This spring, running felt like a good thing to start doing. I had a route along Plaster Creek, where I watched the leaves yellow and accumulate under my sneakers. I’d run under the Madison street bridge, though it would flood if it had rained much at all. Through the woods, I nearly ran into a few deer. I’d emerge on 28th street, wave to the cars and turn back, almost exactly 5K round trip.
I said I’d gradually start running further or more, but for months I kept it at once a week, tracing that exact same route. I never timed myself, and I wasn’t training for anything. I never used the fitness facilities throughout high school or college, but I think I get now why people do.
But since the Daylight Saving switch, by the time I arrive home, it’s too dark to go running through the woods. If I couldn’t hibernate, I wanted somewhere to go in the dark, with others pushing their heart rates and making their muscles burn.
So I took a tour of the YMCA-like facility practically in my backyard, even though I only expected to use a single treadmill. I liked it all: the locker room smelled comfortably of chlorine. Through big windows, I watched dozens of high schoolers play some revolving version of pick-up basketball. I’d wanted a place to run, but now I wanted a membership here.
But the first time I stepped on the treadmill, I realized I don’t know how to run when I’m not moving myself forward. I couldn’t just start down my sidewalk—the screen prompted me for my mile pace and my target heart rate. I quit cross country in high school soon after breaking the twenty-minute 5K mark, so I did some mysterious mental math with the years it’s been, and the belt revved up.
The screen cut to CNN on mute. As I took more considered breaths, I felt the sweat eke out of my scalp in beads and trails and pool in the bells of my bluetooth headphones. After twenty minutes I felt dizzy, so I wiped down and moved to the “selectorized strengthening machines” with men diagrammed on the side, each with a clear-cut muscle group glowing. I ended up operating one backwards, with probably too much weight, and for a week, I couldn’t bend my elbow to reach hand to shoulder.
If I’m going to exercise by fighting machines—customized by speed, incline, pace, heart rate, and weight—I’m going to need some guidance. I can work up to a challenging pace, or lift without straining, but I don’t always know how to differentiate between a good burn and hurting myself. I don’t know my metrics; I’ve never known how much I can bench, and any pacing I remember from cross country is obsolete. And I hate not knowing how to do something right.
So I started googling for workout guides. My options seemed to fall along a spectrum of shredding/melting/eviscerating fat and/or getting ripped/jacked/sculpted, with maybe some cardio. But I’m not trying to lose any weight or build big muscles. I don’t even get nervous about being winded after a flight of stairs. I just want to feel better.
But of course, I do want something when I work out: I most want to run after a day where something’s made me feel frustrated or claustrophobic or restless. I feel like setting out to kick my own ass a little bit. In a cathartic way. I don’t know if that describes the runner’s high or feeling pumped.
I guess I’m explaining because I have a presumption that exercise has to be at least vaguely goal-oriented. I think it’s sold that way—from the clothes to the machines to the tracking apps and wearables. Maybe that’s why really smart people are supposed to feel despair in the gym, on Sisyphean stair-climbers—from Jia Tolentino’s harrowing reflections on barre, to, more relevant to me, Mark Greif’s grandiose Against Exercise, in which I’m chided that my exercise “expresses a will…to discover and regulate the machinelike processes in his own body.”
Well alright, sure. I can repel almost all Greif’s anxieties by not counting or caring, and by going alone. This is how I want to do it anyway. I remember in middle school PE, when we were taught wellness as a formula of nutrition and exercise, and I wonder how intentional it was to frame it all as beneficial outside of any body image idea, especially when our maturing bodies and our self-consciousness were exploding into each other at the same time.
So I think I’ll try to stay youthful in just that sense. I’m going to ask for a month or two of membership for Christmas, and maybe I’ll join a workout class and show up all winter, where strangers will gather and sweat at a collective pace, figuring out how to feel better in our bodies.