Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Workin' the Night Shift



I recently hauled myself to the gym after realizing that if you sit (or better, recline) for over a year doing nothing but eating, knitting, and watching television, your behind can grow to resemble that of a pachyderm. Sort of like the "garbage in, garbage out" principle, only with fudge cake. Your body truly reflects what you do in your spare time, trust me. Don't let your overweight friends gain your sympathy by telling you they "just don't know why they can't lose weight." You can tell what people do in their spare time by the size of their waistline and mine had reached its largest circumference ever.

Although my year (OK, maybe more) of sloth was fun while it lasted, I had to get moving for many reasons: my energy was so low I could literally curl up into a ball and nap at any time of day; those madcap, impulsive trips to the mini-mart next door for Ben & Jerry's were becoming a nightly ritual; and I was very close to having to go to work naked for lack of clothes that fit. You can only stretch that black turtleneck so far before someone can read your bra label through the fabric.

My past history with the gym has been mixed. A few years back, I was going through a divorce and, in order to reach my "mating weight," I tried stumbling through a 5:30 a.m. aerobics class. I got pretty good and my hips were shaping up nicely until I started dating and I found I much preferred snuggling under a warm comforter with my partner of choice to throwing on sweats in the dark and cold.

Soon after, I moved to another city and the weight started creeping up again, so I decided to commit to regular gym attendance by paying for an entire year in advance (with three months thrown in for free as a bonus!). I never even set foot in the place -- literally -- after I signed the contract. Apparently, that's how health clubs make a great deal of their income: by banking on the insanely low probability of yearly subscribers attending regularly if ever. Although that factoid reduced my embarrassment, my pant size continued to move upward.

So, this February, I began "Project Me." I wanted to miss the rush hour traffic of New Year's resolution makers, so I waited an extra month after the holidays. "Project Me" included medical and dental check-ups and minor repairs, a mammogram, a pap smear, "saying no" to all extra-curricular activities, joining Weight Watchers (on-line to avoid the weekly weigh-in -- I can humiliate myself just fine in the privacy of my home, thank you) and re-joining the same gym -- this time on a month-to-month basis. The good news: I had perfect gym attendance for two weeks. The bad news: It took me six more weeks (maybe more, I don't know) to get back there. This time around, I'm trying something new: I'm working out at night. Why? Well, since I got rid of all my other commitments, I have time for myself in the evenings and since that's when I start grazing for goodies, it’s a healthy substitute. Besides, it's not like my evening social calendar is chock full and a workout gives me something to look forward to during deadly boring office meetings. Most important: I get to sleep in a few extra minutes and I still work off my booty. So far, so good.

But I've noticed some interesting differences between the morning and night shifts. Very different creatures inhabit each world. Even at 0:Dark:30, the "High Rollers" are up and at 'em and ready to start the day the same way they live the rest of their lives: fast and furious. They already have great bodies, usually run really fast, lift heavy weights, and put the most into their aerobics or calisthenics. They make me want to go back to bed. "Worry Warts" are also early birds, trying to restore their bodies to the ones they had before babies, sedentary jobs, attacks of depression, whatever. You can read the anxiety and desire on their faces and on the pages of the fitness magazines they compulsively consume.

The "Cranky Grandmas" are the scariest. One gray November morning, I was shaken from my sleepy stupor by an 80-something dressed in matching leg warmers and headband who told me I was in her spot and she waited for me to pick up my mat and weights and get out of her way. The grandmas usually travel in packs, love to gossip, and go to coffee after. The saddest thing, though, is when I hear them pine for the thin bodies they wish they had. I have this secret hope that when I reach retirement age I won't have to get up early for anyone or anything and I can throw off this mortal coil and stop worrying about my weight. Maybe not.

Early morning hours also attract the "Semi-Tenants" who know all the details of the towel girl's personal life, have a favorite locker, and bring their work clothes and toiletries with them. The gym has become a second home for them and, like any crowded household, the bathroom can get busy. Blow dryers whirring, showers whooshing, locker doors slamming. By 7:45 a.m., the locker room frenzy resembles bath time at Grand Central Station.

Evenings, on the other hand, feel more relaxed. The atmosphere is social and the demographic younger. No one is in a hurry. People linger to talk, flirt, take a class or two. When I asked about the busiest times at the gym, I was told "between 5 and 7 p.m, " so I try to go after 7, but even then the remnants of the mating game are still visible, especially in the weight room. Something about clanging plates of steel seems to attract members of the opposite sex. Married couples seem to work out more frequently together in the evening and the wives hover close to their mates. Their female antennae must detect a lot of competition and they want their territory clearly staked out.

There's one final nocturnal group. These are guys with nowhere else to go and no one to dress them. You can tell by their workout clothes: reminiscent of the 1970s jogging craze, made out of polyester, and a little too tight. They loiter conspicuously and because of the artificial content of their clothes, usually have terrible body odor (which, surprisingly you don't smell much at the gym -- sweat yes, chlorine yes, body odor, not so much). They're sort of like depressed over-the-hill Jack Trippers wandering among the treadmills, trying to find a place to feel comfortable or maybe some company.

I sympathize with these guys. It's hard to find your place at the gym, whether it's on your favorite Stairmaster or in your preferred location for yoga class. It can feel kinda silly at first -- even painful. When my trainer showed me the machines and walked me through some excruciating moves, I warned him, "don’t make me hate this place." I'm determined to hang in for the long term and forced agony won't help. So, I'm thinking this evening workout thing has potential. It offers the best of both worlds: pushing my physical limits while reducing the psychic pressure of getting out bed too damn early and enjoying the self care I'm giving myself. It's a delicate balance to maintain while I whittle away at my sizeable center of gravity.

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