks. Try not to focus on fat loss or your weight. Instead, focus on becoming healthy and fit, and the fat loss will come.
So here’s to a crowded gym in March! All it takes is a little perseverance. And perseverance requires hope, so try to remember which box you packed it away in…