On the Modern Gym Experience

30 08 2011

With mention of and pleas to various sub-groups of gym members.

For the gladiators working out was not an elective so much as it was “do this or die more quickly”. The Greeks worked out so that they could take home a crown made of deciduous vegetation. (Olympics anyone?) My grandparent’s generation engaged in physical activity if and only if they were in the military or owned a farm.

Something happened in the 1980’s though that changed our cultural perspective. For the last thirty years or so working out has been… well… cool. With a host of fitness and health oriented books, magazines, day-time talk show specials and reality tv shows we are now a culture of gym rats. The fact that 80% of people don’t know what to DO when they are at the gym is irrelevant. There’s always “standing around pretending to be mid-super set” or “getting a drink of water” or “listening to one’s iPod”. As a last ditch effort the confused can find a personal trainer who will guide them through the maze of equipment and activities.

I like to think of myself as part of that elite 20% who a)know what to do to use my gym time well and b) don’t shoot myself in the proverbial foot by eating crap ten minutes after a workout. And, since I’ve been working out and have had access to a personal trainer off and on for the last eight years, I am able to workout while simultaneously observing the idiosyncrasies of fellow gym members. Today during my intervals I composed the following mini letters to different groups of people I see at the gym.

Dear Middle Aged Men,
Way to go! Now is the time to get heart-healthy. Now is the time to learn to love anything from bicycling to kayaking to running. But please, don’t think that your newfound hobbies give you the right to wear spandex. Manly man shorts of appropriate length and volume would greatly enhance your manliness. Trust me.

Dear Overweight Ladies and Men,
Do you know who the most inspirational person in this building is right at this moment? Nope, it’s not that guy over there who was once an Olympic pole vaulter. Nope, not that lady who has been running on the treadmill for an hour without stopping or even breaking a sweat. The most inspirational person here is YOU! You are the one who conquered unknown numbers of insecurities, unhealthy habits, hatred of gym clothes, embarrassments and cruelties. YOU are the one who decided that you wanted to make a change. YOU are the one who SHOWS UP EVERY DAY. Well done! I doff my cap to you and thank you for being so amazing. Keep on keeping on.

Dear Teenage Boys,
Good habits start young. You are off to a good start if you are already making working out a daily part of your life. It will benefit you for years to come. That said, please do your research. Watching you lift improperly day after day after day is painful to me. Not to mention that you’re front-loading your muscles. Your pecs and biceps are admirable but your back is weak and your triceps must feel neglected. Read some books! Get a trainer! LEARN! Also, don’t waste my time. If you aren’t using a piece of equipment GET YOUR ASS OFF OF IT! Some of us have jobs and classes and life to get back to, I don’t have the leisure to watch you watch a football game while sitting on the bench I need. Also, last thing, please do not stare at that girl’s butt so obviously for so long. This is her gym too and she needs to feel safe and comfortable. You leering like she’s the porterhouse steak and you’re the hungry pit bull does not encourage her to spend time here.

Dear Young Women,
First, when you come to the gym make sure that your butt is fully covered and your boobs are contained. I know, I know, the men should not be staring at you in the first place but you are hardly making this easy on them. Feeling cute at the gym is important, I get it. I myself put effort into being both comfortable and cute when I’m going to pump iron. One cannot wear baggy sweats and a sweatshirt at the gym without passing out from heat stroke. But you can work your outfits so that you have maximum comfort with minimum distraction-potential. Oh, and dear dear girl, doing the stair master for an hour six days per week will not make you fit. Cardio alone will not cut it. Do some research and start lifting free weights. It’s the best way to protect your body, build bone density and see results. Just wait until you wake up one day and have triceps! It’s the best feeling ever.

Dear Old People,
I love you. I love your knee-high white socks and black tennis shoes. I love your sweat bands and your treadmill-walks and your awesomeness. Someday I hope to be just as cool as you.

Dear Suburban Moms,
I’m impressed. I thought all your people did was take yoga classes and meet your friends for coffee. Nice to see some bicep curls from your group. Come back soon and often!

Dear Me,
Don’t think you know everything. Remember that every person has a story and you don’t get to judge anyone. Ever. Also, do more push-ups. You were slacking today.

Dear People Who Don’t Go to the Gym,
You should. It’s a fascinating place to people watch. Besides which, “Exercise give you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands!” Thank you Elle Woods and thank you gym. It’s been a good day.


Why Every Woman Should Try Martial Arts

15 08 2011

If you have spoken to me in the past five months you have heard me gushing about Kempo. Kempo, for those of you who are unaware, is a martial art that is a mixture of karate and kung-fu. It is strike-based, versus Jujistu, for example, which is primarily grappling. The second law of Kempo is “strike first”. Basically, once you’ve assessed that someone is a threat don’t wait for him to hit you!

I have strong feelings about martial arts, and my dojo/lineage in particular. Given the opportunity I would shout to the hills the wonderful benefits of Kempo for the average Jill. (The average Joe I cannot speak for- I know only one Joe and he seems to be rather un-average.) So, for all you gals out there, I’m going to break it down and explain why I think you should visit a Z-Ultimate dojo.

1) The People My biggest trepidation before trying martial arts was not “will I fall on my face” or “will I make a fool out of myself” or “are they gonna hurt me”. Knowing myself those were automatically going to be “yes”. No, my concern was “Is this going to be some kind of macho club where the boys are boss and spare time is spent chanting to Buddha?”. It took only a few moments for those fears to be put to rest. There are a few rituals- bowing and so forth, but nary a Buddha in sight and no suburban Vin Diesels leaking testosterone onto the carpet. Quite the contrary, with very limited exceptions, every person I have spoken to at karate has been fun, funny, positive and encouraging. Even when someone is pummeling you to powder they are doing it with a smile on their face and narrating HOW you can improve.

2) The Combination Ego Boost/Constant Humbling Our teacher is particularly awesome at being encouraging but all the teachers are great. If you do something wrong they correct you, sometimes with a good-natured laugh at your incompetence. Occasionally you will fail EPICLY and the whole place will dissolve into hopeless laughter. Once, I literally ran into someone’s fist while sparring. You can imagine. My Sensei was almost on the floor laughing. But when you turn around and do something truly well, the praise is enthusiastic and lavish. It’s a great atmosphere overall.

3) The fitness Two words: weight loss. Two more words: strength training. Since beginning training five months ago I have lost almost 15 pounds, my cardio stamina is vastly increased and I’m a lot stronger. If you invest your effort and show up to class, you’ll be amazed at the results. Honestly, girls, bikini season never looked so good. In fact, I’ve been mourning our rainy summer because I have a four-pack and it never gets a chance to be appreciated.

4) Fear Factor Growing up I was no fragile flower. I climbed trees, jumped off of stuff, did flips on trampolines, chopped wood, built forts- the whole shebang. But neither did I take crazy risks. There was never a moment where I thought “hey if I hold a sheet while jumping out my second story window I bet I can fly!”. Thus, I have never really tested my physical limits. Like most women, I have been subtly afraid of pain. It’s an insidious fear, incidentally, and pervasive amongst my sex. Flash forward to kempo. Last week I took two punches straight to the sternum from a man who was 1) twice my size 2) probably thrice my strength and 3) PISSED OFF because I’d just punched him repeatedly in the groin. Needless to say his punches were NOT love taps. And you know what? I’m ok. Bruised, sure, but unbroken. Through many similar experiences I have learned that my body can take quite a lot of punishment. The fear is gone.

I understand that a lot of women will not take to martial arts. It’s punishing and difficult and there ARE those men out there who will take out their insecurity on you. But your teachers have your back always and I have never ever felt unsafe at the dojo. I cannot recommend martial arts enough. The confidence-boost, the newfound safety in one’s own skin, the health benefits and camaraderie are all unique.

So try it out. And let me know how it goes. Maybe in a few months we can get together and compare bruises.