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Painful Positivity at the Gym

My Y uses these new computerized bikes, too. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Nistas of the U.S. Navy.

Mindless positivity is rampant at the Y where I belong. It’s all part of the gung-ho, cheerleader/coach kind of thing that is supposed to help motivate us non-athletes to get in better shape and, more subtly, part of the prosperity gospel that implies that God wants us to be happy and healthy, not to mention rich. Recently, the YMCA changed its official name to just “the Y,” and I had a momentary hope that the more supercilious aspects of the Christian basis of the Y would abate. It was only momentary.

* * *

There’s one indoor cycling instructor who otherwise teaches a great class. But at the end of each one, she calls out to each departing participant, “Have a blessed day.” She says “blessed” with two syllables, and I cringe every time.

* * *

One day, another spin instructor surprised the class with a lecture on excuses. “We all have problems,” she said. “Your back or your knee or your whatever shouldn’t get in your way. You just have to push yourself beyond it.” I looked around the room at us middle-aged professionals mixed with the occasional housewife. “I don’t let my aches and pains get in my way,” she smiled. “So, no excuses. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone!”

For a long time, it’s been well known that effective training takes sensitivity to where you are in the moment and is most effective when you push yourself only hard enough, not too hard. Haven’t these people ever heard of target heart rates or the ten-percent rule? I stared at the heart rate chart on the wall and wondered that no instructor in my spin classes ever mentions it.

I realized that most of these young-ish people who exercise several hours a day in their role as instructors simply think that most of us are lazy. They must get frustrated at not producing fitness “successes”—those who lose and keep off the extra pounds or who turn into ideal amateur athletes. But what I see is that their methods drive people away. The expectation of transformation is unrealistic. It’s hard to get past that sense of failure and just keep on muddling along at our distracted, so-so, not-top-priority way. Every January, I watch the result—the full classes that will gradually winnow down and then fill up before beach season with a whole different group. The Y will keep hounding us to bring in new members.

Last summer, in fact, I nearly became a total gym drop-out. I’ve belonged to the Y for several years, and have had some great instructors. But trends sweep the field of fitness just as they do other arenas, and lately one particular indoor bike company sold its bill of goods to my Y. These are sleek bikes with computerized screens, similar to the ones on the treadmills and Stairmasters upstairs. The old Schwinns are out.

Now in every class, we are constantly barraged with numbers. We are told repeatedly just where our RPMs should be. As a sometimes nod to the variability of our fitness, the instructors might say, “I won’t tell you where your tension level should be, but keep your RPMs up with the rest of us.” Others simply say, “Everyone should be running at 90 RPMs and a pressure reading of 14.” This is insane.

No doubt the numbers on the screen could be well used by individuals to compare their performance between one ride and the next, but the way the instructors have been taught by the company to use them, they create a Procrustean bike. They have eliminated one of the best things about previous cycling classes, which is their ability to accommodate anyone with any level of fitness. Our Y has already started designating which spin classes are “basic” and which are “advanced.” This is a totally unnecessary move and one that simply complicates busy people’s schedules. By golly, though, they have got to be using the technology in a high-profile way, and the only way to do that is to talk out loud about the numbers.

The bikes create a lot of these tail-wagging-dog issues. Spinning has for many years been done in dark rooms. The first time I ever went to a class, the fellow next to me told me that he’d managed to lose twenty pounds over the previous two years by sitting in the dark on the back row where no one bothered him. I myself enjoyed the darkness because it helped me concentrate on my own workout instead of watching what other people were doing, as is so often a problem in other kinds of exercise classes. Now, however, we are told that cycling in the dark is bad. Supposedly this is a general industry-wide discovery—“engagement is better”—but I recognize in it that one bike company’s influence. Their computer screens are not back-lit and can’t be used in the dark.

I have watched as the classes have become more and more dominated by younger people and the middle-aged people like me revert to the individual machines upstairs and drinking coffee in the lobby. But maybe, I think, this is the intention. Get the riff-raff out of the spin classes. Return spin to the kick-ass reputation it sometimes have. It is all about that image of what the Y is, and I imagine that attracting younger, more stylish members is a marketing goal.

My mind reels back to decades ago when I made my first decision to start working out. At the time I was a staff member at a university, and I convinced my friend and co-worker Charlene to go with me to the university gym. At one point, in the middle of our ride on the stationary bikes, she said, “Lisa, I don’t think we are really the types for this.”

It was true that we got some stares in the weight room. At the time it was inhabited mainly by men who looked as though they belonged there. We fielded a few mild insults and shaken heads over the low weights we would use. The guys would stand over us impatiently and sigh as we did our reps.

“Charlene,” I said, “I am just tired of letting the assholes have everything.”

I have seldom looked back from that moment, and I have belonged to a gym constantly since then in spite of not being the type. The recent regime changes at the Y, though, have made me wonder. My mother has been lifting weights since she got diagnosed with osteoporosis a few years ago, but she has stayed fit well into her seventies mainly by walking.

* * *

Another spin instructor one day before class was holding forth about how she doesn’t believe in therapy. “You can’t change the past,” she proclaimed to her captive audience. “You just need to forget whatever it is and move on.”

“Ah,” I said from the middle of the room, “but you can change the past.” I finally got her to admit that you can at least change the way you think about the past. But I could tell that she didn’t think that mattered.

I accept this kind of supposedly motivational positivity as par for the course in the world of health and exercise. Taking control of your life and letting go of the negative go hand-in-hand with movement, evidently. I have to say I prefer the positive style over than the one where the instructors yell at you and tell you that you’re failing. But sometimes the two seem to me to be two sides of a coin.

* * *

Before an indoor cycling class a few weeks ago, the instructor whirled through the small anteroom where several of us were changing our shoes. I hadn’t been to her class many times before, but I was trying to change my schedule around a bit. She tossed down her bag on the instructor’s dais and stomped back past us to the water fountain.

“I just can’t believe people,” she said, glancing toward one of the other women. She bent over the water fountain, filling her bottle. “You’d never believe this client I saw just now.” She explained with a sweep around the room that she’s a home health care worker. “We try to help them,” she said. “I tried to be nice.” She turned her head to the side. “But he was so un-American.”

I steeled myself. The other women murmured their sympathy and went back to tying their shoes. But the instructor bull-dozed on. “I mean, he’s… Well, he’s fat,” she said, screwing her nose up a bit. “And he’s diabetic and all that. I keep telling him that he has to eat better, and what does he say? He says it’s all because he lives in America!” She sputtered. “I just can’t tolerate that kind of anti-Americanism.”

I didn’t really know her well enough to get into it, so I sat horrified as she went on. “You know, I live in America, and I’m not fat! It’s all his own fault and he wants to blame the greatest country in the world.”

This exchange (or lack thereof) has haunted me since. That so many of the Y instructors use themselves as the measuring stick to judge other people haunts me. That this particular woman’s inability to sympathize with an immigrant who has left his native culture and perhaps the loving support of his family haunts me. That he lives in some crappy apartment with a stove that hardly works and so chooses to eat fast food haunts me. That she believes that the best way to help him is to blame him haunts me.

Well, a lot of stuff haunts me. I think that over the past months of my genuine emotion exploration, what has been most useful have been reminders about self-compassion and compassion for others. It’s even a tenet of positive psychology. It’s just a part that a lot of positivity enforcers forget.

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