Gym diary: start getting your fitness back on track (and maybe even keep it that way too)

This article was originally published in Cherwell on 11 November 2016.

Today is the day. 20 years of questionable diet habits and lethargy have left you tubby. Three years of vegetarianism have left you puny—or at least that’s your excuse.

You have decided that this Monday will be a Monday like no other; you get up early and cycle to the nearby leisure centre to join your local gym, despite your misgivings and snobbery about gym culture. You bound over to the desk with a puppy’s enthusiasm but are informed that there are no induction slots available until the following day and as much as you pretend you are dismayed and held back, you are relieved and you go back to bed and your sweet PlayStation.

Day one, mark two. Today is the day. Your induction is booked. You dress in some old football shorts and a small top. You look short and weedy. You are short and weedy. But not for long. Soon you’ll just be short. You cycle to the leisure centre, announce why you’re there, and fill in lots of paperwork. Your instructor is late and you begin to get nervous. You realise that coming was a terrible idea. Your instructor arrives and, inexplicably, he compliments your form on every machine you try. You wonder if he is internally laughing at you. You realise that he doesn’t care. He leaves you and you wander round the gym for a few minutes trying to look purposeful. You try a couple of machines and then cycle back home. You are still short and weedy.

The Olympics inspire you to work out harder. You know deep down that all these medallists started from nothing, so you can succeed too. Your friend is a “gym lad” and you are at the same gym so he shows you the ropes. He is much bigger than you but he tells you to leave your ego at the door. You like this advice.

Over the coming days you begin to feel more and more comfortable and competent. With your gym buddy, it’s actually… fun. That is until you use the bar wrongly, put 20kg on the very top of your spine and find it difficult to walk for the next few days. After your recovery, you work hard at the gym, setting new small personal records and discovering new levels of pain. Everything feels horrifically futile and you wonder if you should just call everything off and go back to the days when the only weights you lifted were books.

As usual over the last few weeks, you come home to feast on scrambled eggs and baked beans. You sit down to eat lunch and put the TV on to watch the Olympics. You wonder why these athletes are so bloody perfect. You watch Team GB notch more golds and, deflated, you go back to bed.

You work hard once again and notice that you’re less tired at the end of the session and you’re starting to look trimmer. Your arms have graduated from being twigs to being bona fide sticks, and your stamina is in a good place. You even notice your biceps trembling when you work them, however delicate and soft they are. You are surprised at the rate of change, but happily so, and you’re enthused and motivated. That is, until you watch the GB rowers obliterate the competition while you’re nursing your sore, thin arms. You begin to question the logic of joining the gym during the Olympics. You hate the Olympics.

You get to the stage where you’re one of the regulars in the gym and you have to fight very, very hard not to compare yourself with others. There’s the mother who takes her teenage daughter to the gym with her after school. The daughter is probably seven years younger than you, and yet she is stronger, faster and generally a more effective human than you. You want to curl up into a ball.

Then there is the older guy with the mane of hair who wears the death metal t-shirts and has his music blaring from his tiny Apple earphones. You wonder if it’s the music or the egotism that’s makes him throws his heavy weights down after working out and trots away to leave others to pick up his mess. You vow never to be that guy.

And then, with lessons learned in your head and callouses formed on your hands, you return to the gym after a moderate lull. You notice that something is different after two months of gymming. You’re using noticeably higher weights. Your body shape is changing. You actually have chest muscles. You still loathe your body, and you still feel inadequate about all the other huge lads in the gym. You still feel like Mr. Krabs without his shell, but you’re making progress.

It’s a start. As your friends constantly remind you, everyone starts somewhere. Where you end up is up to you.

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