At lockdown, I yearned for the gym, but now I know that there is more to life than big muscles.
n Saturday, gyms in England will throw open their doors for the first time in four months. For people up and down the country who have been grieving the tangy smell of the weight-room floor, the involuntary grunts of their fellow gym-goers and the basement car park lighting, the wait is over. That boring guy from school who posts his gains on Facebook will whisper the words printed on the foyer wall, “Excuses never burn calories”, and shed a single tear. The gym has come back for us.
If you’d asked me in March, I would have said I’d be one of these people. Before lockdown was eased, when I wasn’t busy fearing the death of everyone I hold dear, I longed to go back to the gym. I missed the routine of the classes, the precious delusion that one day I would become astonishingly, troublingly ripped. But now that I can return to the gym, I’m hesitating, in the same way I am hesitating about going back to pubs and restaurants. Just because I can, does that mean I should?
Gyms are doing their utmost to adapt to massively increased hygiene standards, but there’s only so much they can do to improve a place where you get up close and personal with other people by necessity. Let me be unequivocal about this: you are disgusting. So am I, so are we all, and nowhere is our propensity to be disgusting given freer rein than at the gym. Taking one of those hotel inspector UV lights into a busy gym would reveal a Pollock canvas of spattered bodily fluids.
It’s not just the off-putting fact that being breathed on by a stranger performing squats to a dance remix of the Greatest Showman soundtrack now poses a potential threat to your life. Lockdown has made me question what function the gym really served in my life, and whether that function was worth paying up to £60 a month for.
Like many people, I have got both fitter and fatter over the past few months. I got into the routine of running regularly, but I have also eaten a lot of pizza because the global economy is on the precipice of total collapse and I like cheese. But I feel broadly good in my body. I’ve started to accept that in order for my metabolism to facilitate the body of a Michael Bay movie, I would need to spend so much time exercising that I would have no time left for other, more interesting things. I exercise primarily in order to feel good after I do it. So, if running serves that purpose, what’s the gym for?
In his essay Against Exercise, Mark Greif wrote that “no one will inherit our good health after we’ve gone. The hours of life maintenance vanish with the person.” Lockdown has been good at exposing what is actually important. Seeing my friends: important. Having a bum as smooth and solid as a pair of prize conkers: not important. Not everyone will feel this way, and that is, of course, absolutely fine. But as someone who does not enjoy exercise for its own sake, and does enjoy many other things that have felt increasingly precious in the last five months, I no longer want to look back at my life and think “at least I had good triceps”.
Greif also wrote about the uncomfortable parallels between the gym and the hospital: both are places where your body is graded with numbers that correspond to its capabilities, and where there’s a latent anxiety about how long you have to live. At what we hope is the tail end of the coronavirus nightmare, I would like to think less about my physical capacities, not more.
I want to go outside, to get my heart rate up and not to feel like total human garbage for mostly sitting around on my backside all day. I don’t want to participate in a class called Body Thrash under the screaming command of an instructor in a Perspex box looking like a sweaty David Blaine.
Fundamentally, I think I’ve always wanted my exercise to be private. I don’t need to hear the inexplicably elated “Whoop!” from the 40-year-old with the vintage tops at the most punishing moment of a spin class. I don’t need the tight-lipped smile and nod from that one kind of cool-seeming woman in the changing room. I don’t want to see the inevitable creeps who circulate in gyms like basking sharks. As of yet, there are no creeps in my living room. You are basically alone at the gym anyway; alone in public, in that peculiarly urban way we also experience on public transport. Why not be truly unobserved, uninhibited, un-breathed upon?
And yet, a small voice still calls me to the cold, corporate arms of The Gym. I know it’s mostly bullshit, and yet my desire to participate in the bullshit exists. The supposed ease, the promises of self-optimisation, the shiny equipment, the steam room. As Jia Tolentino put it in her book Trick Mirror, the condition of being alive these days seems to involve “organising your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible”. I know full well that I could fall prey to another gym membership. As coronavirus fades away, I’ll just feel more self-loathing about it. But I tell you where’s a great place to hate yourself: the gym.