We’re Probably Doing Exercise All Wrong

It’s Tuesday in mid-February, and the weather is doing some sort of windy-cold-raining thing that would seem chic in Paris but is unforgivably dull in Washington, DC. My umbrella has given up, my left boot is leaking somehow, and I am grumpy. On the walk home from work, I pass my gym (I pass my gym every day as I walk home from work), and (like every other day that I walk home from work) I think “Hah. Not happening.” My pajamas are calling to me. My cute, warm puppy dog and dry bed and well-stocked refrigerator are all calling to me. The gym is just not calling to me.

I am paying for this gym. Good money. Good money I don’t really have, because my savings account is practically nonexistent and I can only afford things like Two-Buck Chuck and home-brewed coffee and yoga pants from Forever 21. Yoga pants which, of course, I don’t use for yoga. I tell myself that it’s just the weather, that after I break out of my winter doldrums I will happily waltz into the Washington Sports Club every day at 5:30 pm and get in shape for (eek) bikini season. Of course I will.

Fast-forward six months and it’s a ridiculous 100 degrees in the city. I show up at work with back sweat ruining my cute summer blouse and spritz perfume at my upper body in the elevator in the hopes that nobody notices. My makeup is literally melting and I look like the Matchmaker from Disney’s Mulan when she’s just had hot tea splashed in her face. At 5 pm, after a full day of unhelpful Arctic air conditioning which seems only to make me cold-sweat, I hot-sweat the 30 minutes back home, thinking, this is basically Bikram walking. Who needs a treadmill?

Three years of this endless Ross-Geller-style gym-membering pass before I wise up and realize it is never gonna happen. I quit the gym. But it’s hard. I feel like a big, fat, lazy slob. I feel like a failure. I show up at the desk and say I want to terminate my membership and feel like I have just announced that I want to be left in peace to turn into a human balloon without a shred of motivation or dignity, please and thank you. I feel judged by the whole anonymous gym-membering population, and by myself, and my doctors.

Then something amazing happens. Having liberated my bank account from the chains of monthly automatic 3-digit withdrawals by the neighborhood elliptical farm, I realize I have enough cash on hand to register for an adult Irish Dance class — I had Irish Danced as a kid — and I venture off to my first session.

It is hell. Let me tell you, you think you know what I mean by that, and you don’t. I am not talking about the kind of hell you feel that first time you go running in you-can’t-remember-how-long, when you are sure you’re going to throw up and then maybe you do throw up and then you have to walk down stairs very slowly for a few days afterwards because you’re unbelievably sore.

This is another kind of hell. I spend weeks walking down stairs sideways, gripping the railing with both hands and putting both feet on each step before moving to the next one. I consider going to the doctor. I consider asking my boss if I can work from home indefinitely because my commute makes me cry. I consider the possibility that I am suffering from some previously-undiagnosed chronic inability to work out, caused by some rare and medical-journal-worthy ligament degeneration or spontaneous tendon damage or other fascinating and painful disorder. I consider calling my dance teacher and asking for my money back because I just can’t anymore.

But the amazing thing is that I keep showing up to class. Gym-delinquent, chronically-lazy, probably-crippled me. I keep showing up to class. I am wrapping my ankles and taping my blisters and gritting my teeth but I keep showing up. And eventually I can walk down stairs like a 60 year old instead of a 90 year old, and then a few weeks later I no longer feel like an arthritic geriatric person at all. I feel normal. I feel good.

Turns out I had just been out of shape. Really, woefully, dreadfully, 3-years-of-no-workouts out of shape. And Irish Dance is not exactly your intro Zumba class. It’s a hardcore sport, with a competition circuit and world championships and professional companies. It’s not cheap, and it’s not easy, and in my case, it happens to require an hour’s commute in both directions. It’s a lot of work and a lot of time, effort, and energy.

But it also turns out that none of that matters. Because for me, it’s fun.

I’ve stuck with Irish Dance for more than six months now, and I just signed up for the new semester of classes. I’m not worried about my commitment flagging — I’m in this. I like it here. I’m not going anywhere. But, having gotten to this point, I’m realizing that most of us do exercise really, really wrong.

Sure, there are the people who actually feel good going for a run and lifting weights every day. I believe them when they claim this happens, but as Hannah Horvath says, “Endorphins don’t work on me.” Now, calm down out there, I don’t want to debate science with you — I’m sure endorphins are a real thing — but Lena Dunham is making a totally valid and totally under-appreciated point there. For a lot of us, exercising for the sake of exercising is just as appetizing as the idea of eating raw beets for dinner. It’s never gonna work for us. We’re never gonna like it. By extension, we’re probably never gonna do it.

If we all stopped trying to drag our butts to the nearest Stairmaster at 5 pm, and took the time to identify and get involved in a kind of regular physical activity that we actually enjoy doing in the moment, we would probably be much healthier people. I can’t motivate myself to go lift after work with the knowledge that I will like the way my body looks after I’ve been doing it for a while. I can’t do crunches every morning just because I really would like to have a toned midsection and not die of a heart attack at age 63. I need instant gratification. I need to like it while it’s happening. And you know what? That’s okay, because it’s a totally feasible requirement. Even for the endorphin-proof among us. Enjoyable forms of exercise are not that hard to find.

Recently, Joan Rivers made headlines by telling the aforementioned Lena Dunham that she’s a bad role model because her self-acceptance encourages girls and women who might be overweight and at risk for serious medical issues to make peace with their bodies instead of trying to get healthy. It was a dumb thing to say because on balance, Lena Dunham’s refusal to publicly hate her own body is probably helping a lot of kids (and adults) adopt (mentally and physically) healthier attitudes about their own physiques. But it also ignored the message Lena Dunham is really sending in her television series, which is simply: “This is what real people look like, for better or worse, and this is how real people feel about what they look like.” Conflicted, angry, sexy, insecure, empowered, inadequate — we see it all on Girls – and it’s an honest depiction.

We all know Hannah Horvath isn’t going to suddenly become a Pilates nut. Motivation is slippery and elusive and hard. I think it’s good for us to know that it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us, something inferior about us, if we don’t spend 30 minutes every day running in place while watching bad TV and pretending we aren’t bored out of our minds doing it.

I’m not lazy because I didn’t go to the gym today. I’m not unmotivated. I’m not fat. I’m not a bad person. I just don’t like going to the gym, and that’s okay.

Anyhow, gotta run — I have an Irish Dance class to get to. TC mark

featured image – Girls

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