I Hate The Gym
But I love the sensation of muscle engagement and fresh sweat
I have a love-hate relationship with working out — and the gym specifically — as the title and subtitle imply.
Like most people, I go through waves of working out.
I have phases where I do it every day, and then phases where I don’t do anything for months.
And it’s not that I don’t know how to be physical — I have a solid understanding of movement — but rather: I don’t always enjoy it.
As I kid, I swam. (I also played soccer, danced, did gymnastics and rode horses like all self-respecting middle-class suburbia girls, but really my thing was swimming.) I swam varsity in high school and as a senior was in the pool 3 times a day (including 5-am “bucket sprints,” during which we’d swim as hard as we could with 5-gallon buckets tethered to our waists with rope, creating drag behind us.) To strengthen for swimming, I also did pilates, yoga, and weight training.
During college, it was the gym — treadmill and elliptical. A little yoga. Rock climbing a few times. Afterwards, in my 20s, I skied, treadmill’d, elliptical’d, and then got into barre, and then boxing, and then back to barre. And yoga.
And throughout that, from high school to my late 20s, I made several attempts to get into running and failed every time. Running looks so good on paper — I’d love to have this minimalist workout I could do anywhere I am — but I’ve never actually enjoyed it. At the urging of a good friend, I tried using the “Couch to 5K” program and hated every minute of it.
My point is: I am not an un-fit person. I’m not completely unfamiliar with physical activity. I’ve done it. And I’ve even been consistent at times.
But the process of working out has almost always bored me to tears — an obligation right down to its core, like having to go to the DMV for 30 minutes 3 times a week.
I struggle with my “why”
There are many reasons that work for other people, and sometimes I wish I was someone who could use the usual “whys,” but, like many people, I’m not…
I’m not someone who gets off “gains,” reps, or how much I lift. I know how to strength train but, left to my devices, I am a total “treadmill HIIT person,” because it’s so easy to zone out. And when one of my personal trainer buddies (I have a few) gets on my case about the importance of strength training, I’m just like “I know, bud. I, too, have seen the internet in the last 5–10 years.” (And while I may be someone who gets off on “losses,” I also know that it’s way easier to cut calories at the table than burn them in the gym.)
Similarly: I cannot be motivated by “ideals.” My body is not a temple. It is not a holy artifact or piece of art or, in Glennon Doyle’s words, “a masterpiece.” It is a human body. Let’s leave it at that.
I cannot be motivated by a series of “should’s.” I don’t care what “they” suggest or recommend, and every time I work out because “I know I should,” I get heated, ragey and rebellious— because my body is not “their” domain. I just don’t live my life embracing every best practice and “rule” shoved at me like free samples in Costco. That’s not to say I rebel just to rebel — I don’t. I invest in my 401k and I floss and I wear sunscreen because I “should,” but the difference is: I also don’t mind. I’m not at odds with myself when I do it, dragging myself through the mud and screaming “you have to, damnit!”
And I know not everything in life is meant to be enjoyed — sometimes it is about “shoulds.” I get that. But sometimes it shouldn’t just be about “shoulds.” Which brings me back to my first point:
I don’t want to be at odds with my body. I don’t want to be disconnected from it, forcing and silencing myself, shouting that I “have” to. I don’t want to be… “disembodied” from my my basic “body-ness.”
This is actually something I’m working on in real life — I have a bad habit of getting disconnected from my body and space, stuck in my head — and if there’s one arena where I should be honoring this rather than shoving myself forward like cattle, it’s the gym.
Also, we spend enough of our lives doing what we “should.” Shouldn’t some parts of our lives, especially those that “should” feel good… feel good?
Shouldn’t movement and awareness of our body bring us joy on a basic level? Isn’t it built for that?
I think it is.
I started working out again recently.
Why? *sigh.* Many reasons. Many of them are those above — the desire for “gains” (muscle strength), “losses” (weight management), overall health, physical and mental alike, the desire to connect with my body… plus I recently read that exercise helps with collagen production, so… awesome.
There’s really no reason not to… except: if you’re forcing yourself.
So I figured I’d try to get back into it after a long hiatus (more than a year?) I’ve had… mixed results…
— If you don’t want to read a whiney post, do not read this section —
I hate the gym. I hate it.
People always love to cheerily chirp at other people: “just tell yourself you only have to go for five minutes — you’ll always end up doing more! lololol” and I’m like “nope!”
If I try to trick myself with this, even if I’m pleading myself to get into it after I’m there and really trying to enjoy it, my index finger is all but hovering over the big red emergency “STOP” button as the clock ticks on, and the second 4:59 flips to 5:00, I’m outta there. My brain, she is not a fool for this, and if five minutes is what I promise her, five minutes is exactly what she cashes in. (“You said ‘five minutes.’ I gave you five minutes. Let’s go.”)
I try to get into it in other ways, scrambling to buy myself enough focus or distraction to last another 15 minutes. But there’s just so much I don’t enjoy.
We’re asked to be more mindful
— of our body, of our surroundings — so I try. But then I get mad about that too…
I hate the smell of gyms. I hate the off-key astringence of last weekend’s cheap cleaning agents, the stale air like the bowels of an airport, the dull throbbing smell of rubber. Frankly, the smell of sweat is a reprieve from these, because at least it’s something real and alive and still breathing.
I hate the sound of gyms — the low echo off the concrete walls, the deadening whirl of the treadmill, the flat-footed thump of my neighbor’s feet as they run, the huffy breathing, the grunts and groans of people lifting, the dude mansplaining how to lift to his girlfriend or his buddy or some stranger he doesn’t even know, who’s trying to impress him by keeping up or trying to be nice by listening. I hate that my apartment building plays a free version of some streaming music service throughout the gym, which is punctuated by commercials every 4 minutes. I hate the drain on my battery and service when I play my own music. And I hate “ruining” my music by subjecting it to the gym, and I hate that either none of my music seems to fit, or only the dumbest music does. I hate feeling like I have to listen to stuff like Justin Timerlake’s Senorita while working out. (And I kinda hate that I like to.)
I hate the look of gyms. You walk in and the whole space just screams “welcome to your obligation!!” I hate the grays — the only thing worse than grays is when they use colors — and I hate all of the equipment, all of it so wretchedly “1997 infomercial.” I hate that gyms are always too big or too small, and sometimes both at the same time. I hate feeling like I’m supposed to “un-see” the other people, and that they must “un-see” me. I hate when one or both of us do not properly “un-see” each other. I hate the TVs everywhere, in your face, the ones on the treadmills right up against your eyeballs and obstructing your view either way, even if you turn them off. I hate the closed captioning on all of them, and I hate the lame-ass daytime-TV programming with their reality TV no-names and glossy anchors talking about weight loss supplements. But I also hate reading while working out. And I hate staring at nothing while working out.
It’s not just the gym. I also hate classes. I’ve taken many, but I’m always sort of lukewarm on being barked at. I once took a yoga class where the instructor was so dogmatic and terrified of life that she passive-aggressively reprimanded me for trailing a breathe or two behind her instruction in transitioning poses, as well as modifying some. And I was like, “I’m sorry sweetie, but am I paying you or are you paying me? Because last I checked, this was my practice and not yours.” And sure, I know I was “paying for a class,” and I don’t want to hurt myself or anything, but so much of yoga is about having your own practice and listening to your own body, and I just have no chill for “instructors” who get so blinded by “class mentality” that they overlook that. (And don’t even get me started on Zumba or “boxing.” Pro tip: both of these are like 99% about choreography, which is not and never has been my strong suit.)
I try to be mindful of my body instead
…but that can be rage-y too.
I hate the mind-numbing boredom of it all — the huhn-huhn-huhn-huhn monotony of the treadmill, the 3-sets-of-8 monotony of weights. I don’t get enough out of it — neither the counting nor my body alone is enough to entertain me.
I hate that I can feel my workouts first and mostly in my chest. I don’t know if my sports bra is too tight or I’m just winded because I’m out of shape, but the first thing I feel is always a strain like aluminum foil spread across my sternum, tinge-y and crinkling like when you chew on it against a filling, and I wish it wasn’t.
I hate that I also feel my workout in my head — first my sinuses, and then the rest of my head like a hangover, like a tightly-wound towel wrapped up in my noggin, like congestion during a head cold, even when I don’t have one.
The last time I wrote something like this, a reader accused me of “living in a fantasy land” (whatever that means.) But I’m not. I think many, many people feel this way — we just suppress it, push it down, deny it, shove ourselves around, talk down to ourselves and force ourselves to do things, rather than taking the time to listen, and come at it a different way. And if that works for you, that’s fine, but I think there’s a better approach.
I want to feel my workout in the rest of my body — my legs, my hips, my glutes; I want it to be harder, deeper, stronger, richer —so I try weights, but then I get mad at how slow it goes. The whole “weight training” thing feels like playing with baby blocks or “paint by numbers.” (“First, we do all the blue. K, let it dry. Now, we do all the red. Good job! — let it dry…”) I want to feel faster. I want to feel fast and strong.
I want a physical outlet for… “power” emotions and urges. These often feel like “rage,” but really it could be anything. I want my body to “have” that; I want to feel my body at its limitations — but I don’t. Rather, it all feels like connect-the-dots or tea-party or, at best, like being the target for someone else’s rage (why do people pay for that?!?) rather than having an outlet for mine.
The desire to feel my body at more powerful limitations was why I took up boxing in my late 20s. But the boxing class were more Zumba than power, so I dropped the class and found a boxing personal trainer. But unfortunately his training style was “shouting” and “chastising” in the ring. A few minutes in, I dropped my gloved hands away from my face and was like, “bro.” I don’t need to be shouted at. Finding my power does not come from you offloading yours.
It’s not that I’m thin-skinned or don’t push myself; on the contrary, another trainer I hired during my early 20s told me he only has two types of clients: “those that never push themselves, and those that push themselves too hard.” I was recovering from a set, breathing hard and looking off, so I didn’t ask which I was, but after a beat he said, “you’re the second type.” Maybe that’s part of why I don’t respond to the “shouting” approach — I don’t need it — but in general I just don’t respect it. It makes me feel impatient and annoyed. Like, great, now I’m paying to ‘deal with your instability’ as well? (Could we not?) I don’t find this motivating, and I don’t need it. (Maybe I need martial arts or something? I’ve considered it. I don’t know. I know at least one reader is also going to recommend crossfit and like, bruh. We get it.)
Anyway. Back to working out today: I still struggle to find those outlets of physical power. I’m still not even sure if I want speed or strength. I’m not sure what the specifics are. I don’t know how to get what I want, and I want to talk in esoteric terms, but so many people in the “physical training” space fundamentally don’t (they are fundamentally, and rightfully, tethered to the tangible and real, including their language.)
I want to feel powerful, strong, but in control. I want to earn my power through and from and by honoring my body, not by acquiescing to someone’s commands. Because at the end of the day, they have absolutely nothing to do with me. This has to be about my relationship with myself, and that’s what so many trainers and instructors miss. They make it about them. But it’s about us.
Mindfulness of the full self
I know a lot of people say that their favorite part of working out is when it’s over — that’s nothing new — but mine is a bit more specific.
Sure, I like the high. I get that too. I feel sexier, more alive, more vibrant. That’s all true.
But recently the best part of working out is in the moments in my apartment afterwards, when I’m sitting on my floor, gathering my breath, meditating, and I feel fully in and with myself, moving my attention across my body which has, for a moment, not been cast aside as a inconvenience to my head.
And then… there’s the sweat.
I can relish in the fresh sweat gathering and then running in a steady stream down the center my sternum. Sometimes I can feel sweat along my temples as well. And it is the freaking best.
Sometimes the sensation of sweat alone makes working out worth it.
If all of these benefits are supposed to be about taking care of ourselves, then why do they feel so painful? Why is it so hard not to binge on ice cream when we know it’s bad? Why is it so hard to eat 5–11 servings of green vegetables a day?
Because self love.
One of my favorite writers, Heidi Priebe, wrote about our delusions with “self love,” and how many of us abuse it by undermining ourselves,
No amount of self-talk is “a replacement for treating your body with respect, even though you’d rather eat an entire bag of chips… [and] the harsh truth is, if you are regularly sabotaging your long-term happiness, you do not love yourself… Failing to look after your health is self-hatred.”
Failing to listen to yourself is self-hatred, too — but with a caveat.
The body is built for movement. Suppressing that is self-hatred, but fighting it the entire time and forcing yourself to do it anyway” is also self-hatred — something is broken!
Every living body wants to move. This is always true. So if you think yours “doesn’t,” pay closer attention. Listen to its cues. If you do, it will give you what it wants and needs — even if the craving is something as “small” as the sensation of sweat running down a sternum, or the strength of a muscle.
A lot of people can hit up the gym motivated by “shoulds” or “gains” alone. I think that’s wonderful — good for them!
For the rest of us, there is this: become aware of yourself. If the gym is terrible, or feels like a chore, or an inconvenience, it’s because we’ve lost touch with ourselves. We’ve suppressed, shoved down, pushed back, silenced, suppressed — we’ve pushed our mindfulness of “self” and “body” out the back door, roughly grabbing its collar and scooting it out, slamming the door after it, then shouting through the glass “work out, you terrible person!” It’s no wonder it’s such a negative experience.
The solution isn’t “force.” It’s self-love. Love yourself enough, and the body will carry you enough that you won’t have to “force” it to do what it naturally does.
Or clap or follow!