I would never be considered a “gym rat.” Weight machines intimidate me, bikes bore me and honestly ... I don’t even know enough about exercise equipment to finish this list.
And yet, I couldn’t wait to go back.
Before Covid-19, I was in the best shape of my adult life. I was even starting to get abs — who knew people outside of Instagram influencers could achieve that?
But more than my somewhat toned physique (and managing to get my mile time under nine minutes for the first time since high school), my mental state was better than ever.
Like many Americans, I deal with anxiety. (According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 31% of Americans will experience an anxiety attack in their lives.) My anxiety isn't extremely severe, but it's a recurrent presence in my life. I stress eat and stress pace. I lose sleep; sometimes a lot of sleep. I fall into stress spirals at times, but one thing that has always consistently pulled me out of that state is exercise.
In 2019, I began to dedicate myself to a regimen. I got a trainer and I started going to the gym four to five times a week. I felt light — and not just weight-wise. My mind felt genuinely clear, and I found it easier to be productive and feel focused. I've had bad days here and there since, but I'd feel unstuck after going to a yoga class or running on the treadmill. I felt powerful and in control.
And then March 2020 hit.
When stay-at-home orders started, I felt similarly to the rest of the world: I was confused, a little scared and, overall, incredibly anxious. It was an exaggerated version of the feelings that have cropped up during other difficult times in my life. But this time, I didn’t have the same outlet to use as a release. I felt like a feral cat trapped indoors clawing at the walls.
Careening toward full-on panic, I did what any person during Covid-19 did: I went on a walk.
I know the outdoors are beautiful. I’m a native Californian; we love the outdoors — the sunshine, the fresh air, trees that aren’t on fire sometimes. But being outdoors in a pandemic, walking around aimlessly just to give myself a break from my four-walled citadel, just made me more uncomfortable.
Here's a peek into my thoughts while walking around the crowded paths of Prospect Park near my apartment in Brooklyn: “Am I walking weird?” “Are people looking at me walk weird?” “I would watch someone if they were walking weird.” “I am definitely walking too fast now.” “These leggings fit me awkwardly. I didn’t notice that before. Is everyone else noticing this?”
It was that recording, over and over again in a loop, until getting back to my apartment and wondering how I felt more tense than before I left.
Then I went the on-demand workout route, desperate for an endorphin rush. I tried Beachbody, CorePower Yoga, Obe, Rumble boxing and others, including a workout DVD I bought a decade ago in college. I even signed up for live classes, hoping it would help me with accountability, but nothing stuck. Every time I tried to start, I would struggle to complete the workout, eventually succumbing to the creeping ennui and frustration of being in the same location I had been for the last eight hours. I'd turn off my workout and go watch TV in an attempt to shut off my mind.
When I’m in a fitness class in person, I don’t have the option to quit. I stick it out because I’m there (and I’m terrified of being rude to the instructor). I can let myself be led without my mind getting in the way. I don’t worry about people watching me because I’m too focused on the instruction. And I leave every class feeling accomplished instead of frustrated. Even when I can’t do something, I feel proud of myself for trying, rather than at home where I won’t even try because no one is making me.
At the gym, I go straight to my favorite treadmill in the back that faces the window, allowing me to run to my heart’s content. I’m not a great runner — I don’t know how to pace myself or how to breathe very well — but I love it. On a treadmill, I can monitor my pace, adjust my incline and make big or small changes when necessary. I have full control, and when I want to stop, I stop. I don’t worry about anyone looking at me and judging me or getting in anyone else’s way. I don’t worry about anything other than how far I went and how good I feel.
I know some people will never go back to the gym. But for me, as soon as the ban lifted, I was ready to return. I haven’t ramped back up to the consistency I achieved before the pandemic — not even close — but when I go, it feels like a weight has been lifted off my mind. I need the escape, and that escape needs to be in a location far away from my makeshift office.
I still may unroll my yoga mat in my tiny apartment for an impromptu flow or squeeze in a quick cardio session at home with those resistance bands I bought early on in the pandemic, but you can more likely catch me on my favorite treadmill tucked in the back of the gym floor, sweating happily after a long day of work.