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Why going to the gym is a struggle

By Kim Huynh - 4 August 2016 5

Spin class

Recently I returned to the gym after almost twenty years of avoiding it. My primary goals were to slow down the aging process and get away from it all for a little while. I sense that I’m not alone in this regard.

During a particularly low impact session, I wondered why I had strapped myself into this machine. And, other than to get out of the cold, why do Canberrans go to the gym given that the paths and roads are smooth, sporting facilities are plentiful and there are parklands if not wilderness nearby?

Why is the gym at once inviting and troubling? And should I convert my trial membership into a year-long commitment?

There are two major tensions in the modern gym.

The first is between organic ends and mechanical means. Going to the gym is primarily about getting into shape, which involves manipulating one’s muscles, blood, tendons, fat and organs. After only a week at the gym, I feel fitter. The scales, timers, and various measuring devices attest to my marginal gains.

But to what extent should fitness be about getting from point A (less fit) to point B (more fit) as quickly as possible, maybe at the risk of neglecting point Z (wellbeing)? And why do we use the term ‘workout’ as if exercise is necessarily laborious?

A brisk visit to the gym wedged into a daily commute or lunch hour is better than no exercise at all. However, it’s a poor substitute for and might even militate against a more holistic and healthy lifestyle in which we recreate with family and friends without having to worry about clocks and personal bests.

I’m also a little anxious about exercise machines and how they seem to stand to attention, ready to inflict pain. What’s new about 21st century gym-going is the secondary technology – the screens on every bike and treadmill, the ubiquitous wifi and streaming music – all of which serve to dampen or distract from the agony that’s being inflicted.

The second tension is between going to the gym as both an individual and group endeavour.

Exercise strikes me as a private affair. There’s immodest apparel, much sweat, some stench and the embarrassing facial contortions that accompany physical effort.

However, the loneliness of gym work somehow coexists with a web of oddly intimate connections.

It’s as if everyone in the room is urging you to go faster and be stronger. They too want to squeeze into that old piece of clothing, conquer that proverbial or actual mountain, and shed a bit of weight, just before you do.

This sense of being at once detached from, pitted against and entwined with others is especially evident in spin cycling classes. Here we are perched on our bikes, going nowhere, peddling frantically, hearts a thumpin’, thighs on fire, grunting in disunity.

Only the instructor Almighty’s voice can break through the haze.

‘Grab the music! Find the rhythm! It’s filling you now! Push! Push! Push! Forward. Push! Up! Up! Up! Whoot! Whoot!’

Surely only the weak-willed are swayed by such words and ways. I was enraptured.

I was also struck by how homely my gym is. There are dining tables, lounge chairs, play areas, computer terminals, indoor plants and a fireplace. In many ways it’s superior to where I live in that it’s immaculately clean, fresh towels are always at hand and the people seem friendly and caring.

What then is the value of going to the gym? And once one joins, is there a risk of never leaving?

What are your thoughts on gym-going? Are you a junkie or foot dragger? What would it take to get you going or to stop you from going? What’s distinctive about gym-going in Canberra?

Kim Huynh teaches international relations at the ANU. He has a resting heart rate of about 50bpm. He does not know his body mass index, maximum heart rate, lactic threshold, functional threshold power or VO2 max.

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5 Responses to
Why going to the gym is a struggle
Rollersk8r 10:34 am 05 Aug 16

Cerdig said :

Some quick observations about the benefits of the gym:
-Plenty of eye candy. Increased testosterone levels lead to increased lifts.
-Plenty of competition. Every guy denies it, but we all secretly eye of the “big three” lifts of other guys (bench, squats, deads). Of course, anyone that lifts less than me is on that DYEL status; anyone that lifts more than me is clearly on the juice. Competition also raises test levels.
-Safety. if you go for that PB on the bench and miss it, far greater odds of someone being around to help lift the bar off your chest compared to, say, your garage, where this will only happen after neighbours are alerted to the stench of your decaying body.
-Plenty of weights. Once you move past the DYEL stage it’s not practical to accumulate the necessary number of weight plates in a typical home gym.

There’s also plenty of down sides:
-dumb music.
-overly friendly naked locker room guy
-people doing shoulder presses in the squat rack
-people hogging machines while looking at phone
-people leaving their weights on the bar when they’re done so nobody knows if they’re coming back or not
-unnecessary grunters
-instagrammers
-1/8 squatters
-curl monkeys
but most of these are things I could just easily ignore and get on with my workout, which is what I mostly do.

There’s usually only one or two other people, at most, when I go to the gym. However, on the rare occasion I go during peak times there’s a sub-set of jacked up kids who cannot lift weights without loudly swearing – and thereby broadcasting to their achievement to the world. It’s completely inappropriate and unnecessary. 24 hour gyms with no supervision work out well for the business but not for the members!

Raging Tempest 7:24 pm 04 Aug 16

It depends on what you are going for, workouts, classes, weights, to get out of bad weather…
Personally, I use the gym for weights as I have nowhere to set anything up, yoga classes and on occasion the treadmill and rower if its been raining too long (I wear glasses so running in the rain sucks). I much prefer walking or running outside, and often go at night, but that doesn’t help my upper body or my flexibility, so the gym helps mix it up.
I have no interest in a place with lounges, hairdryers, complementary breakfasts etc, I just want the machinery and someone to show me how to use it without hurting myself, which I get at my current gym.

devils_advocate 4:06 pm 04 Aug 16

TommyS said :

You’re overthinking it, Alain de Botton! I figure the gym is a reasonable tradeoff for the types of food and drink I like to consume.

However, gym membership is a timely topic – already plenty of new faces hoping to get fit for summer at my gym. This is the lifeblood of all gyms – people joining up as the weather improves, in the hope they will actually get fit and lose weight. And I would suggest very few people make a dramatic change in the way they look solely by going to the gym a few times a week.

There’s also the new year’s resolutioners. the gym makes its money by people joining up and then never arriving to train.

Interesting point about people changing the way they look by going to the gym. Much of the work is done in the kitchen rather than the gym itself. In addition the death of cardio means everyone is doing resistance training, 3 sessions per week at 45 minutes or so is optimal and can create massive changes to people’s body composition.

devils_advocate 3:34 pm 04 Aug 16

Some quick observations about the benefits of the gym:
-Plenty of eye candy. Increased testosterone levels lead to increased lifts.
-Plenty of competition. Every guy denies it, but we all secretly eye of the “big three” lifts of other guys (bench, squats, deads). Of course, anyone that lifts less than me is on that DYEL status; anyone that lifts more than me is clearly on the juice. Competition also raises test levels.
-Safety. if you go for that PB on the bench and miss it, far greater odds of someone being around to help lift the bar off your chest compared to, say, your garage, where this will only happen after neighbours are alerted to the stench of your decaying body.
-Plenty of weights. Once you move past the DYEL stage it’s not practical to accumulate the necessary number of weight plates in a typical home gym.

There’s also plenty of down sides:
-dumb music.
-overly friendly naked locker room guy
-people doing shoulder presses in the squat rack
-people hogging machines while looking at phone
-people leaving their weights on the bar when they’re done so nobody knows if they’re coming back or not
-unnecessary grunters
-instagrammers
-1/8 squatters
-curl monkeys
but most of these are things I could just easily ignore and get on with my workout, which is what I mostly do.

Rollersk8r 3:28 pm 04 Aug 16

You’re overthinking it, Alain de Botton! I figure the gym is a reasonable tradeoff for the types of food and drink I like to consume.

However, gym membership is a timely topic – already plenty of new faces hoping to get fit for summer at my gym. This is the lifeblood of all gyms – people joining up as the weather improves, in the hope they will actually get fit and lose weight. And I would suggest very few people make a dramatic change in the way they look solely by going to the gym a few times a week.

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