I just read your article in Vice and it stirred something in me close to a breaking point. I hate the idea of exercising in general. Running for the sake of running or lifting for the sake of lifting has always seemed like the biggest waste of time in the world and incredibly classist.
I work as a theater carpenter and electrician. When I wore a step counter I would easily hit 10,000 steps per day, and most of those steps were done while carrying 25lb lights. The only thing that I have ever liked about my body was that it was strong.
When I was in my early 20s and flat broke, struggling to make it in the industry, and consuming mostly rice and cabbage, I got down to a size 8, which doesn't even let me call myself thin by NYC standards. For the past eight or so years, I've been a size 12 and very muscular at 195 lbs. Now that we are re-emerging from the pandemic I am still a size 12. I'm still just shy of 200 lbs, but my strength and endurance has suffered.
My theater is actually in a community center with a gym. I've thought about signing up with a personal trainer to work on gaining some of that back, but I'm really scared. One, I hate the idea of working out. It is so bourgeois. Two, I feel like I would be forced to admit that I actually care that I can't carry a full sheet of 3/4" plywood by myself anymore. What I actually care about is that I am terrified of becoming legitimately fat.
I feel like most women my age have that fear, but they all had babies to blame it on and pictures of themselves looking amazing in high school. I've alway been this size and I've never had children, so I feel like I don't even know how to find a group to relate to.
Any guidance you can offer? Or even a good book to pick up? -Kryssy
I'm going to redirect you on the body concerns to a previous column, because I want to spend some time on the other stuff. I know “not being too hard on yourself” is literally the work of a lifetime, but your life is definitely too short to be worrying about two clothing sizes. Who you are and your value has nothing to do with your size. It really doesn't even have to do with whether you work out or not! But we will get into that shortly.
But other than that, we have a few different things going on here: You feel tension about working out because you’re motivated out of fear of gaining weight; you feel embarrassed and guilty about it; and you are afraid to confront the reality of where you’re at.
None of these things represent you being very nice to yourself. However, they are probably three of the most normal things in the world. If I had a dollar for every person I ever heard wish to “burn calories” from exercising because they want to “lose weight,” I’d be incredibly retired. A friend of mine has regularly expressed that she would go to the gym way more if she could only work out in a cubicle where no one else could see her. And one of the most frequent anxious messages I get is from people who had to take a break from the gym for one reason or another and are now starting over, and getting worked up about how far they have set themselves back.
You say you feel like you need a group to relate to, but based on all the sin-eating I do in my Instagram DMs, I can tell you that what you’re going through is truly what almost everyone goes through. People who blissfully work out because they love it, never take a pause, stay the same size forever, and are always at peace with themselves are… I can’t say with total confidence they don’t exist, but I’ve never met such a person.
First, let’s go over some ways of dealing with feeling embarrassed about working out, or guilty about spending time on it and having a hard time finding motivation. I am a simple woman, and any given fridge magnet with an aphorism has a 50/50 chance of blowing my mind and making me go “that's true, if you really think about it.” This may be why my late-breaking interest in weed is going so well. But recasting or recontextualizing doubts and fears is incredibly effective for me, so try it with some common stressors about working out.
Some tips for feeling less embarrassed about working out
Ask yourself “How much can I work out, really?” and realize the answer is “not much at all,” and that’s fine. If you’re Michael Phelps, you can train six or seven hours a day most days of the week and be basically fine; you eat your 5,000 calories of pancakes and sleep for 14 hours and then wake up the next day and you do it again, and that's just business.
But the rest of us, particularly those of us who don't (yet) have a habit of exercising regularly? Relative to the time we have in general, we are barely able to use any of it for working out. I’m not even talking about our schedules; I'm talking about sheer biological resources.
I'm not a scientist in this matter, but I am a gambling woman. Even if most of us were being chased by a bear, I think we’d have like a solid hour of energy in us at the absolute max before our bodies completely seized up. On a good day, I might have an actual hour of activity in me, and then I'd need to rest the day after that. Even the most jacked people alive can’t and don’t work out for more than a couple hours a day. For some people, it might be 30 minutes, very optimistically. It might be ten minutes. It might be five.
To me this is a very comforting thought: What, really, do I have to give to the activity of “working out” in any given day? For me, this removes any guilt about not doing “enough.” If I did more, I would be too tired for everything else I have to do. But if I have 20 minutes’ worth of energy for working out, then I can give it that, knowing that that's all I have to give.
You're not taking up an activity or reforming your identity; you're doing one thing one time. You need to remove as many stakes from getting back into working out as possible, and I actually find it really helpful to be noncommittal about it sometimes. Goals can be very helpful, but sometimes a goal intimidates me out of doing anything. Try going just once with no stakes. After that, you can contend with going a second time.
This is one reason that a personal trainer might be too much to start with, is that some metaphorically bring a U-Haul to every new client meeting. This is just how their business works, and they want new customers. But I guess what they don't know is that customers anticipate an intense commitment, and that prevents them from even approaching the trainer in the first place, like you are describing here. More trainers should think about this. In the meantime though, if a personal trainer feels “excessive” or like they will be too pushy, it’s fine to not go that route. Like I said above, even if you see them once, you don’t have to again.
Do something that you don't associate with working out and know nothing about. I had a lot of fun learning to play lacrosse (I know) because I knew frankly nothing about it, but also—this was extremely key—I had never seen a good lacrosse player or a well-played lacrosse game. If you feel like you can’t stomach working out in the more traditional sense, try doing something that feels more purposeful and disconnected from working out for working out’s sake, that you know absolutely nothing about. You could train for a strongman competition, for instance (you can do this at any skill level!), or one of those mud-run obstacle courses. Try judo or a self-defense class. My editor is now telling me these all sound too hard so I’m changing gears: the latest viral dance craze, gentle canoeing, badminton. I know I’m supposed to be here to hype up lifting weights, but lifting weights will still be there once you work on your relationship with the “meaning” of working out.
And really, lifting weights is better understood as a means of making activities and life better, rather than the point in and of itself (hopefully this, too, speaks your classist concerns). You might turn out to be a very cunning and formidable badminton player, but with some benches and squats? You’d be even better.
Remember that everyone has to start over. It would be a lot of work for everyone to stay in shape all of the time, which is why they don't. Even pro athletes take months off. I get a lot of messages from people after they have to take a break from lifting for the first time ever because life got in the way, they went on vacation, had a breakup, etc. and now they want to go back to the gym but are afraid to find out how weak they've gotten. “Shhhh shhhhh it’s OK,” I am always saying. “You are not The Rock; your life can’t revolve around working out all the time.”
But here is the thing: You're always going to have been as strong as you once were (literally, to an extent, thanks to muscle memory, but also literally, due to the linearity of time; no one can go back and take that away from you). Michael Jordan will be no less great when he can't dunk a basketball anymore (which, apparently, he still can). There is nothing inherently wrong with getting weaker because you took a break from working out. You simply can’t measure yourself in the present against some “better” past version; I know it’s not easy to just stop thinking this way overnight, but it’s not right or fair to continue to punish yourself. If you can let go of that mindset, you might find that the process of starting over can actually be incredibly validating and kind of fun; take it from someone who has started over in the gym many, many times now.
Release yourself mentally and emotionally from having to work out. This may be a bit extreme, but you know what—just as there are technically no laws that you have to eat healthy, there are no laws that you have to work out. If the idea of exercise feels like jail, sit with the idea that you can not ever work out again and just go on living your life. I’m not saying there are no negative consequences of that, but it’s a choice like any other; it has advantages and drawbacks. Most people don't work out, and you can be one of them.
This might not be actually realistic, but sometimes it’s a useful reverse-psychology trick for me, because it helps the external pressures of working out fall away, and refocuses me on why I do it for myself. I sleep terribly, feel more anxious and depressed, and physically hurt if I just sit on the couch all day. I also just enjoy how lifting feels during and after. As those dumbass bumper stickers love to tell me, I’ll die either way, but I think I will die having lived a less miserable life overall if I can manage to spend about 2 percent of my waking hours moving around a little.
And finally, the classicism problem
You mention a couple of times in your letter that working out feels “bourgeois,” like a leisure-class rich-people thing. It definitely is, in our current cultural moment; like I was saying above, you need time and energy to work out, almost less of the former than you really need of the latter. You don't just need minutes of the day, but mental space to devote to what you should be doing and how; you need enough emotional bandwidth to feel like your own well-being is worth spending time on—emotional bandwidth that for a lot of us is spent on concerns we shouldn't have like job security and credit card debt, which then robs us of our physical energy.
But we all deserve to have that bandwidth, regardless of whether the current system provides that or not. Rich people have literally all the good stuff in life: fancy cheeses, yachts, mansions, vacations, all of the free brain space that the rest of us expend on “healthcare.” It's a prison-of-the-mind kind of thing to say it's superfluous, fatuous, or self-indulgent in a rich-people way to work out.
You seem like you have a particular relationship with physical labor that informs your understanding of physical activity for non-economical or practical reasons as excessive or foofy. It is annoying to think about the rich paying for expensive exercise classes when others are out there for not even earning a living wage for their backbreaking manual labor. And, OK, maybe it is self-indulgent to spend $45 on a single barre class when other people have so little.
But respectfully, our need to move is just a fact of life. Scientists are hard at work proving this with studies and facts and data, but we already know that many of the problems we have that we are now trying to solve with jacked-up diet foods, neck massagers, posture buzzers, pills, standing desks, and whatever ashwagandha is would actually be helped or mitigated far more by “moving around some.” It is absolutely correct to think that that system is fucked up, but too great a personal burden to bear in the form of depriving yourself of this fairly basic biological need. That is, frankly, too much importance to ascribe to physical activity.
Therefore, put that energy to work changing the system, not punishing yourself for wanting to go to a gym for a couple hours a week. Get involved with your local government and listen to your community leaders. It’s not that easy to fit activity into our lives, just as it’s not that easy to earn a livable amount of money; these things are both incredibly fucked up, and interrelated. But also, just like with working out, we can sit there feeling how vast the distance is between where we are and where we feel like we should be and feel bummed that we can only go so fast, and can’t go as fast as we used to. Or we can start walking, however slowly, up that hill.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.