How I Started Exercising Regularly…Again

[This post originally appeared on my blog “Every Virgin Active Fitness Club Class.]

For much of my life, I’ve thought that “exercise” means “jogging.”

I played softball as a kid. I did gymnastics in high school, but didn’t make the school team. So the cross-country team—which at 300 girls strong was the only no-cut sport—was my new extracurricular.

And so I became a runner. (A mediocre one.)

I kept up the habit, on and off, through college. I never particularly pushed myself, and certainly not enough to counteract the drinking and poor diet, but it at least got me outside. During Midwestern winters, I layered leggings on leggings, vests on long-sleeve shirts, beanies on top of earmuffs.

And then I jogged.

During stressful weeks, it was an outlet: I relished the bite of the cold, a podcast in my ear, the barren trees and the vapor of my breath swirling before me. I couldn’t imagine stripping out of those protective layers, exchanging the frosted lining of my lungs for the sweat and stifled air of a gym.

“Running on a treadmill is like a hamster on a wheel in a cage,” I’d say.

I couldn’t imagine there was anything else to do at the gym — it was the college football team that lifted weights. It was the cheerleaders who did the stair-stepper. What else is there?

But at 26, I’d bought a one-way ticket to Asia and gotten a job in internet marketing. I was reinventing many areas of my life, and so who was to say giving the hamster wheel a spin couldn’t be one of them?

In Bangkok, two friends and I set out to try every class that the Virgin Active club offered. (The premise of this very blog.) [Edit: Not this very blog. This blog.]

By the end of the experiment, something extraordinary happened: I realized I loved weightlifting (a class called Body Pump) and Aqua Fit (dancing in a pool.)

I became a gymrat.

For the next four years, as I continued traveling the world, I made it a priority to locate a gym close to my Airbnb before landing in a new city. Without my beloved gym, I didn’t work out. I needed someone creating the workout plan. I needed social pressure. I needed someone yelling at me to keep holding that plank, even when my abs were about to burst into flames.

I did personal training in Chicago, took private Pilates classes in Prague, lifted weights in Body Pump classes in Mexico City, and later in Chiang Mai. I used my apartment building’s gym in Vietnam on my own. It was tougher without structure, but at least I had a gym.

Then I moved to Melbourne, Australia, in late 2019, where I did dance classes, pilates, HIIT workouts, and even this ridiculous climbing-machine-techno-thing (that honestly deserves its own blog post).

Then the world shut down.

For a year, I struggled. I continued with my Pilates gym, which now streamed classes online. (After I bought the very last yoga mat at my local sports store before the first lockdown.) I took online dance classes for a bit. Then, when gym equipment was finally back in stock, I bought a fancy Australian-brand kettle-bell and followed their pre-recorded workouts.

But I was always counting down the days until the gyms could re-open again.

I was waiting for what I was comfortable with. I was limited by the story I was telling myself, just like I was when I jogged. Except this time, it wasn’t: “I’m no hamster,” but “I am NOTHING without my wheel!”

The hamster needed reinvention once again.

After a year of false starts, I got an ad for Les Mills On Demand: My beloved Body Pump workouts were actually from this New Zealand company, and I could stream them.

As the lockdowns rolled, I slowly amassed a collection of weights, revisiting my favorite Body Pump classes from Bangkok. I dabbled in other Les Mills workouts, like step aerobics and yoga. I was back to exploring which exercise made me feel good, even if it didn’t seem like one I’d like.

When the gyms were back open in-between lockdowns, I wasn’t even tempted to rejoin. I was saving a lot of money, and relishing that I didn’t have to travel to and from the gym, or workout on anyone else’s schedule.

Now that we’re back in lockdown in Melbourne, I’m exercising more than ever. I know it keeps me sane, makes me feel healthy, helps me sleep. There’s no structured class schedule to follow, but at least I have control.

This blog started as a journey exploring a single gym within a tight deadline. In the intervening years, there have been a lot more gyms and classes and exploration.

Five years later, I’m surprised I’m working out on my own. I’m surprised I’m loving my home gym. (I’m not surprised I no longer jog.)

But now I know better than to proclaim that I hate gyms or I love gyms or I need them or don’t. Something that was a three-week lark five years ago has become a cornerstone of my life, and in whatever shape that takes in the future, I’ll keep exploring it.