John Walker's Electronic House

The Gymn

by on Sep.01, 2008, under The Rest

Today contained my first trip to the gym. (Which I shall spell “gymn” as I think that is much better, and one should never abandon an “mn” when it is available). I was apprehensive, as you’d probably imagine, being that I am a slovenly and rotund individual, and it is not my natural habitat at all. But I was also resolute that I would go today, so much so that I got up early (that’s the sort of “early” that freelancers would gasp at, and the rest of the working population would spit at me for) to finish a review for PC Gamer, to make sure I wouldn’t fritter the day away and then declare it too late to go. By mid-afternoon I had no excuses, and walked into town.

It is the YMCA gymn, which at least separates it from the worst sorts of rich, high priced ridiculoemporums that I imagine are filled with overly muscular individuals, glaring menacingly at you as they pump their biceps and angle their threatening trouser-bulges in your direction. Men too. But I was surprised quite how modern the equipment was, the large screens mounted on many machines offering television images with the controls super-imposed. It was all daunting, and I supposed the sensible thing to do was to ask a member of staff for some guidance. I figured that I was going to be the clueless fatty whatever happened, so I might as well embrace the role with gusto. Fortunately the man who created me my membership card did not look like the threatening sort (although many other members of staff certainly did). In fact his thick, powerful glasses gave him a distinctly nerdy look.

I asked what I might need to know, attending for the first time. He gave me a quick, pointed guide of the room, explaining where various machines were, and the changing rooms. I then asked what he might recommend. He looked at me confused, and spluttered, “You have been to a gym before?” (he has yet to learn the correct spelling). The incredulity in his voice suggested he could not possibly imagine an answer other than, “Of course I have! What am I – some kind of non-going-to-the-gymn-weirdo?!” I looked down at my droopy gut, wobbled it for him, and said, “Do I look like I’ve been to a gymn before?”

For a few moments his brain audibly whirred, as he tried to process the idea of someone who wasn’t him, and thus someone who didn’t attend a gymn every day. Once comprehended he gathered himself and said that once I was changed he would give me a quick tour, explaining the various controls. I thanked him, and went into the changing rooms.

They were, apparently, designed for a primary school. Very small, and with benches running around the edges that cannot have been more than a foot from the floor, and certainly not a foot deep. I squatted awkwardly, my knees in the air, and wrestled with my shoelaces as I cursed the inevitable lack of individual cubicles. I’m not a behemoth or anything. In fact, I carry my not inconsiderable weight (17.5 stone) remarkably well. It has gathered entirely on my belly, that when revealed is larger than people are expecting. Beyond that, I’m a particularly broad-shouldered fellow, and as such will never sport a lithe frame. But I’m also not immediately drawn to the notion of stripping off in front of strangers. It was empty for now, and I put on my shorts.

I was first taken to the exercise bikes. My goggled friend was to put me on a bike, a cross trainer, and a treadmill for five minutes each, and show me the basics. I sat there and pedalled for five minutes, the machine rudely declaring my heart rate when I grasped the metal handles. It was between 120 and 130 – pretty fast for relative inactivity, and he commented that this was normal for someone like me. We made awkward small talk while six minutes whiled away, and I hopped off, disappointing him by not “feeling it in my chest”. Next was the cross trainer, a peculiar machine involving not only exercise but a modicum of coordination. He kept it on a low difficulty, and I pushed my arms and legs back and forth, and felt nothing really. My heart, meanwhile, apparently thought I had entirely run out of blood and began going insane. I felt nothing of this, not even feeling a strain (at this point), but apparently my body was preparing for a cardiac arrest. It reached 140, and he said this proved that it was a more difficult machine. It then got to 150, and he lied that it was fine, and began to look perturbed. It then reached 160, and the panic in his face was hilarious. He was obviously convinced that this non-gymn-going freak was about to keel over and die on him while plodding along at the easiest setting.

I’ve no idea if my heart was playing an elaborate prank on this man, as I felt not a thing of it. My calves began to ache a little, but I wasn’t tired, or breathing fast, able to chat quite comfortably with him. And I should hope so – I was doing nothing more strenuous than the casual walk into town. Realising his concern and his pathetic attempt to hide it, the only option was winding him up further. “What number do I need to reach to get a heart attack?” I asked him calmly. “Is 165 bad?”

He desperately hurried me from the machine once the five minutes were complete, and put me on the treadmill at a pace so slow I found it awkward to move at. “There,” he sighed, relieved, “that’s much better.” He then informed me that in a couple of weeks I’d remember that number and laugh about how high it had got. He was trying to comfort himself. He really just couldn’t conceive of a person with a sedentary lifestyle doing something energetic. The odd thing was, looking around the room the majority of the (few) people there were at least as fat as me, if not larger. But he did a splendid job of making me feel like a giant, incapable oaf, surrounded by lean athletes.

Once he had left I put the treadmill up to a brisk pace (I don’t think there’s any call for running yet), plugged my headphones in my ears to listen to Stephen Fry’s podgrams, and spent fifteen minutes on that, before cycling a couple more kilometres. The machines excitedly told me how many calories I had burned, and declared all sorts of disappointing averages. But half an hour of doing at least more than sitting still felt like a decent first visit, and I think I will just put up with being the sweaty one going at embarrassingly slow speeds, while 60 year old obese men sprint either side of me. People will look on me with pity, but I shall accept that.

I’ve painted a terribly ugly image of myself. Hopefully, if I really do manage to do this three times a week, it shall become less ugly with time. It’s a big commitment though, for someone so lazy as me. But I didn’t hate it, despite having a panicking Mr Magoo stood next to me for half of it.

He also freaked out when I told him that I’d lost almost a stone in the last couple of months simply by eating fewer than 2000 calories a day. “Two thousand!” he exclaimed. I really couldn’t guess which way he was going with this. “That’s far too little!” He seemed convinced I was going to drop dead of starvation along with my heart failure now. “But isn’t the recommended amount 2000 a day?” I asked. “Well, yes, but not for someone who’s 17 and a half stone,” he confusingly replied. “But I’m so sedentary,” I said, and that’s plenty of food.” He then called it a “crash diet”, at which point I said quite firmly, “I’m eating plenty of lovely food, it’s fine.” I’m fairly sure this man was talking out of his arse at this point – in fact, many days I struggle to get to 2000 calories, even eating terribly naughty things. He told me that with the amount of exercise he does, and weighing less than me, he eats 3000 to 3500 calories a day. I am certain his heart will give out much sooner than mine.

I feel completely fine now. But then, I did so little at such a slow pace that shouldn’t be a surprise. And I’m sure I’ll wake up tomorrow morning with my legs feeling like they’re in traction.

9 Comments for this entry

  • NM

    He is talking nonsense about the calories. 800 calories a day is a crash diet. So long as you are eating a variety of produce, empty calories don’t give you a medal just because you weigh lots. Indeed, the fact that you weigh lots is the reason you want to get into deficit so the body can consume some of the large number of calories it’s already stored as fat. The trick is to eat enough and to do enough exercise so that your metabolism doesn’t simply drop to compensate. Indeed, that’s why exercise is so important: when you diet, your body is clever enough, over time, to adapt to your new intake by doing the equivalent of firing some people from the postroom and renegotiating the marketing budget. You have to do exercise to force it to re-hire them again because of all the work that needs doing.

  • colinr

    Great story! I had a similar experience when I started at my gym – the lady showing me around and checking my heart rate on the bike seemed similarly concerned!

    I remember getting to over 190 on the cross trainer once, which even scared me!

    Though I made up for it by apparently having extremely good flexion when they did the thing of measuring how far and in how many different directions you can bend your legs. In fact after getting the ‘about to die’ heart rates it was a consolation to find that I was in the athete category for flexibility!

    I never really had any more contact with a trainer for the two years I used the gym(n) after that, so maybe your experience will be similar – they’ll be around watching nervously but won’t be so hands on after the initial introduction.

    During my time at the gym I never put the treadmill above a fast walk either. OK, it may make you look silly but so does running as fast as you can in one spot! I guess I was always nervous that I’d trip or fall over and be catapulted off the end of the machine as I’ve seen happen in numerous You’ve Been Framed clips!

    Surprisingly my favourite of all the equipment was the rowing machine – I loved doing that and is the one thing I miss most about not going to the gymn at the moment!

    Well, that and the after workout steam and sauna where I used to have a quick snooze!

    I also remember after my first week (when I went Monday, Wednesday and Friday after work) everything felt fine at the time, but I could barely move at all on the Saturday. Strangely though I felt much stronger after that, so it must have worked!

  • Ging

    You can calculate your bmr (basal metabolic rate) at a website such as this one, which then allows you to figure out the calorie intake required by your body for sedentary maintenance (ie, to stay the same weight while staying in bed all day). Just remember that you need to burn 3500 calories to lose a pound of weight (or conversely, eat 3500 extra calories to gain a pound). I’m starting on a “lose weight by your birthday” process, which gives me about 100 days to lose as close to 2 stone as possible – a little over 2 pounds a week (which is just about the “healthy” limit for such things). I’ve thought about going back to the gym, but I just don’t like it much unless I’m on a rowing machine!

    There’s a bunch of places on the web where you can get all anal about tracking calories and progress, and spring to mind immediately. Both offer tools for setting targets and tracking calorie intake (fitday in a much more precise way than traineo), so they might be worth looking into.

    You’ve made a better start than most, good luck with it!

  • km

    You may be sore tomorrow, for sure, but every time you go you’ll be a little less sore even if you do more things. I’m proud of you!

  • NM

    And eventually you’ll start missing that feeling of soreness, which becomes a token of worthiness.

  • Greg

    If it’s any help, I’ve just been to the gym for the first time in a month, and came closer to vomiting than I did on any of my overeating binges in Greece.

    Find exercise you enjoy – then you’ll get fit without noticing.

  • Chris Evans

    Your story has given me hope that one day I will get down a gym and learn how it all works. Though as I currently only weight 10 and a half stone I don’t think I need to go to lose weight, just to get fit!

  • Lu-Tze

    The retired people who are in the swimming pool at 7 in the morning make me feel utterly pathetic, as they cannon from end to end with no obvious effort whilst I knacker myself going half as fast. I console myself somewhat by telling myself I haven’t been swimming in ages, and they probably come every morning, but they are still 2-3 times my age, and it’s utterly depressing.

  • NM

    Hi Greg,

    “Find exercise you enjoy – then you’ll get fit without noticing”. This actually sounds like good advice, but it might not be. Here’s why: you often don’t know what exercise you’ll enjoy, because your body will initially complain bitterly about whatever you try to do to get it moving. As an example, I now enjoy running, and do so nearly every day, racking up around 30 miles a week. I recently completed a half-marathon in an acceptable time. And yet, when I started, I hated running. I felt as if I’d have a heart-attack every two minutes, I was wheezing, I ended in pain, my body was telling me as harshly as I could to stop this nonsense. Fortunately, I had people to bully me to ignore my body’s idiotic whinging. Had they not bullied me, I would have decided I hated running and would have given up after the first couple of times. Because I didn’t, I now find it easy and look forward to it and enjoy it.

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