For some of my friends who don’t attend the gym, it feels to them to be a blaring moniker of vanity. While the gym itself is not a vain construction, people’s declaration of their health club lifestyles can come off narcissistically. As one of my younger friends explained, “Social media has taken a toll on what going to the gym even means or what results come from the gym. It makes me ask, are you doing this for your personal goals or just doing it for the status? Men’s Instagrams are full of pictures that say ‘leg day’ or show off their abs. I don’t think having a six-pack means you’re the most beautiful man in the world. It’s hard, but I have to avoid that pressure by remembering what I like in myself.”
The gym is an environment that carries a great deal of emotional significance for many people. Whether it’s felt as a place of empowerment, an edifice of dread, a seasonal habitat, a facility to train in one’s craft, or the means to an end, the modern day gym carries a lot of weight in our culture and our sense of self. I’ve spent much of the past week dialoguing with friends and colleagues about what the gym means to them and what drives them to be there.
A friend of mine recently told me she was propelled to work out at the gym to achieve a “revenge body.” She shared that a recent breakup had sent her to the gym in the pursuit of a figure that would make her ex-boyfriend jealous. While this seemed to me an unhealthy cause for motivation, upon further research of the term’s popularity, it seems many a scorned heart is pumping iron in the pursuit of other’s envy. Khloe Kardashian has a new show on the E! Network by the name Revenge Body. America loves an underdog story and this Kardashian aims to use the notorious term under the guise of empowering women for a comeback. The term is too real and the motivation all too relevant for many of my twentysomething friends who take aim at a full-body selfie that will haunt their exes.
It is not for me to judge people’s personal motivations for going to the gym, but after speaking with friends at length about a gym regimen directed at aesthetic results, I felt moved to seek out a different kind of gym-goer. I found that in my 52-year-old friend and mentor, “My father died at the age of 50 from a heart attack. Every two years, the men in my family have to do a cardiac workup at the doctors’ office to make sure our cardiovascular systems are in proper order.”
Four years ago, this routine trip to the doctor brought a nerve-racking result, “When I was 48, I went and did this stress test. It took a lot out of me; more than it should have. So I decided at that point that I needed to work out more. It’s not high on my list of things I’d call priorities. I’m very self-conscious about how I look and I felt 20 years older than everyone else at the gym, even though I probably wasn’t. I felt like people said, ‘What is that fat old guy doing here?'”
Propelled by the necessity to take care of his body and the fear of his family’s medical history, he found that going to the gym before work felt the safest, “I experimented with different gym times and the place I felt the most comfortable was in the morning. The atmosphere of the gym seemed to feel more club-like after 2 p.m., far less centered on exercise.”
For a friend of mine in the performing arts industry, the gym provided an emotional escape while he was going through a trying time. “There was a six-month stretch of time where I went to the gym almost every day as an escape. I was able to channel my energy. Focusing on an exercise meant I could get away from the things that were stressful for me, positive or negative. I think I reached a place of contentment with my body image, my eating habits, and stress management. Healthy living doesn’t always mean a daily or weekly gym ritual as much as it means having a balance. I think I realized the gym was never as much about health as it was about finding a way that I felt I could escape.”
When it comes to the motivation that takes one through the gym’s doors, it’s clearly a credo of to each their own. For me, what was once an admittedly scary place, has become less intimidating with the opportunity to talk to a few others with similar anxieties. While there will always be an air of vanity to fitness perpetuated by unstoppable elements like social media and the Kardashians, when going to the gym, taking a moment to humanize those around me makes the experience lighter. Everyone is on a journey. The gym is just one stop.