Physical Fit: ‘Tis the season…

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And all the people said… “She’s lost her mind… or her calendar because we just finished all that nonsense.”

No, friends, I do not actually mean the holiday season. I mean the Oh-dear-lord-I-ate-everything-my-resolution-is-to-get-fit-by-swimsuit season. This is the time when former couch tubers, or even gym frequenters who let things get a little on the slidy side (yeah, I made it up)… during the holiday gatherings, parties, and all out gorge fests that started sometime around Halloween… start to head in droves, pushed by self-loathing for their slackness, the fear of cellulite, or New Year’s resolutions, to the temples of physical fitness. Yes, it is gym-crowding month.

I say “month,” but it can sometimes last all the way into March. It’s a well-known phenomenon. Several of my friends who go to the gym discuss the frustrations. It isn’t that any of us begrudge the people for wanting to make a positive change. However, while we applaud their desire, there is generally a lack of follow through, and in the meantime… we’re tripping over them. It just seems that the gym-crowders think that merely showing up is going to transform them overnight. It’s probably similar to my own feelings about skiing the first time.

I was excited to go. I had several friends that love to snow ski. So, off I went. I rented the skis and boots and all that. We went out and had a few trips down the “bunny” slope. I was told that I’m a natural… awesome. This will be fun. I rode up on the lift. Got off and was the only one who did not fall doing so. And… that’s pretty much the end of the fun. Going down the ”not-bunny” slope I was not a natural. I finally figured out that my best way of stopping was to just fall over. I got to the bottom. I was damp, cold, and had zero feeling in my toes because the boots cut off all circulation. While I knew that I couldn’t expect to become an Olympic skier in a day, I also figured out pretty quickly that the après-ski was probably more my thing that the actual ski.

In truth, there are a lot of people like that with the gym. They are excited to get started. They make the preparations (membership, shoes, yoga pants). They have every intention of making that change, going to the gym at least 3 times per week, becoming a healthier, happier, leaner self. And that is where it stops. They get there and figure out in a hurry that this sweating thing is not their thing. Or perhaps they realize that exercising in a public place isn’t their thing… or driving to a gym and fighting for the elliptical is not their thing. The list goes on and on, but for whatever reason, they start tapering off. One by one they go, until the gym population stabilizes usually sometime in the summer, with minor fluctuations for people panicking before trips to tropical places where clothing is more revealing. Eventually, the population starts declining again in autumn, but sometimes that’s hard to really judge in a college town due to student gym members adding to the “usual crowd.” By November, the decrease is more noticeable until the end of December brings a ghost-town-like feel to the place… and we’ve cycled back around. It is familiar. Those of us going through a few years of the cycle have come to expect it. New to the scene regulars have a momentary panic followed by intense frustration with the newbies wandering around aimlessly hoping for insight about how to use the contraptions.

This is really only my second year of observation. I was a newbie myself not that long ago. So, I feel for these folks who want to make good choices and live healthier lives (and look better in their clothing). I’ve been there. I’ve done this, and I watch with sad eyes, trying to pick out the folks who will have the stick-with-it to hold out past the first quarter.

What I have found, purely through my observations, is that there are common threads to the people who actually make the gym a new, healthy habit instead of a short lived fad in their lives.

Buddy System vs. Going Solo. There is a lot to be said for an “accountability partner.” A lot of people who start going to the gym to support someone else find themselves getting healthier, and there is a sense of, “I need to go to support John (or Sylvia or Bruce).” The problem with this? If that person stops going, that impetus of supporting them and going often stops, too. Accountability should be to oneself. There is nothing wrong with peer encouragement to get the ball rolling, but for true sustainability, internalize some of that encouragement to have it with you even when your friend can’t be. Another problem with what I will call the partner system is that sometimes one or the other partner outstrips the progress in the working out process. If that social part of the gym-going is all that is keeping it going, that will eventually be a problem because one will be holding the other back, or the other will feel left out and stop. In the meantime, may I say, that the social-goers and clique brigades also can cause some problems for the regular gym population by stopping in the middle and tying up machines just to have a conversation, sometimes in large clumps. There is nothing wrong with a little conversation and social support to make gym time a fun time, but when clusters of people block the flow in a crowded gym while spewing negative gossip (I’ve actually been subjected to this and heard well more about people than I ever wanted to know; headphones were not able to prevent their loud conversation from penetrating)… it can really detract from the experience for all.

Ignorance vs. Instruction. Literally, I mean ignorance. I don’t mean it as a derogatory term. I mean that people have no knowledge of fitness, physical exercise, or more importantly how that thingie works. So, when they fumble around and misuse equipment (misuse their own bodies), occasionally, there is injury. That puts a kibosh on the whole gym-tendance (I made that up, too).

Embarrassment vs. Intimidation. This relates to the topic above and then bleeds over to other areas. I am lucky enough to belong to Planet Fitness. I say lucky because of a topic I will address in a moment. However, one of the great things about the organization is their “no gymtimidation” thing. They mean it. There are still going to be some people who see people working out at varying degrees of expertise and, in a panic, run for the door, but for the most part, that atmosphere of the beefcake club is not present at my gym. People seem genuinely welcoming. Most people will leave you the hell alone (I said most). There is less of the designer workout gear and perfectly toned physiques displayed. People tend to wear comfortable, sometimes ratty athletic wear and they sweat and look sometimes pretty flaming atrocious (at least I usually do). The people there look like they are there to work out and not judge. So, it is a comfortable environment for people who are new to gym membership and may be a little more self-conscious about their appearance during exercise. Embarrassment and discomfort are a major reasons for drop-out.

Not-asking-for-help (see Ignorance). Playing into the embarrassment factor is the not-asking-for-help thing. All those contraptions! Most people are familiar with the stationery bikes and the treadmills. Additionally, anyone with a television has probably seen ellipticals in varying forms (I can actually attest that using one is not intuitive… it takes a minute to get the hang of it, and there is coordination involved… it nearly did me in the first time). However, there are a lot of machines that people have never seen, certainly never used, and moreover are disinclined to go find someone and ask. So, they pay for gym membership, go a few times, can’t figure out how to work the thingie-with-the-whatnot-that-does-something, and eventually stop going because it is “Just a waste of time and money. I can do most of that stuff at home” or they get hurt because of not using the machine… or their body correctly. The point being, that there is usually someone working at the gym that would be more than pleased to help anyone learn how to properly use the equipment. Often there is a trainer there who not only will help a member learn how to use the thingie-with-the-whatnot-that-does-something, but they will actually help design a specific program to achieve the goals desired. There should be no embarrassment in letting the people do their job.

Proximity. This is a big one, bigger than you realize. Everyone gets excited after making their New Year’s promises to themselves and heading out to purchase a gym membership. However, if you have to drive more than 20 minutes, it is unlikely that you will continue that pattern of behavior. In fact, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that there is a negative correlation between distance of the gym from your home and the amount of time you go (meaning that you are less likely to continue going to the gym the further away it is from your house). For my experience, I will admit that the reason I am in my second year of post-holiday-pocalypse-gym-invasion is because I am literally 5 minutes away. This is the lucky thing that I was talking about earlier. My home Planet Fitness location is nice, clean, and 5 minutes from my house. It’s perfect for me. Seriously. When I travel, now, I have a membership which will allow me to go to other locations for the franchise (bless that black card membership). Occasionally, I have driven as far as 20 minutes to get to the closest gym. However, I know good and well that I would not have done this had my routine and gym habits not already been established. If my gym home was further away or I had to drive well out of my way to go, chances are that work, home, fatigue, and general lassitude would have intervened eventually, and I would have dropped out and gone back to my tuber-like ways. Choosing a facility that is convenient is so important to the longevity of the gym-going. If your workplace has a gym, excellent! Use it. You will be more likely to continue because it is right there. If your apartment complex, condo, home owners association neighborhood has a central recreation center with a workout facility, awesome! If none of these scenarios are available, and if you work outside the home, try to find a gym that is on your route. If you have to pass by it on the way to work or the way home from work, you have a better chance of actually going. If you have the dollars and space to dedicate to a home gym… it’s better than driving over 20 minutes, but you may be less inclined to stick with a workout routine because “I can do that later… or sometime… or *zzzzzz*.” So, with the proximity, there is also the idea that if you go with a purpose and schedule the time to actually go, you may be more likely to make it a continual thing.

Where was I going with all of this? I think I started in one direction and ended up meandering all over and winding up somewhere else entirely. And that’s just fine, because even if my gym feels a little crowded at the moment, and I may growl a bit when I’m having my personal space bubble decreased, I do truly want people to make healthier choices for themselves. So… Merry Gym-Crowding!

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