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You there, hovering in the lobby of that gym you just joined, already a week behind on your resolution and standing on the threshold of giving up: I see you.
I used to be a lot like you: Uncertain of what I was doing at the gym, but certain I’d injure myself. Unaware of what my body could do, but hyperaware of what it couldn’t. Unsatisfied by stillness, but unmoved to move.
I remember my first time walking into a weight room, observing thick-necked gym vets curling dumbbells and grunting at their reflections in the wall mirrors. I’d downloaded a workout (I believe it was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Golden Six). But the actual heavy lifting was compounded by the creeping pointlessness that seemed to characterize every aspect of exercising early on: The hours of ceaseless repetition and literal running in place, on an endless array of machines designed specifically to make their sole function more difficult. It weighed on me like a psychological kettlebell.
Then, super long story mercifully short, I sucked it up. I went to the gym about 10 days in a row, and thus my experimental regimen firmed into something more like a habit. Some 15 years (and two hernias) later, I’m a meathead, a person who routinely drinks straight from the blender and owns maybe three shirts with what count as sleeves. I embarrass my husband by wearing short shorts to the supermarket. And I’ve learned there are only a few things you really need to succeed in the gym. One of them is a gym. The others are shorts, a shirt, shoes, and showing up. Maybe a padlock so your phone doesn’t get stolen? Water? That’s seriously it.
If I could beam back and offer some advice to that nervous twig I once was for his first days in the jungle of the gym, I’d lighten his burden by clearing up some misconceptions:
You need a pre-workout booster. No. Avoid beverages with names like “NITROFLEX” or “DIESELPUMP” or “ARTERYSPLOSION.” The pre- and post-workout edible market has reached peak Wonka levels of chemical innovation. If you really require an adrenaline rush before exercising, have someone smash a paper bag behind you. Otherwise, eat a banana. Drink some water. Enjoy the savings! Work out.
You need performance gear. No. A tale: For a time, I went to a powerlifting gym in Everett, where now and then a giant man would lumber in, walk straight to the dead-lift platform, go about his very heavy business, and leave. He wore a white dress shirt, khakis, brown wingtips, and some really substantial-looking rings. Another member later informed me he was an ex-Patriot (nope, don’t know which one, am gay, don’t ask) and that he’d never once seen him lift in anything but work clothes. Try this: Go to Lululemon, or Under Armour, or Niketown (that a thing still?), or Flab City or wherever the next big spin on spandex is taking place. Purchase $400 worth of their highest-tech performance apparel. Lay the goods on the floor of your gym, or the grass. See how they don’t perform? Your clothes don’t do anything in the gym unless you do. Yes, an entire industry insists that every time you go jogging, you must look like you’re headed for your Avengers audition. No times one thousand. Wear something comfortable. Work out.
You need a trainer. Again, no. As a licensed personal trainer myself (I’m very expensive; e-mail me!), I really should not be telling you this, but you definitely do not need us (unless you, like, actually do). Because I’m very nosy, I often see the push and pull between trainers and clients slacken into something more like a therapy session interrupted by bothersome bouts of exercise. Or the client becomes the plaything of a cruel trainer for masochistic marketing on Instagram. A trainer can help refine your routine, but this journey must also be your own. It’s sort of like the horse scene from The NeverEnding Story but way less sad. The point is, every exercise ever executed can be Googled, YouTubed, cross-checked, observed in the wild, and practiced without weights. And every gym has a friendly meathead (hi!) who would much rather show you an exercise than rescue you from one. Your form will need improving. Start light. Proceed carefully, deliberately. Forget about your fight with Deb. Work out.
You need a good mix. Not at all. You don’t need earbuds, or AirPods, or iPhones, or Fitbits, or apps, or dongles, or cameras, or any technological distractions (or crutch) whatsoever. Let the gym be the place where you connect exclusively to you. Listen to your body and your breathing. Focus on focusing no matter what your workout environment. There’s nothing wrong with jamming while you’re gymming, but don’t allow forgotten headphones or a shabby Spotify connection to shut down what you’ve shown up for. Unplug. Work out.
You need to exercise. No. You do not need to exercise. You really, actually don’t. It’s a simple truth that eats away at the obligation we assign to exercise. You need to want to exercise. And that may sound impossible, but exercise will make you feel better, badder, bigger, sharper, stronger, sorer, happier, and you’ll want to keep doing it. There’s only one method that works, and it’s no secret. Work out.Michael Andor Brodeur is a Boston Globe columnist. Follow him on Twitter @mbrodeur. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.