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American Pie: Singing The Gymnasium Blues

...Throughout the voluntary and prescribed callisthenic phases, over several years until the present, I have never felt the experience was anything other than totally boring, and look forward to each session with about the same enthusiasm as a visit to the dentist...

John Merchant is no gym enthusiast, though he has become an acute observer of those who sweat and toil on those infernal exercise machines.

John's American Pie columns have provided a weekly reading treat for the past seven years for the many thousands of visitors to Open Writing. To catch up on columns you may have missed please click on
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I began to work out regularly at a local gym several years ago, mainly to keep my wife company. Later, the regimen became more essential in the wake of two knee replacements.

Throughout the voluntary and prescribed callisthenic phases, over several years until the present, I have never felt the experience was anything other than totally boring, and look forward to each session with about the same enthusiasm as a visit to the dentist.

Some of the exercise machines I use have an attached TV screen that provides a distraction if you’re so inclined, but I’m not an habitual TV watcher, and morning TV in the US is about as stimulating as tapioca pudding, so that’s of no help to me. The only enduring diversion I have found that takes my mind off the minutes that drag by like hours as I plod along the treadmill, is to observe my fellow sufferers.

Almost all of them are stoic, and would have you believe that they are actually enjoying themselves, but I know they are crying inside, even the frenetic, anorexically thin young women who have no business taking up space in a gym anyway. I started people-watching almost from day one, once I had overcome the embarrassment of making a fool of myself in public as I struggled to master the vagaries of each exercise machine.

I wrote some time ago in this column about my experiences, but feel it is time to revisit the topic in light of my new circumstances. Until I moved to Florida I had belonged to commercial gyms where the membership was so large that encountering the same person more than once was a rarity. Although this provided a larger pool of subjects, the time available to observe them was limited.

Now I go to a private gym that is part of the community where I live, and that has fewer participants. So if I go there on a given day at roughly the same hour, more than likely I will see the same people. They break down into three main groups – the twenty-somethings, the slightly over middle aged, and the old fogies like me.

The younger end tend to be all business, with no time for conversation or even a “good morning.” They head straight for the treadmill and immediately hit a pace seldom seen outside of marathons. When I finish my routine they’re still at it, with not a bead of sweat or any heavy breathing, perfectly able to carry on a simultaneous cell phone conversation without gasping for breath.

They’re “dressed” for the job in the latest running gear, what there is of it. The young men invariably wear sleeveless tops so that we can all marvel at their bulging biceps, and a tightly strapped-on heart monitor is de rigueur. After completing their morning dash, the men take to the weights, gasping and blowing like stranded whales so the rest of us are all aware that they are accomplishing something we can’t even contemplate.

The middle group men fall into two categories – those who are still working and who are forced to compete with younger colleagues in the workplace, and the early retirees who are fighting their battle with mid-life crisis. The latter group have tight, well-tuned bodies with only a hint of a thickening waistline.

Their shorts are a tad trimmer than us oldsters, and they sport body-hugging, athletic vests. They valiantly try to heft the same weights as the younger guys, but take a furtive look around after each set to see if anyone has noticed their flushed complexions and heaving chests.

The middle aged women are mostly responding to the realization that a couple of pregnancies, too many dietary lapses and too much TV have wrought havoc with the svelte bodies of their teenage. It’s also a social occasion for many of them, so they seek out adjacent machines and have the conversations that used to take place over the garden fence. Naturally, talking up a storm doesn’t leave much breath for exercising, so the whole objective is negated, at least physically, though I’m sure their chats have therapeutic value.

We fogies don’t have much to say to one another. We communicate on another level. As one rheumy gaze meets another, whole volumes of information are exchanged. We’ve been there and done that, so enough said. We all know that the one inch layer of belly fat that took years of sitting at a desk and business entertaining to accumulate, is never going away, no matter how much we puff and sweat.

We’re told by those who know, that as we age we are less able to build muscle, and so even a pale semblance of a Superman physique is denied us. As a consequence, our exercise objectives are modest - simply to be strong enough to get up when we fall down, to be able to tie our own shoelaces, and not to look like a victim on dark nights when we’re trying to remember where we parked the car. Old fogies like us never die; we simply ride our treadmills to the great gymnasium in the sky.

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