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In Praise (sort of) of Gyms


I don’t like gyms. I go there only to suffer and to hurt. I do this in the company of fellow sufferers, vain posers and deluded time wasters. I do this either to the accompaniment of pop music that makes me feel very old, in front of muted televisions beaming the mutants of daytime TV, or to the mindless chitter-chatter of people who think that gossiping on a rowing machine for 20 minutes counts as a workout.

I lift and lunge beneath the strip lights because I know that I should and because my life seems to revolve around retrospective pleasures. I feel better after I have been to the gym than I did before I went.

I hope you agree you need exercise in your life. If you don’t then you are, frankly, wrong. And more than that, you are missing out. When I am fit and training regularly I feel so much better -healthier, smarter and happier- and that makes listening to X-Factor music in the company of muscle-bound meatheads tolerable. (I am lucky to have a great coach: the sessions with him are useful and focussed. The sessions at my own gym without him are useful and focussed (and painful) thanks to the programme he’s given me).

But my dalliance with gyms is linked only to our South Pole expedition (and even with this I prefer training outdoors: see this video of us training outdoors, Rocky style, on the Isle of Skye) and the need to hit the ground running, or at least hit the ground hauling a 180kg sledge at snail’s pace for 110 days. I wouldn’t be going to a gym otherwise. Most of the trips I have done before have been physically demanding but have not really needed prior training. I prefer to have an idea, begin it, suffer, adapt and finally thrive.

Exploring your physical limits is a great way of pushing back your boundaries and surprising yourself at what you are capable of doing. Cycling over mountain passes or walking cross-country all day, spurred on by the incentive that you will not eat until you find a shop is a guarantee of a great workout. The physical achievement of completing a difficult journey across arduous wild country is something that will fill you with pride as well as making you stronger. Anima sane in corpore sane.

But as I have often said, exploring need not always be done in far-flung exotic locations. The next time you go for your usual run, turn left instead of right at the end of your street. Run a different route, explore your neighbourhood more thoroughly. Go run through your local woods (did you know the bluebells and stitchwort are out at the moment?). Cycle south on Sunday morning for a couple of hours, the sunrise on your left. Ride until you find a pub for lunch, then ride home a different route.I love running in new places: there are new things to look at and distract your mind from the pain in your lungs and legs. And getting yourself lost is a perfect way to force yourself to run for longer than you ordinarily would.

Exploring is an interesting and enjoyable thing. Physical exercise is a satisfying and important thing. Combining the two -pushing yourself hard in new and wild environments- is one of the most rewarding, beneficial and enjoyable aspects of my life. It’s even worth the pain of preparatory deadlifts in front of Jeremy Kyle.

What do you think? Do you agree or not? What’s your personal poison?

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  1. I have to admit I really dislike gyms, apart from all the stuff you mentioned; the music, daytime TV and the muscle bound posers I find that the artificial lights and dehydrated, ‘conditioned’, air make for an unpleasant environment to exercise in. I love to run and so also have a gripe with treadmills, those things encourage people to land with their heels and amongst many other short comings can lead to injuries. The whole experience pales in comparison to training outdoors which incidentally has no membership free attached to it.

  2. To my mind most folks use gyms for the wrong reasons. Most people you see there are doing cardio-vascular workouts and I agree with James, the best place for those is outdoors. Gyms are pretty good if you need short, intensive and physically exhausting exercise. The times I venture in I steer clear of the machines which just isolate muscles and go for things like the medicine balls, kettle-bells and the parallel bars: stuff to build up functional muscle. Come to think of it, I’d be happy if gyms still looked like they did in Victorian public schools 🙂

  3. Nice post. About two years ago, I got into adventure racing – and that definitely hits all of my buttons in the areas you talk about. After I started to take it seriously, and was working towards the Terrex Coast to Coast last year (and the Terrex Sting in Stirling this year) I made a promise to myself.

    I am not doing these events to win, or to set times. I’ve never done them before, so every stage is a new personal best. I am doing these events for the personal challenge – and most of all to enjoy the journey.

    In the “journey”, I also include the preparation – but I made a conscious decision that I would never train. I would only play.

    I find that by changing the verb, I changed the mindset. Whether it was a good session or a bad session – the “play” mindset lifted it all. There were no targets, there were no heartrate zones, there was only play. It sounds odd for an adult to say “Do you want to go and play on your bike?”, but it sounds fine for an 8 year old to say it. Why do we change our mindset?

    Training runs? Or playing in the woods?
    Training rides? Or playing on the bike?
    Training swim? Or playing in the lake?
    Nav training? Or getting lost in the woods?

    Anyway, I’m rambling now – but they are my thoughts, and that is the way our company runs too… playing outside should be fun.

  4. Sambhram Posted

    Most often you’ll end up suffering alongside people who don’t have as much determination as you do.You feel you are going hard(relatively) and feel good,but thats just relative.Most gyms soften you down.The emphasis also is on what you wear rather than what you do.Ofcourse,all this depends on the gym you are going to.(I surely wouldn’t say this about gymjones and some of the crossfit gyms).

    Cheers and all the best with South.

  5. Jamie Posted

    Never got gyms – seems quite mad to pay money for a running machine that you run on and stand still. But my wife joined and lost weight and made friends…so each to his own. And there’s nothing wrong with 20 minutes on a rowing machine chatting if that’s all you want. It’s arguably healthier than doing an iron man triathlon, say.

  6. Alex Posted

    I get my exercise from the daily cycle commute to work and back. Anything up to 30 odd miles depending on the route I take. Coincidentally I pass by your neck of the woods (Longfield?) pretty much everyday.

    I’m a creature of habit. I tended to follow the same route much of the time until quite recently when I got into geocaching. Nowadays I end up riding further, explore new areas and enjoy the added purpose of the game.

    Anyone looking for ways to spice up routine commutes, getting onto not so beaten tracks and discovering more about places you thought you were already familiar with should give it a go. Much better than a treadmills, cycling machines and all you describe finding in gyms.

  7. Can’t get on with gyms, for the same reasons everyone else has mentioned. I have friends who do classes there though, I’m sure if i got round to trying yoga or pilates i’d enjoy that..but I’d be sad not to be outside. I love commuting by bike, and do about ten hilly miles a day (Alex, 15 miles to work? I’d be pretty tired! I guess i do start at a silly hour though..)
    Running barefoot through the surf on the beach, especially if it’s windy, is for me better than anything membership could buy 🙂



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