Exercising Demons

Running on a Treadmill by E'Lisa Campbell via Flickr.

Can you outrun your workout demons?

“What does your workout say about you?” “What level of fitness awesome are you?” “Which workout should you try?

These are all questions from Buzzfeed and BroScience touching on the issue of fitness self-definition – the part of our identity shaped by our workouts. For example, I’m a powerlifter and very proud of it. But this self-definition is sometimes accompanied by an attempt to say what I’m not, and I often show this by putting others down. For instance: this summer I spent a week helping at my high school’s wrestling camp, frequently chatting with the coaches about fitness. I was ripping on CrossFit’s bad form and cultishness when coach Jon offhandedly said, “I find it funny that folks so interested in improving themselves and their bodies are so interested in tearing each other down.” Dang. That shut me up quick. It also showed me that underneath my powerlifting confidence lurked serious insecurity.

Turns out there are demons in my exercise. It also turns out I’m not alone.

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Writer Daniel Duane recently published two essays that help identify some of these fitness demons. Duane switched from what he calls “urban liberal activities” – running, swimming, cycling – to weight training and back again. Hisfirst piece, in the New York Times, asked exercise physiologist Dr. Martin Gibala from McMaster University why most studies looked so intensely scientific issues but not applied fitness (that is, actual workouts). Dr. Gibala simply replied that little funding or academic interest existed for such work. Duane suggests that these studies do not create workout fads, but that they come from advertisers that want to sell you a beautiful body. They prey upon our insecurities and shortcomings. He argues that personal trainers want you to feel needy so they can babysit you and take your money.

Two months later, Duane published “What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class.” Though he loved the lifting community at his gym, Duane felt judged by his urban professional friends for participating in a sport considered lower class or brutish. Pushing back against this perceived snobbery, Duane examined sociological links between sports and social class. According to sociologist Carl Stempel, fitness reveals connections between health and class domination. The upper class prefers sports of moral character and aerobic excellence, whereas the lower class enjoys sports of muscular power. The rich enjoy triathlons, the poor like football and strongman competitions.1 Increasingly isolated from his social peers and his own wife, Duane switched back to triathlons. Though satisfied with his resumed aerobic workout, Duane misses the self-confidence, the intensity and the community of his lifting gym.

Again I say, there are demons in our workout culture. And I empathize with some of Duane’s insecurities. Though I’m not king of the lifting platform by any means, I’m still a fairly strong individual. At my first ever lifting competition in May, I deadlifted 495 pounds, besting my previous personal record by 30 pounds. I love having callused hands covered in chalk and smacking my legs to get pumped for a tough set of squats. My thighs are bigger than many people’s waists, which means I can hardly find a pair of jeans that fits. Whereas I could once run 3 miles in 20 minutes and bolt up mountainsides, my present lack of cardio training makes reaching a mountain vista a tad more difficult than I’m comfortable admitting. Depending on the day of the week, I’m either an awesome beast or a washed-up wrestler. But rather than affirm who I am, sometimes I just believe my workouts are better than yours. Which is to say: sometimes I believe that I’m better than you.

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In his writings, Duane points to something important: community. We often go to the gym, headphones connected, heavy beats cranked to the max, focused entirely on our workout. But what if we didn’t? A recent article examined interactions with strangers on public transit. Typically, we transit riders concentrate on our work, drown others out and let our fellow riders do their own thing. But when researchers challenged that norm, people who conversed with strangers found themselves to be happier and have a brighter outlook on the day. Have you ever chatted with strangers at the gym (when you’re not flirting, that is)? This can be tough to do on treadmills and ellipticals, but making friends over by the free weights can be a transformative experience. I know that first hand.

A portrait of the author surrounded by his workout community.

A portrait of the author surrounded by his workout community. (Photo Credit: Alyssa Yee)

Twice a week, I make the 2.5 hour round trip subway ride to train at South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club (SBWC). The athletes there typically focus on power and Olympic-style lifting. There are no cardio machines, televisions, or mirrors. I have no great love for the New York subway, but I’m willing to bear and even enjoy the train ride in exchange for lifting there. I started going to SBWC for the Olympic lifting coaches, hoping to transfer those skills into my own wrestling coaching. After a while, I realized how much happier I am there than at a regular gym. Folks chat with each other and make friends. College professors, dancers, students, bartenders, designers, and software engineers all work out there. I go not just for the great training, but also the community. The community draws me out of my haunting narcissism, and by helping me focus on others and not just myself, powerlifting and the community help me exorcise my workout demons.

At the same time, my workouts occasionally help me exercise them, that is, they can build up and strengthen my demons. “I’m not as strong or attractive as him. Her form is way better and she hits better depth on squats.” Sometimes I even get annoyed at small children because they have perfect squat form and have no idea. Perhaps worst of all is my ranting against CrossFit athletes, actively tearing them down because I’m jealous of their TV airtime over what I consider more important sports (like wrestling and Olympic-style lifting). I once acknowledged that there are undoubtedly some good CrossFit athletes with great form and healthy lifestyles. I then went on to state, however, that the vast majority of them have bad form or don’t know what they’re doing. Which is roughly like saying “High school football players are stupid because they’re not elite like the NFL.”

* * *

All my doubts, worries, dismissals and joys force me to ask: are my workouts really making me healthy? Sure, I might have good physical strength, but what about my mental, emotional and spiritual health? The most dangerous part of my workout is the narcissism that sometimes accompanies it. My self-doubts cause me to search for self-affirmation and clearer self-definition. Those desires quickly change to insulting others’ workouts. Who I’m not can become more important than who I am. Some, like Duane, pick fitness plans that help them fit into the group around them. There is also a trend where people say, “I don’t do this for anyone but me. I work out to feel good about myself.” Unfortunately, both sentiments seem to come from the same narcissism that haunts my own fitness.

But what if, instead of these self-centered options, we work out for other people?

Let me be clear: I’m not saying we should exercise so that others will approve of us. That leads to people spending unhealthy amounts of time on treadmills and bicep curls. No, what I’m asking is: what if we exercised to improve the lives of those around us as well as our own? Our workouts, just like many other parts of our lives, impact our community as well. Improving the health of the community betters our overall health, and vice versa.

You may be wondering what this working out for the community looks like practically. Reflecting on the exercise of talking to strangers on public transit, perhaps try increasing communication at the gym. Do not hesitate to say a simple hello. I sure know I feel isolated when I make accidental eye contact with another gymgoer, only to look away for fear of encroaching upon someone’s space. We humans (especially the males of our species) can change the way we communicate in the gym. Better interpersonal skills may help overcome the unfortunate machismo that swirls around the free weights. I have female friends who avoid free weights because the testosterone-driven, male-dominated environment make them uncomfortable. This is bad for everyone.

Many demons lurk in our workouts. But one way we can exorcise our workout demons is to exercise community. Exercise mired in self-consciousness is not likely to make us mentally or emotionally fit, but fitness motivated by improving ourselves and the community around us has a much better chance of improving every aspect of our health. We can improve the world around us wherever we are, even at the gym.

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The cover photo, “Workout” by Zachary Long, is available via Flickr.

  1. Adult Participation Sports as Cultural Capital, by Carl Stempel, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, December 2005, v. 40, no. 4, 411-432.

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