Baffling equipment. Mean girls. Chronic cell-phone chatters. Unidentified puddles of bodily fluids. Germs. Old men on the exercise bike in nothing but tighty whities and black dress socks (true story). There are lots of reasons why people avoid the gym. Frankly, there are probably more reasons to skip the gym than to go. (Thankfully the reasons to go are much more compelling for me than those to skip it!) So when I got this e-mail from Reader M, I was simultaneously irritated – not by her! – and sympathetic:
I keep thinking that I should overcome my fat-girl-phobia and show up at a gym, and then one of these articles come along.
The article she is referring to is the recent New York Times expose (side note – can anyone please tell me how to type the little accent over the e? It’s killing me. I once had to write an entire post about my awesome shiny gold leotard that I seriously do workout in, the whole time referring to it as my gold “lame” leo. That’s a crime against fashion, is what that is.) “Be Sure Exercise is All You Get At the Gym.”
Cue the scary Jaws music, here is yet another article about how bacteria at the gym can kill you. Every few months someone writes an article about MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) – an admittedly terrifying bug – being transmitted through gyms and locker rooms. While the risk is real and potentially lethal, there is a lot of selective reporting involved in this articles (cue my irritation with the NY Times, not my darling Reader M). And I’ve even written myself several times on this topic (warning: only click through that link if you have a strong stomach. I received more complaints about that pic than any other I have ever posted. Which I don’t really get since I think it’s hilarious and awesome but I’m gross like that.)
First, as the Mayo clinic points out, while community-acquired cases such as those in gyms, locker rooms and designer wedding dress sample sales (anywhere there is a lot of wrestling involved) are on the rise, “Most MRSA infections occur in people who have been in hospitals or other health care settings, such as nursing homes and dialysis centers.” Second, there is a one in three chance you already are carrying MRSA on your skin right this very second. And you are probably still healthy. Lastly, if you do pick up something nasty at the gym – and according to the NY Times 1/3 of us are carrying a contagious skin infection at any given moment – it’s more likely to be the unglamorous (but also undeadly) ring worm, athlete’s foot, impetigo or, heaven save us from thong panties on a bicycle seat, yeast infections.
I don’t want anyone to think that I’m downplaying the seriousness of antibiotic-resistant germs – I had a very dear friend nearly lose her life to one – but I do wish they’d stop using it as a Get Out of Gym free card. Sure you could catch an illness at the gym. But you could also get sick any time you leave the house. I think that the benefits of consistent exercise far outweigh the risk of illness, especially if you take common sense precautions like laying down a towel between you and the weight bench, sanitizing your machine both before and after you use it, wearing flip flops in the showers and drinking Purel straight from the bottle after tongue kissing the towel boy. (None of which I do, by the way. I’m awesome at ignoring my own advice!)
The first part of M’s e-mail was what really caught my attention and sympathy though. “I keep thinking that I should overcome my fat-girl-phobia and show up at a gym.” Despite the fact that I’ve been working out deliriously happy in a gym setting for many years now, I have definitely not forgotten how it feels to be new. Whether you are gym-phobic because you are afraid of being the fat-girl freak show or because you’re afraid of burrito-ing yourself in gym equipment that has more instructions than the lathe you used in 6th grade wood shop or because you’re afraid of missing the step in step class and ending up flat on your back, it all boils down to this: we’re afraid of what other people will say (or even think about us).
Do I sweat too much? Is my bacne too disgusting to wear a tank top? Do I smell? Will they laugh at my ratty t and boyfriend’s sweat pants? Am I too uncoordinated to do an aerobics class? Will the bootcamp instructor yell at me if I can’t run a lap? Will the older women in the pool laugh at me as they pass me lap after lap after lap?
I wish I could tell you no. People are judgmental critters. I don’t know if this will make anyone feel better but it happens to all of us. You aren’t unique in your problems. I’m not overweight but I’ve had plenty of people laugh at me, talk about me, and even hawk a loogie into my hair once. I know it hurts; people will roll their eyes, elbow you out of “their” spot, mutter under their breath, giggle. But a lot of it stems from insecurity about ourselves and in my experience if you open yourself up (I know, I hate being vulnerable too!) most people turn out to be remarkably, beautifully helpful and caring. Also, I think people think about us a lot less than we think they do. Chances are that woman’s stern look is actually directed at herself in the mirror as she watches her bicep curls and not at your dimpled thighs. Give us the benefit of the doubt and we may surprise you.
And for those who really would be unkind based solely on your weight/clothes/accent/skin color/experience? I’m not going to tell you to “just not care.” I care what people think about me. It’s very hard not to. But you can acknowledge the hurt without letting it stop you or bring you down. Their negativity will corrode their soul long after you’ve moved on. Making fun of an overweight person at the gym is like making fun of a sick person for going to the hospital. Exercise is for everybody – literally, every person with a body.
Do you have a gym phobia? Do you worry about germs? Have you ever been made fun of at the gym? How did you deal with it? Any advice for M? Anyone else think this germs-in-the-gym angle is way overblown or am I being flippant about a real risk?