Mysteries of the Gym, Part II

Mysteries of the Gym, Part II

I’ve historically not been one to enjoy physical activity, associating the experience with getting yelled out for being “offsides”, water getting up my nose, and discomfort. Now that I’m older with a firmer grasp on myself, such things now bother me less. Finally, I can get with the serious business of enjoying myself.

One thing I love about trying to create new habits is the altered perspective I get on the world. This whole “go to the gym” idea is part of a progression of experimental behavioral changes that started with getting up early in the morning. Although my getting up early experiment seemed to fail after two weeks, I’ve noticed that an increased tendency to wake up early has naturally occurred. And I discovered something that was more important than an increase in productivity: I like seeing people in the morning. It makes all the difference for me, in the way that tall pine trees and four seasons are an essential part of my environment, which I learned the hard way by not having them while living in Florida.

Going to the gym every day is my second behavior change experiment, and I’m finding again that I’m learning things I didn’t know before. Some of them are physical, but the really interesting one is how I can redefine success from even a short trial.

Habit Forming

If we were to bet money on whether people are capable establishing a new habit, I think many of us would say that failure is more probable than success. And that’s true, from a certain point of view: when we think of new habits, we’re generally talking about good habits that have, for one reason or another, eluded us. Sometimes they’re bad habits we already have, and want to jettison.

There are some habits that we’ve formed without trying. In fact, our entire day is comprised of such habits: we call it “going to work”, “the daily grind”, “watching TV”, “playing World of Warcraft”…you name it. If you’re doing something more than a regular basis, you’ve proven you’re capable of forming habits without thinking too much of it.

The habits we want to change are the hard ones, and require a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivating strategies to deal with. For me, going to the gym was intrinsically not interesting for years, until I got the idea that maybe it would be good to me AND I could base it off the positive experience I had, in hindsight, with waking up early. I also know that I react well to people in my morning ritual, and going to the gym every day would provide some measure of that.

I had mentioned before that I thought my previous experiment in waking up early had failed, because I wasn’t waking up at the same time every day. For a while I had reverted back to my old habits. However, something important had happened: I knew the good parts of getting up early. When it’s getting late, I now consider going to sleep earlier knowing that a morning start will feel good. I did not have this knowledge before. And I have also maintained a few other habits: going to the coffee shop in the morning, planning my day, and just immersing myself in the world for a bit before hunkering down in my basement. In short, I learned a lot about myself that I didn’t know, and I learned more things I like. For the past few weeks, I’ve actually been getting up at 6:30 or 7:00 every morning without thinking too hard about it, and I like it. It feels like a treat.

Lowering the Bar

With that experience, I now have completely different expectations of going to the gym. I haven’t set a goal to “lose weight” or “get buff”. I’m trying it out just to see what happens. Success will be defined if I find some things I like doing.

There are a lot of wise sayings that mean nothing until you have personally experienced the context in which they can be applied. I never understood grief until my mother passed away, and I realized that I had been incapable of really relating with her on the level that she would have enjoyed. I never understood love songs until I fell in love and experience both joy and loss. And it took understanding both grief and love to understand the sacrifice of people in uniform, doing what they believe is the right thing because they have committed to the country and the people they love back home. Going to the gym is pretty mild by comparison, but the mechanism of experience leading to new wisdom is exactly the same.

With this in mind, I’m trying not to judge the experience as being good or bad, fun or not fun. I know that I can do this for at least two weeks, from prior experience with habit experiments, before I get bored. And even after that two weeks, I’ll come away having experienced some things I didn’t know before. Here’s a few of them:

  • Once you realize that you are there for yourself and yourself alone, it’s easy to tune out all the people. They are there for the same reason: to better themselves. There is no competition with people, if you refuse to participate in that kind of thinking. Everyone is at a different stage of development, and you are at yours. I think that is the understanding: if you’re there and doing things, you’re there for the right reasons, and it doesn’t matter what shape you’re in. You’re doing something about it, and that kicks ass. It is important to be around people like that when you’re forming any kind of habit, assuming you’re sensitive to this type of social energy.

  • There is no need to make eye contact or make small talk at the gym. People are there to work out. The health club I’m at seems to be not too social, which had concerned me at first because I thought that meant it was unfriendly. Nope. It’s just business. I found it interesting that this was a different social expectation than, say, walking around in Boston. Making eye contact in New England is at best a terse acknowledgment that you’ve been noticed, classified as a stranger, and you will not collide with each other. This acknowledging glance lasts about 1/3rd of a second, and between men it is sometimes accompanied by a very slight nod and a neutral frown. I would actually prefer to make eye contact and smile, but it just doesn’t fly around here. At the gym, though, it’s just that you’ve got work to do and people are in their own private spaces doing their thing.

  • The first day I went to the gym, I rediscovered the fact that yes, there are generally two separate locker rooms, and there are sometimes even small signs that tell you which is which. I learned that I need to schedule an appointment with my optometrist.

  • I have become aware that there’s a need for the body to expend calories through sweat and real physical exertion. Now that I understand that “the burn” isn’t actual discomfort, I’m starting to enjoy the feeling. By comparison with myself a week ago, it feels like I’m burning off energy cleanly that otherwise would have turned rancid from disuse. It’s an interesting concept. I’m even enjoying the feeling that comes from moving around tired muscles. It’s a physical reminder that I’m not just a disembodied brain absorbing information through high speed digital interfaces. That is good to remember.

  • To my great surprise, I have started to enjoy the treadmill precisely because it’s boring and easy to get lost in. I like monitoring the level of challenge I’m feeling, and upping/dropping the speed…it’s a reliable way to maintain the heart rate without stressing myself too much. The Stairmaster and Bouncy Machine are interesting in bursts too, but they don’t pace you as well or immediately. The Elliptical with the Arm Thingies I am starting to like as an alternate starter (I can’t do both stairmaster and elliptical on the same day yet, I’ve found), but it requires a little more self will to keep moving. With the treadmill I can fine-tune the amount of challenge and it will maintain in a fluid and immediate manner. I finally bought an iPod too (that’s a whole ‘nother post in itself), and one thing I discovered today is that the treadmill is even more interesting when you match the speed of your footsteps to the beats-per-minute of the song.

  • Learning to listen to my body has been interesting. I had gone Kayaking yesterday, and was feeling a little sore so I thought I might skip the gym today as to not overstress myself. A friend suggested that I go anyway, and just keep the routine light. So I did Elliptical + Treadmill. I was planning on going at least 20 minutes on the treadmill at a brisk pace, but then I noticed that my left leg had started to feel strained rather than tired. Alert! I whacked the “cooldown” button, which initiated the 2-minute cycle to ease out of the workout rather than just stopping dead cold. That was a cool moment, mind and body working together to ensure the integrity of my existence. Through this, I think I’ve learned my first lesson in recognizing a genuine warning signal.

The End Game


p>I don’t know at this point if I’ll maintain the health club habit as a permanent lifestyle choice, but I do finally have a personal point of reference that makes it more likely to happen. I’ve found some things I like about it, and I’ve gotten over the initial fear and self-consciousness of being a newbie and not in good shape. The more positive things I can learn from this experience that I enjoy, the greater the chance I’ll stick with it; writing about the experience is part of my “positive results” strategy, as I like breaking down my experiences in this manner. Dorky, but it is part of my true nature.

The cool thing for me is this: I don’t have to worry about losing weight or becoming more physically fit. It will happen as a natural byproduct if I stick with the program. Even if I don’t, I now know that I don’t mind sweating and exerting myself to remove that “rancid energy” feeling I didn’t know I had.

The principle of trying a habit for a couple weeks just for the experience is one that I’ll apply again in the future. If the habit doesn’t stick, you can pull a few interesting things from the experience so it isn’t a “waste” of time and energy. Think of it as laying a foundation for future efforts; that’s always worthwhile, in my book.

» On to Part 3


  1. Mike 15 years ago

    I have really been waiting for this second post. I enjoyed the first and I’m enjoying a perspective that I never had the opportunity to have.  You sounds like you are already light years ahead of most trainees mentally.
    I’ve had the displeasure of standing next to a some genuinely nice guys while someone else does some ridiculous exercise with far more weight than they can reasonably handle. The guy next to me turns and says “I don’t even know why I bother.” That makes me sad to hear. I’m glad to hear someone with your approach so early in the game.
    I hope you find the workout routine that works for you. Remember, this thing is as malliable as you want or need it to be. If you get to the end of your patience for the gym thing, it doesn’t mean you have to be done. It just means it’s time to rethink.


  2. Lee 15 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    Glad to hear you’re kayaking. For me it’s always been important to enjoy the payoff of being in shape beyond my goals at the gym and beyond the internal sensory satisfaction of being in shape. Being able to do cool things makes it worth it when other motivations don’t work.

  3. Jeff L 15 years ago


    Glad you’re working out!

    Did you really walk into the women’s locker room??