This past September, I got engaged.
Naturally, in October, I joined a gym.
Even though, generally speaking, I always care about fitness, acting on that concern comes in life phases that can span anywhere from a few days to several months. Over the years, my return to exercise has followed an established pattern—and led to yet another gym membership. A connoisseur of communal sweating, I have been a member of gyms in New York, San Francisco, in Philadelphia, and Jerusalem. And all of these experiences have led me to conclude that the gym is the absolute worst place to work out.
When my boyfriend and I officially decided to get married this fall I found myself in need of a major reboot. Thanks to a knee injury, I hadn’t run in months and felt out of shape and schlubby. (Why weddings and fitness are connected is a valid question but one I’ll save for another time.) So, after several frustrating months of physical therapy, during which I was specifically advised against running outdoors, I signed up for an $85/month gym membership—with a 6-month mandatory minimum. I also committed myself to six, $100 sessions with a personal trainer, a man I hoped would show me how to get stronger without putting unnecessary stress on my poor little knee.
The first thing to remember about gym memberships is that the costs never actually stop at the membership. To start, I also invested about $75 in supplies to help me adjust. Early morning training sessions meant I would have to do what I had thus far successfully avoided for years: shower at the gym. So I bought doubles of my makeup, little travel containers for my hair products and little toiletry bags to carry everything around in. (Luckily I already had the gym clothes and bag, otherwise I would’ve spent even more money on those, too.)
But as it always does, the initial motivation withered and after finishing up those training sessions, which ranged from kickass to lackluster, I found it harder and harder to muster the motivation to get to the gym at 7am. Even with my fully stocked gym bag, getting ready for work in a locker room turned out to be an art I never managed to fully master. (Case in point, one morning I forgot to bring a bra, so I ended up just heading home and working remotely for the rest of the day.) I went post-work a few times, but by the end of the day, the call of the elliptical machine was usually drowned out by the one coming from my couch.
Three months later, I am now one of the gym’s favorite kind of members: The kind that doesn’t go. Health clubs bank on the fact that most people won’t show up. The facilities can only hold a small fraction of their actual members, about 10%. Yes, despite what their marketing may imply, most gym chains actually want you to pay upfront, and then come just enough to make your membership feel worthwhile, but not so much that you take up real space. The exception, of course, is the person at the other end of the spectrum, the one who works out constantly, and ponies up for extras like personal training sessions, energy drinks and logo-emblazoned gear. (Most of us are not that person.)
But while there may be dust accumulating on my membership card, I am still working out—happily. I do yoga videos on YouTube in the morning and even occasionally make it to the studio for full one-hour practices. (While I have the option of attending classes at the gym, the studio feels less judgmental. Plus I don’t have to worry about running into my old trainer and explaining for the eleventh time why I don’t want to purchase any more sessions.) And, to my very pleasant surprise, the physical therapy, and maybe even those six personal training sessions, seem to have paid off. Although a summer attempt resulted in an injured back and a scolding from my PT, a more recent try didn’t bother my knee at all. I credit the free YouTube yoga.
I don’t miss having to wait for machines, watching out for leering men, and constantly fending off people offering you additional services that sound free but never are (all while simultaneously trying to figure out a complicated contraption fast enough not to piss off the muscle-y gym rat impatiently waiting for it). But I do feel guilty for never going to the gym. After all, I’m still paying for it.
This guilt isn’t really helped by the fact that I know I’m not alone. People love the idea of tricking themselves into going to the gym. But maybe it’s time we be honest with ourselves and accept that we just simply hate it: It’s inconvenient. It’s boring. It’s a minefield of uncomfortable interactions. (“Oh are you using that machine? You haven’t mopped up your sweat but you’re standing three feet away admiring yourself in the mirror.”) And buying a membership is more likely to make you feel bad for not using it than it is to get you to change your behavior.
Let’s contrast that with my workout of choice: an outdoor run. It’s free, it doesn’t require instructions and it starts as soon as I walk out the door, no commute required.
So, this year, let’s just skip the annual (and pricey) guilt trip. Going for a run outside costs nothing other than your time, is better for your brain and more likely to be repeated than doing it indoors. If jogging isn’t your cup of tea, watching exercise videos used to cost money, but now thanks to YouTube, are often available free of charge. Or you could buy a limited membership which entitles you to just classes, enabling a mix of fun workouts without the commitment and for less money. If all else fails, go the natural route: Hike in the woods, swim in a lake, climb the stairs of your apartment building while listening to your favorite podcast. Be as adventurous or as consistent as you want to—it’s your workout.
The thing is, exercise doesn’t have to make you miserable. But in my experience, the gym almost certainly will.