Several years ago, I joined a gym; it felt great getting back into a routine of working out, something I missed from my pre-pregnancy days. After our marriage, my husband and I moved, bought a house, and started a family. He changed careers while I established mine. Living in a state with year-round sunshine, belonging to a gym didn’t seem necessary. I was always active, but not with any regularity. I managed to stay mostly fit, and after having a child, I cut myself some slack for the areas that weren’t quite what they used to be. After the birth of my second child though, finding time to exercise became a challenge. No longer could I just strap my kid in a stroller for a long walk or run; now there was a baby and a four-year-old with stubby little legs. Unless my husband was home, I wasn’t going far, and by the time he was home, I was dog-tired.
Upon my returned to the gym, I was surprised at how young many of the members were. Maybe it was just because I was getting older, but I was staggered when I first ran into my students at the gym. When I was in high school, no one had gym memberships. We had gym class. During PE, my friends and I mostly hid behind the equipment shed by the track and chain smoked.
While I’d like to believe that teenagers today are leading healthier lifestyles, their arrival at the gym probably has more to do with Instagram. Regardless of the motivation, my return to the gym was similarly about self-esteem, even if I wasn’t posting selfies on social media sporting tank tops claiming, “I don’t sweat, I sparkle.” Not only was I becoming healthier, I felt better about myself, and it was not just about my appearance. I was doing something for me– clinging onto a small rock of sanity on the ledge of motherhood– and that alone felt pretty damn remarkable. The gym, with its built-in childcare, allowed me to get one hour to myself, crucial for times when my husband was at work for a solid 14. I needed that break as much as I needed those endorphins. Sure, I wanted to model the importance of healthy living for our kids, but mostly, this was about me.
Over the past year, I’ve not been able to get to the gym as often as I used to. My husband’s work schedule and our children’s activities made it difficult, but I was still managing to go on the weekends. I told myself that balancing work and life is hard, and each visit to the gym, I patted myself on the back and reasoned that it was better than nothing.
I didn’t realize how complacent I had become until my husband’s schedule changed again allowing me to return to the gym with more regularity. At first, I was excited by the prospect; however, I quickly realized, after a few visits, I was bored. I liked going to classes, but when working out alone, I was not really enjoying my time, I was biding it.
If I planned on running four miles on the treadmill, I’d get off after two. “That’s probably good enough.” If I intended to row for twenty minutes, after ten I would think, that’ll do. Heading off to lift, I reached for the same weights and did the same exercises. When my husband would ask how the gym was, I would shrug. “Meh… I went.”
This past weekend I skipped the gym on Saturday. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to get there much in the coming week, I forced myself to go on Sunday. Instead of starting out with my usual cardio routine, I only spent ten minutes warming up. When I went to lift, I grabbed my normal weights, but then I went back to the rack and took heavier ones. As I looked around, I realized I hadn’t been pushing myself at all. My boredom was not a passing phase; it was a result of hitting a plateau and not doing anything about it. What I needed was challenge. When was the last time I got really sore from the gym? Yeah, I sparkle sweat when I run, but it had been far too long since it physically hurt to sit on the toilet after a good leg workout.
Even though I constantly push my students and my own children, I don’t always push myself, especially when that push is outside of my comfort zone. If I wanted to enjoy my time at the gym again then it was time to start getting uncomfortable.
Going with my mother to her gym when I visited, I was struck by how many people she knew there. As someone who is retired, the gym is one of the ways she socializes, but for me, the only people I know at my gym are the employees. The first thing I do when I hit the floor is insert my earbuds. There are plenty of familiar faces among the machinery, but I have never taken the time to learn names, to say hello. If I want to push myself outside of my comfort zone, I can start by creating relationships. Even if I’m not looking for a work-out partner, building camaraderie will make the gym more social, and more social = less boring.
Looking back, I was probably at my most motivated when I was training for my triathlon. While this was mainly due to me not wanting an embarrassing rescue during the open-water swim portion of the event, it was motivation nonetheless. This year, I’d like to run a 10k, something I know I can do, but never have. We regularly participate in 5k races, but we always do so with the girls and I spend most the race jogging in place, encouraging my eldest to keep going. I can’t remember the last time I competed in a 5k to see how I would actually place, and I run more now than I ever have. (See also: chain-smoking beside the track in PE class)
If the gym is about me, then I need to remember that. In addition to grabbing heavier weights, I can push myself by training to achieve new goals, keeping the focus on me and what I want to achieve.
It’s time for a new return to the gym, one where I don’t just go through the motions of a program that is no longer working, one where I challenge myself not just physically, but socially too, and one where I stop giving myself a gold star just for showing up. After all, nobody really wants a participation trophy, least of all me.