First, a disclaimer: If you love going to the gym and it keeps you in shape, that’s great. Keep doing that. This column isn’t for you. Go read a listicle about the best protein powders coming out in 2022 instead. This is for people planning to somehow get in shape in 2022, and those who are reluctant to start the process because it seems so daunting.
Now, let’s get into this.
Gyms started booming in the late 1970s and ‘80s. I theorize it was in response to the stagnant lifestyles many Americans were starting to live as jobs across the world began implementing more and more tech (what pairs better with eight hours in a cubicle than another hour in a hamster wheel?). This led to the rise of what I call the Lab-Grown Athlete. When we think of someone who’s “in shape” it invokes images of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his undies or the Stepford Wives of Instagram. Prior to the rise in gym culture and the subsequent sexualization of it, being in shape didn’t require spending every free minute in the gym and living on energy gels and BANG energy drinks.
When you’ve gotta work, take care of your kids, and tend to other social obligations you have, these standards can be discouraging. Additionally, we romanticized the gym to a staggering degree.
In videos, gyms are aesthetically pleasing and an adrenaline-inducing song plays over each clip. In stills, just moments before each photo, influencers have somehow heard the funniest joke ever, sending their head back into a blissful fit of laughter. What’s more, these spontaneous moments seem to only happen when they’ve wandered under perfectly cast down-lighting.
In reality, for most, gyms are fluorescently lit torture chambers packed full of meatheads with their high school football jersey number tattooed to their bicep, senior citizens rehabbing a broken hip and a guy in a tracksuit who wants to sell you Amway. You get on the treadmill (because you don’t know what else to do) and watch as its digital clock slows to a crawl.
Despite this, millions of people, hating themselves for the unwanted sugarplums that have formed on their bodies during the holidays, will still flock to the dank dungeon in hordes, only to find their way back to the couch by June.
Let me propose an alternative. Consider this a digital version of me jumping out of the bushes moments before you walk into a gym this month and screaming “There’s another way!” in your face (there’s less of a chance a gym will call the cops on me if I offer this warning digitally).
Don’t go to the gym and instead take up one of the million other ways to be active.
I could include a list of what they are, but the options are virtually limitless and everyone has their own unique taste.
Instead, ask yourself two questions:
Is this something I’ll want to do the rest of my life?
Yes, it’s entirely possible to ride a wave of rage-induced inspiration to lose 100 pounds by grinding it out in a gym for two hours a day. But then what? Here’s something few people realize when they’re trying to lose weight: once in shape, to maintain it, you’ve got to keep doing what you did to lose it. Don’t be a tyrant to yourself — be realistic. Pick something you know you won’t hate.
What did I enjoy doing as a child?
Okay, so you’ve decided to forgo the gym this year and try some alternatives. But what might those be? It’s not an easy question. You’re busy and have long considered the gym your only option. Before you start Googling “fun activities for out-of-shape adults'' first take a second to reflect on your youth. Children don’t have any hangups when it comes to doing exactly what they want. Their world is black and white. If they enjoy it, they keep doing it; if they don’t, they stop. It’s pure intuition. Most eight-year-olds won’t get excited to hop on an elliptical every day after school, but there are plenty out there willing to play basketball for 12 hours in jeans and slip-on Vans. Some of the games you enjoyed as a kid can be tough to replicate. You think Red Rover was brutal as a kid? Bloodshed will occur among adults (plus, I can’t imagine many adults who’ve watched “Squid Game” care to play children’s games for a while).
You’ve got to be creative and think about what activities might be similar to something you enjoyed as a child. For example, maybe you have fond memories of Capture the Flag? Well, golf also takes all day to play and you’ll spend the whole time looking for your ball in the woods, so give that a shot!
Once you look around, it'll amaze you how many affordable activities are out there. Start looking for local groups on social media, Google stuff, or crack open an ol’ fashion newspaper and look at the community listings page. Worst case scenario, you try something new and don’t like it — that still sounds better than a treadmill.
We live on a big, beautiful planet with amazing places, people and games. Before you let another sleazy gym plunder your checking account for 18 months, consider exploring, meeting and playing.
With the U.S. obesity rate at a record high, I’d never tell someone who loves going to the gym to stop.
Gyms can serve a purpose. Some days you may call on one in a pinch given its convenience to compliment an activity you’re passionate about. But, the idea that grinding it out in a gym every day is the only path to getting in shape prevents a lot of people from living happy, healthy lives. Getting yourself to exercise is hard enough —don’t make it worse by doing something you hate.
When you do activities you love and eat real food, your body will look exactly how it’s meant to.
Jonathan Haukaas is a former editor-in-chief of The Reflector, sister newspaper of The Chronicle. Follow his writing at jonathanhaukaas.medium.com.