Thirty years ago I joined a gym, ostensibly to quit smoking but in reality, to check out the scene. Jack LaLanne ruled back then, inviting flabby sorts to get fit. I wasn’t really flabby, but I didn’t have a stellar set of muscles, either. But maybe I’d find a new set of muscles to go along with building my own, so to speak. And there were guys galore, especially this cute one who reminded me a bit of Bono. This guy kept staring at me, furtively, and even once hopped on a excercycle next to me. No matter how I tried, though, I couldn’t pull his gaze away from his book, and even a few “Hi’s!” and “I’m sorry, is this your 35 pound weight?” didn’t work. He continued his faraway stares and I assumed he was attached or incredibly shy. So I lost interest.
But in my twenties, that gym was jam-packed with primal instincts. Everyone checked everyone else out. Work ended at 5:00, but workouts started immediately after. I had a hard time believing that everyone there was on a fitness kick. Some people barely broke a sweat. A few held up the walls gaping at the opposite sex bending in provocative poses, glancing over their shoulders to see who might be watching. There was drama galore, and a few times pretty vocal fights broke out, necessitating the intervention of the manager on duty. The party at Jack’s ended, though, when the building was sold and a huge gourmet grocery store took over.
Then came Bally’s Total Fitness. They bought out Jack’s whole franchise and were super sophisticated. While Jack’s had all the basics, Bally’s had all the bells and whistles, even a pool. Of course I joined. Now in my 30s and earning a bit more, I could afford to go upscale. The crowd at this gym earned decidedly more than the last one, and were far more egotistical. I’d see these perfectly formed humans declaring how fat they were and how they needed desperately to drop the weight. I’d openly look askance, because they’d be emaciated if they shed an ounce.
It seemed there was an awful lot of pickup activity there too, but much more subtle. There might be polite conversation between a few interested parties, or a quiet hello. Then the males would proceed to grunt and groan as they lifted ridiculous amounts of weights and doing far too many reps while slanting glances at the women, who, for their part, would bend and twist in the most provocative positions. Me? I kept to myself. After all, I quit smoking and wanted to keep the weight off. My thirty-something body starting dropping hints that it was going to take a bit more effort to keep my trim figure. I did talk to a man in his mid-seventies who was really cool. He’d been a lifelong bodybuilder and he gave me some great tips while he told me about his grandchildren.
I married at forty and quit the gym. It wasn’t because I landed a man. We moved out of the city and in the exurbs where there wasn’t a single gym for miles. I bought a few pieces of equipment and kept them in the basement. Ever faithful to the workout, I did my best to keep in shape but far from the vigilance I had previously. The pounds crept up and the belt line grew. So did my husband’s. After the kid came along, I pretty much gave up entirely, although on occasion I’d hit the home gym. It felt good. Even my muscles did little to complain.
At 50, things went south fast. No longer muscled and taut, my body grew soft. Asthma got worse. The treadmill broke. I had to do something, so took up walking. Besides, it was free, since money got a little tight. In our very hilly neighborhood, it seemed to work my lungs fine. Even the single-digit winter temperatures did little to keep me from my walks. Still had a soft body, but my lungs got tough. My breathing improved dramatically, even if my arms started sprouting flaps.
And then, somewhere in my mid-fifties, I discovered my husband cheating. In an instant, my life changed forever. Yet for months, I did nothing. Felt like nothing. Nothing. Any conversations regarding our past, present and future dissolved into nothing. Part of him seemed willing to hang on, but more of him wanted to be free.
Planet Fitness opened up about 15 minutes away. $19 a month, no initiation fee. Couldn’t pass that up, I thought. It’d been years since I stepped into a gym, but sure enough, all those wonderful pieces of equipment seemed to welcome me with open shapely arms. After a good workout on the cross trainer, I hit the Precor thigh machine. And the arm extension. Free weights. Shoulder pull-downs and stomach crunchers.
It’s true what they say about exercise. It really does make you feel good about yourself. My body once more started to fall into shape, although it put up more than a bit of resistance. I glanced around. People of all ages worked out, and sure, more than a few checked out the scene. I wasn’t one of them. Although I’d see the same faces when I arrived, we tended to nod and smile, then hit our goals for the day.
Now, having moved out of the house, I moved gyms. This one’s a small place, nowhere near the size of Planet Fitness, but it’s immaculate. Everyone seems to be older here, more respectful, slower paced. They wipe off the equipment. Don’t hog machines. Smile and say hello. But already I feel at home. After thirty years of workouts, I still don’t have the body I want. I probably never will. Of course I will secretly gaze at the well-toned men, no matter what their age. Someone might even peek back. This time, though, I’m really in it for the exercise. After all, I’m building not just a better body, but a better, stronger, me.