The Unwritten Rules at the Gym

I entered the gym and, everywhere I went, not only did I feel the stares of people burning in my back; I actually saw them scrutinising me. Immediately I wondered: “Do I look weird? Are my legs chubby?” But with my hair in a bushy ponytail and brand new Nikes in my bag, I looked normal – like a human being. Since I already was recovering, I was beyond my I-want-to-feel-the-clothes-hanging-loosely-around-my-body phase. I wore a t-shirt that fitted my upper body perfectly and some shorts exposing my legs, which is not out of the ordinary when it’s so hot you don’t have to work out to get those beads of sweat on your forehead. Then it hit me, and that was when I discovered an Unwritten Rule at the gym. I mean, what did I — a thin twig — have to do there?

The implication

The stares seemed to imply that I did not belong. After all, I was thin already, so why did I visit the gym? Why did I set my alarm early, drag myself out of bed, and start off my morning in the gym well before most of my peers would even wake up (several times a week!)? While it was no written rule, and while the staff treated me like everyone else, I could certainly feel it hanging between me and the people that did not look like a twig (most): “You’re thin, so you do not have to work out.”

Slowly, I discovered more Unwritten Rules, like that moment I dragged myself out of bed regardless how short my night had been or how crappy I felt. I had to adhere to my schedule no matter what, and the trainers should know me by name because I was supposedly a frequent visitor. And that’s the first Unwritten Rule: however wrecked I felt, I should get that blobby body off the couch to get some exercising done, get in shape (read: get slim), and keep up with the celebrities’ sharp schedules. And if not, shame on me. Punish myself. No dessert. No snacks. No nothing, except more exercising.

Beat yourself

But hey, I was the discipline queen so I went to the gym at all times; no worries there. I’d just get on that cross trainer, because I’d really have to feel that fat burning. When the machine started beeping hysterically because, oh my god, I was finally done, I’d be panting like a dog. Just when relief hit me (I just survived that horrible fifteen minutes!), I would notice the numbers on the display. Crap. How could I have felt that fat burning if I was 20 calories or so short compared to my work out earlier in the week? I’d feel disappointed, dissatisfied, and I’d promise myself I’d not only make up for it. No, I’d do another 20 extra, regardless what it took.

Beat that oldie, too

Then the next apparatus. If my neighbour was an oldish woman, then I’d be happy: I, a young, healthy, fit woman, would easily outperform her. At least, that’s what I believed… until I would notice the number of calories she had burned, the RPM she achieved, and the lack of sweat on her forehead even though she’d been working twice as long as me and burned thrice my current number of calories. If I’d been racing her, I’d definitely see her back. But I wanted to beat her, even if it meant that I was the one catching her breath instead of the oldies around me. I ignored the fact that my neighbour probably had sixty years more experience, and that she was probably retired and might hit the gym daily (whereas I had to study, keep house, socialise, and what more). The Unwritten Rule: Beat yourself, and beat her too.

Speaking of which: if I’d skip a beat in my regular gym rhythm, then I’d definitely beat myself up about it. That’s the way to go; that’s what all women are supposed to do, because how else are we going to keep the superstar schedule going?

Prescribed by numbers

We’re not, because we’re normal people with actual lives, and we don’t have personal trainers keeping us motivated. We don’t get paid to look like models – Imme already made that clear. What I want to talk about most of all, though, is that it’s absolutely ridiculous that we adhere to these Unwritten Rules, prescribed by numbers thrown in our face by the very apparatuses we use to burn fat and lift weights. It’s that we seem to go to the gym with one sole purpose: losing weight. This is what happened to me, once I started going to the gym during my recovery, and I struggled with these Unwritten Rules.

The thin twig at the gym

That moment when I entered the gym with my bushy hair, make-up-less face, in my usual sports attire and got that what-is-the-thin-girl-doing-here look… That moment opened my eyes. Was it really so weird for me to go to the gym? No, it wasn’t. After all, I was not trying to be my former anorexic self or to lose weight. Quite the contrary: I went to the gym because of all my physical problems that needed to be tended to, and exercising is the best medicine of all in my case. I wanted to become strong and healthy again. Still, the calorie meters and the Unwritten Rules (that I might have created for myself) distracted me, which I only became aware of when I noticed the stares.

Strength, stamina, fun

This is when I realised that the gym is not what I wanted it to be: a place to regain strength, to grow my stamina, to have fun. It was like that in the beginning, but “the look” made me see that most people don’t view the gym that way. I noticed the strain so many people put on themselves, motivated by numbers rather than strength, stamina, or fun. Including me. That’s not fun at all; it becomes a fight.

Just one rule

But you know what? The gym is so much more fun if you let go of the number of calories, the RPM, the kilos you lift, and if you don’t go there just to shed fat. Enjoy the music you put on, enjoy the sweat on your back because you’re pushing your stamina, enjoy the great feeling of satisfaction afterwards, and enjoy the fact that you’re improving your physical health. Notice that, yes, you are more toned indeed, and how useful this is because that means you’ve also become stronger and that you can do more in life.

Fitness should be fun. That’s the only rule you should keep in mind*.

*While I firmly believe this, I recently quit the gym out of self-protection, for I am still too prone to fall back into the wrong habits in such an environment — going there had become a struggle to prevent me from going back down that road, rather than improving my health. I do want to disclose that, while the punishing thoughts and the I-have-to-get-slim motivation definitely have occurred to me more than once — and I’m sad about having to admit that — I never gave in. I fought until they were gone, or took a break from the gym. A while ago I started training with the Nike Training Club app and under guidance of my physical therapist. For the first time in years, I’m rapidly improving my stamina and strength and let me tell you something: I don’t dread the moment I have to get going. No, I look forward to it for the right reasons, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

3 thoughts on “The Unwritten Rules at the Gym

  1. I never look at the numbers. Not at the RPM, not at the burned calories, not at how many minutes my neighbour has been exercising. The reason: I don’t care. Does it really matter whether I have burned 20 calories or 40? Should it affect me that my fellow exerciser is training at level 5, whereas I am at 3? Exercising is, like Laura said, about having fun, about getting healthy and strong. Although, exercise does not always need to be fun: sometimes you rather watch a movie with your boyfriend, than going for a run. 😉

    Of course, many people exercise to lose weight, but that is not the only reason. That is why I never question what a skinny person is doing at the gym. 😉 Regardless of whether you’re fat, skinny, or something in between, exercising is about caring for your body and your mind. I guess some Unwritten Rules are indeed created by yourself, Laura, if you think that people automatically presume that you’re exercising to lose weight.

    I must admit that I do analyse people at the gym, however, differently than you think. You can often see the difference between someone who is ‘just’ skinny, or someone who is anorexic. If I see the latter in the gym, I usually presume (or hope?) that he or she is actually working out to make that fragile-looking body stronger. A sort of wishful thinking I guess 😉

    Glad to hear that Nike Training Club is working for you! Good luck and thank you for your honest account.

    • I think the fact that stupid things like having burned 20 or 40 calories mattered to me, and that indeed some of the Unwritten Rules probably are created by me, only goes to illustrate how twisted my anorexia still is, even if I don’t want it to be that way.

      And I think what you say is spot on: losing weight or getting in shape, for that matter, are not the only reasons to exercise. This actually reminds me of what some people said to you when you lost some weight: that you really should not lose more, as if that were the only reason for you to exercise, whereas this was not your motivation at all! I agree that exercising is about your body and mind in the way that you take care of it.

      Thank you for your reply! I’m happy to finally have found something that works for me personally 🙂 And I’m happy to hear that those Unwritten Rules are more likely to be in my mind than that they are a universal truth, as I already suspected.

  2. I’m glad you wrote this piece because I think it’ll make people think, which ultimately is your goal.

    I think blogs like this one will help you achieve just that. Well done!

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