41. Conquering the Gym

41. Conquering the Gym

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

Conquering the Gym

Too many people confine their exercise to jumping to conclusions, running up bills, stretching the truth, bending over backward, lying down on the job, sidestepping responsibility and pushing their luck.

A fat girl in elementary school is lined up against a painted cinderblock wall with her classmates. Two boys—the best athletes in the class, of course—stand several feet away, surveying the group critically. One by one, the students are called to join the boys’ teams, until only one student is left. “Nancy,” one of the boys mumbles. The girl keeps her eyes on the ground, too embarrassed to look at anyone, as she joins her team.

These are the images that pop into my head, so many years later, when I think of myself in a gym. Anyone who’s been a fat kid knows gym is the worst place to be. So, last year when my diet buddy suggested that we join the gym that’s housed in our office building, I literally laughed in her face. “No way!” I said, without even thinking about it. When she asked for an explanation I told her it would devastate my weight loss efforts. “Kimmy, the moment I go in there and get laughed at, I will feel like a failure. I can’t take that kind of pressure right now. I need to keep things positive.”

I was working so hard on my journey to reach a healthy weight. I had already lost 60 pounds, but I had at least another 30 to go before I would be satisfied. I felt that any negativity could derail me entirely, and my experience with gyms had never been anything but negative.

She let it go, and I thought—hoped—that would be the end of it. But my diet buddy is nothing if not persistent. Every month or two she would find a new tactic to try to convince me to go to the gym. At first she touted how inexpensive our gym is, and that I’d never find a better deal anywhere else.

“I don’t want to find a better deal,” I snapped. “I’m never going to the gym.”

Then she tried to convince me that it wasn’t that kind of gym. “There are people of all sizes and skill levels at this gym, Nancy. Everybody does their own thing, and nobody pays attention to anyone else.” But how could a girl like me believe that? I knew that as soon as I walked through the door, the big, athletic guys and the tiny, perfect girls would instantly see who I was: a fat fourth-grader whose only goal at the gym was to be as invisible as possible until I could leave.

One day, during the holiday season, I was foolish enough to complain about how little time I had to work out. I tried to do it when I got my son to bed at night, but by that time I’m usually wiped out. And I’d just had an extremely unsuccessful two weeks of attempting to work out at 5 a.m. before my family woke up. But since I am nearly unable to function before 8 a.m., I was a zombie during my workouts and was quite literally going through the motions, with almost no benefit to my body.

“You know, there’s a really easy solution to your problem,” Kimmy replied. Her latest strategy was to proclaim the convenience of being able to work out during our lunch hour. As I came up with one excuse after another from my impressive arsenal, she sat silently and listened to all the words she’d heard before. She was very quiet when she said, “Nancy, it doesn’t have to be this complicated. You’re not a kid anymore, and this doesn’t have to own you.”

And in that moment, I knew she was right. As much progress as I’d made, I knew I would never be able to reach my goal weight, let alone keep it off, without conquering all the old demons that still haunted me. I needed to step out of my comfort zone. I realized it was my comfort zone, and not some elementary school bullies, that kept me from succeeding.

Four weeks ago I started at the gym, and I have to be honest with you: I was absolutely terrified. When Kimmy and I arrived, it was already crowded. People were lifting weights, running on the treadmills, and cycling imaginary miles on the stationary bikes. A man on the elliptical machine was shouting to his friend about how hard it is to do “two 18s” in a row. A woman jumped off the treadmill with her first two fingers poked into her neck. And I started to panic. What if somebody wants to talk to me about “two 18s?” I don’t even know what that is! Should I poke my neck too? Am I checking to see if it’s still fat?

Kimmy and I put our DVD into the player and started to warm up. It was surprisingly fun to work out with a buddy, much more entertaining than doing the DVD by myself. Between the music from our DVD, the sounds of all the machines and people talking, it got pretty loud at the gym and the scary thoughts in my mind began to fade.

Four weeks later, I don’t hear those thoughts much anymore. The big guys that were so intimidating on my first day give me a warm wave when I arrive now; and the super-skinny girl that rules the elliptical machine confessed that she’s never been confident enough to use workout DVDs in front of everybody. I told her she can join us any time. Fourth grade was a long time ago for everybody I see at the gym. As far as I can tell, no one is thinking about dividing into teams or deciding who is the weakest link. At this stage, everyone is really there to work on their own goals—health, weight loss, empowerment and strength.

And although I will always remember the little girl who was picked last, I can now look at myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors at the gym and see just how far I’ve come.

~Nancy Higgins Reese

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