Long, long, long before there were Lycra leggings, I started going to the gym.
That was 46 years ago. I was barely twenty. At the time, girls were an oddity in the sweat-stink, testosterone-filled environment of the iron-slinger. At the time, Arnold Schwargenegger won the Mr. Olympia event, which by that time had been around for eight years. The use of steroids was already well-established. I wasn’t particularly enamored of body building per se, just wanted to see what my body could do. I was about to join the military, which would change a great many things about how I saw my body, my potential and my need for strength.
Through the years, after military sexual attacks, the further development of my running career and a long period of being very heavy, I never strayed far from the gym. I had found a home there. Somehow the opportunity to work out whatever stress or frustrations I might be carrying on the inert iron dumbbells and barbells was soothing. Perhaps more so, I loved how my body responded to the discipline.
In 1977, just before I left the Army, a gym chain called Holiday was operating in downtown Washington DC where I was assigned. They had a special, back in the days of lifetime memberships (which are now illegal, given that so many operations went bankrupt). I entreated my parents to buy me that lifetime membership, which they did, without really believing that I would use it. Happy Birthday.
They couldn’t have given me a better gift, nor have I ever used anything with such dedication, loyalty and enthusiasm. My parents, as members of the Great Generation, being a gym member for life was an odd idea. After all, you just deteriorate with age, right?
They did. I haven’t. Or, I should be more honest, my lifetime dedication to gym work vastly slowed down the aging process, and has underscored the lifestyle I have grown into over the years.
I got fat, however, although I never stopped exercising. People often don’t realize two great truths about our bodies:
-Calorie counting is not only useless, it’s also a ridiculous way to either control or manage our weight
-What you and I look like is based about 85% on how we feed ourselves. Exercise keeps us fit, what we eat keeps us healthy, and in the best possible shape for our body types. I didn’t say slim. I said FIT. For me, 46 years of bodybuilding have sculpted me into a very strong older athlete, but it is how I ate which has kept me in superb form. That applies both to endurance as it does to what my body looks like. And it’s not luck. It’s a lifetime of work.
In 1988, I met a simply gorgeous professional body builder in San Diego, when I was spending time in California in-between trips to Australia. She taught me that whatever I did consistently, the body would reflect. That was the year I dropped 80+ lbs forever. When I came back to the States for good, I was transformed.
Not only that but I had all the zeal of the newly-transformed, as motivated as any newly-minted born again to demonstrate how much I knew about gym work. That translated into three hours a day, six to seven days a week. I put on a massive amount of muscle. To the point where my father, who was aging fast and losing his strength, accused me of taking steroids. Dad was threatened, and I was horrified. However, I had gotten too big and too masculine for my tastes and eventually backed off.
Still, there was one incident which underscored why I loved being strong. A BF at the time invited me on a camping trip with a buddy of his. Said buddy bitched, whined, grizzled and complained about having a goddamned weakass GIRL on what was supposed to be a MAN’S adventure. Hours on end, he ran his mouth about how I wouldn’t be able to keep up ( I was right on the BF’s heels as he fell behind). When we arrived at the campsite, the BF and he headed off to explore the area. By the time they got back, I had cut down, chopped up and stacked enough wood for three nights. That shut that motherfucker up. Because the idiot hadn’t brought an axe. He’d brought an adze.
Try cutting a few trees and then splitting them with that, moron.
Over the years and several moves, that Holiday Spa membership has morphed. Four different companies have bought it and I was always grandfathered in. Today, 24 Hour Fitness owns what used to be Bally’s, (a troubled company due to underhanded sales practices) and they have ratcheted back most of my privileges. I can only use one gym instead of all of them, but look, after all these years it costs me ten bucks a year to renew.
Come ON man. That’s one hell of a deal. Because the way I use the gym, I got a lifetime of money’s worth of my parent’s $700 investment. I’ve watched Nautilus come and go, a hundred hundred other fads and fashions march through the gyms while the absolute basics (run, pass, punt kick, if you will) have never changed. I’ve watched hundreds of thousands of people start and give up and never return.
And still I persist.
At my current gym, which is a great square building jam-packed with gear and a mass of motivational posters, there are now plenty of women. Tattooed and tough, they weren’t around when I began 46 years ago. Nowhere to be found.
My gym doesn’t suffer from the Lycra Lady syndrome: the clutches of overly made-up Girls Who Don’t Sweat, who ooh and aah over the musclebound boys in the heavy weight area. Who drape themselves over (but do not use) the equipment, machines, and spin bikes. It may not be a Gold’s, we may not use chalk, but we don’t have many slackers. Perhaps what tickles me the most are the musclebound women in their twenties and thirties who give me the once over and laugh at me for not being as huge as they are.
Honey, been there. And not only does it not suit me, but try to lift that extra twenty+ pounds of upper body weight back into the saddle if you get knocked over at speed. It’s not functional. Not only that, but these days, after multiple injuries and having ruptured a right bicep tendon, in some ways I am just damned grateful to be in the gym at all, much less muscled to the hilt. Over my many decades I’ve learned the difference between functional muscle- which I must have to do what I do- and showoff muscle, which is the current illness of bigorexia.
My fitness has to be functional. I want strength for life, for adventures, to heal fast. Not to lord it over the ladies of the gym. If anything I am both delighted and proud that today there are as many women as there are men in the hard-core lifting area of my gym.
And kindly, it’s hardly limited just to having nice muscles or strength or endurance. This perfectly-timed piece on Medium by Dana Smith this morning goes right to the heart of why a lifetime of exercise isn’t just a nice to have, it’s a have to have. We are made to move, period. Sloth is not part of our heritage. Whether you are tall or small, fat or slim, thin or wide, you and I are designed to be active. Without it, we decline. Fast.
My gym has a huge open wood-floor gym where I sometimes run into professional dancers doing their routines. I slip in and (by comparison) clumsily go through the PT that keeps me in the game. The PT that, as an aging athlete, ensures that I even can lift any more after the insults I’ve visited on my body. I watch young women struggle to do what comes to me easily- men’s pushups.
At my best I can do 80. I am working back up, after this last nasty episode with my biceps tendon, to 25. Then 50. That I can do them at all is something of a miracle. You learn to bloody well be grateful. I’ll be back up to 60 in no time. Please, how many older women do you know who can do that? This is why I love the gym. That upper body strength has come in useful endless times. I was even doing fifteen one-armed pushups when I had to get a rotator cuff surgery.
For me, the gym has never been about bragging rights. It’s about building strength that I can use, discipline that I can depend upon, and the kind of endurance that has seen me through years of adventure travel. Some of which I couldn’t have begun to do without the work I’ve put in at my gym.
Above all, my gym has been the battleground for me to fight for the strength to keep me not only fully in the game but in my absolute prime, even at 66. I was a spin trainer when that first came out, so the small room which houses the bikes is also a haven for me. I have one at home too, just as I have peppered my house with equipment so that I can move all the time, all day.
The frustration? The work never, ever ends. There is never a there, there. There is never a point of perfection, the Arrival, we’re finally done. It. Never. Stops. You injure, you backslide. You lose size, strength, beautiful hard-earned muscle. The good news? It comes back fast. The frustration? It takes time to earn back what you sweated so hard to get in the first place.
Most folks quit. Give up. It’s just too hard. You’re damned right it’s hard. Life is hard, damn it. If you want to face down the ugly insults that age throws at us all, I can’t think of a better place to prepare.
The gym teaches you an awful lot about your character. Your courage.
My gym is peopled with people of color, mostly Hispanic, but also plenty of Asian martial arts practitioners and Black athletes. This has begun to change as the neighborhood is getting gentrified. There are plenty of old folks, men in the 80s and 90s, women in the 70s. One tiny woman who, like me, was an aerobics instructor back in the day, works out diligently three nights a week. She won’t reveal her age. But she’s one strong little broad.
There are a few MMA fighters who work out here, but beyond that, no celebrities. What gives me the most enjoyment are the men and women who have been my nodding acquaintances for many years. We laugh at each others’ injuries, support our collective comebacks, take pleasure in sharing stories after long breaks and trips. What I love most? The stinkeye that I get when I’ve been gone too long, and it conveys that I’ve been missed. Where the hell have YOU been? It says. Welcome back. That tells me that I am part of what makes the gym their home, too.
My gym is less who owns it or the machines we have, broken down or functioning. It’s made up of the people and personalities who hold me to task, compliment my progress, help me laugh at my losses (which are inevitable), and now, join me in making fun of my Popeye bicep.
My gym? Not the best in town. Hardly. But the equipment is maintained. They don’t play constant musical chairs with the machines. I know where everything is and can get my routine done swiftly and efficiently. I have sweated endless drops into the rubberized floor.
Chances are very good that next year I’ll be in a brand new city, brand new gym. 24 Hour doesn’t have a facility there. So I’ll be ISO a new gym home. Sadly, forty-plus years of a lifetime membership will come to an end. I think I got my money’s worth.
Thanks, Mom and Dad. Not a bad 24th birthday gift: a lifetime of health, strength, endurance and energy. The gift that keeps on giving, if you will.
Got gym? Got life.