Gym Etiquette and Sociability: Co-Authored by Christopher Smith

18/08/2014 at 05:45 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Flicking down my Twitter feed, I was caught on the iron-grin humour of a friend’s comment about his experiences in the gym – notably, those inexplicable fluctuations of energy, which carry such pleasure and such pain.
“Some mornings the gym feels good, some mornings it feels like attempted murder. If I don’t make it through the day, tell my wife I said ‘hi.'”

It made me pause, not only to chuckle in sympathy, but to reassess my reaction to his words. I first mistook his meaning for the atmosphere of (any) fitness environment, which – from personal experience spanning a decade, and several locations – is highly mutable in itself. Some days, the gym floor is soft with the faint tinge of music and light, while the chink of weights set back into their cradles is reminiscent of glasses laid out on a pristine table-cloth. Exercise is a peaceful endeavour, and I can retreat inside myself to become a single point of light in sifting darkness.

On other occasions, the music blares across the floor like a rainbow sluice of paint from upended pots; the machines are in full throttle, and the cacophony mingles with the thrum of voices and feet. The air is thick with sweat and bad manners. Some meat axe, having decided to commandeer half the rack of free weights, will leave a heap of dumbbells scattered across the floor like oversized Christmas baubles.
Me: “Can I borrow one?”
M.A: “I’m just about to do another set.”
Me: “How about this one?”
M.A: “I’m using that in a minute, too.”
Me: “….”
dumbbells_on_floor
Image: http://www.pacificoceanfitness.com

The conversation that followed on from Chris’s initial tweet, wove an interesting thread of thoughts around subjects like public-area etiquette (particularly in the context of fitness health and safety), and exercise sociability v.s. solitariness. Chris told me of his active participation with other gym users, as a source of mental and emotional stimulus:

“Five years ago, I was one of the usual folks who has a gym membership that they paid for with good intentions but never used. My wife told me that I needed to start using it or we were going to stop paying for it… At work that day, I mentioned at the lunch table that I was planning to start going to the YMCA after work to just walk 2 miles on their track. One of the guys I worked with, who I didn’t know very well, said ‘I have a membership too that I never use, I’ll go with you.’ That’s how it started.”

What struck me, was the catalysing effect of company – the offer of this, from an acquaintance known only by work-association – on Chris’s decision to make exercise a regular feature. This was not always the case:

“I grew up pretty sedentary – never much of a sports player, besides paintball (which I didn’t get into until I was 16 or so anyway), so exercise has never been a regular part of my routine. Even paintball would be a burst of weekend activity, but nothing for the other 5 – 6 days.”

Incorporating a fitness programme into a daily / weekly schedule, can make exercise as easily accessible (and acceptable) as driving to work, or sitting for a meal. One of the main reasons people cite for skipping the gym / avoiding exercise, is lack of time; digging a little deeper, it seems that a sense of guilt for putting personal health and well-being before the needs of others, is a crucial point when it comes to taking steps for setting aside “me” time. However, factoring in the additional commitment of company (e.g. a gym buddy or track partner) with a regular time-slot, sees the chances of exercise falling by the wayside decrease; while the physical and mental benefits become more apparent, if social stimuli generates an energy boost.

running-partners-at-sun-down
Image: http://www.athletesgps.com

Exercise is not only about progressive physical fitness, after all – it’s the release of endorphins, during and after a workout, which are the body’s way of giving us a positivity kick:
“Improved self-esteem is a key psychological benefit of regular physical activity… These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as ‘euphoric.’ That feeling, known as a ‘runner’s high,’ can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.”

Chris found this to be true, once he had committed time to exercising with his colleague – though it is arguably through the realization of willpower, the achievement of fitness levels previously thought to be unattainable, which saw him take the most from this initial change in lifestyle:

“We started by just walking two miles a day, but after a while, Andrew decided we should start running. I hesitated at first, but the track at the YMCA is long enough that 12 laps is equal to one mile, and he suggested we start by running two laps. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did…and he kept pressing me. ‘Let’s do four this week,’ he’d say, and as much as I doubted I could do it I would reluctantly agree… The ecstasy I felt the first time I jogged 1/2 of a mile was amazing. I still remember it. That is something I never in my life thought I’d be able to do.”

Regular exercise is particularly beneficial for individuals suffering with depression and anxiety caused by obsessive compulsive disorder. In my case, it was the presence of anorexia nervosa, as well as OCD, which prompted my GP to issue a referral for my local fitness centre in June 2004. This provided a means of monitoring my (hyper) exercise habit, which was an acute symptom of the eating disorder for purging calories, and was often conducted in secret.

I was by that point an outpatient, with the still-frayed state of mind that demands stability, and craves routine. While the doctor’s decision might sound odd (my mother certainly thought so), the logic ran that – since I had always led an active lifestyle, and would continue to do so (most likely by excessive and surreptitious means) – I should be given the chance to prove myself responsible in a formal setting, under the eyes of qualified staff. Having completed my “allotted time” each day, I would then (theoretically) feel comfortable enough to relax, and focus on other activities. Pivotal to this decision was the maintenance of a healthy weight, to sustain mental cognition and emotional stability, and my continuation of outpatient therapy. Should I choose to let anorexia do the talking, and take advantage of the freedom given back, then my gym membership would be revoked and that outpatient status reviewed by my psych team. These terms were non-negotiable.

Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it looks on paper. The very nature of anorexia is that it will take an inch to run a mile. The real turning point came in 2008, when I took my first full-time job since leaving hospital. As a full-time member of staff in a health spa and gym, I now stood on the other side of the glass, with an insight to both formal training and fitness management. Team members were privy to the usual perks that subsidise such work: unlimited access to facilities, and eligibility to attend promotional training courses. These included Level 2 Fitness Instructor and Level 3 Personal Training, with the option to branch out into more career-based training such as Spin Class and Aqua Fitness.

Skillactiv
Image: http://www.visionfitnessacademy.com

In July 2009, I took part in a fast-track Fitness Instructor course based in London. The experience proved to be a lifesaver. Returning to work, I found that exercise had become less about perfecting self-destruction with each session, and more about progression of the self as a whole. With weight gain and therapy had come the inevitable rise of memories and emotional fluctuations, which could no more be sidelined in favour of daily hard exercise routines, than I could cut off my own arm. I also had a developing relationship to think about, to make time for. This meant skipping solitary gym sessions, breaking out of OCD routines, and eating and drinking outside of my ‘safe’ environs.

With each relocation (I’ve moved around a fair bit since 2009) and new gym membership, I’ve made a point of giving staff some context, in a rough outline of my past-and-present mental health status. I am exercising on their premises, after all; should I push too hard in any activity, and pass out due to (for example) low blood sugar, the consequences will certainly affect others.

This is not only relevant to my condition: a recent study has further explored the theory that more exerciseis not necessarily beneficial for the heart, and that an “upper limit” might exist for those who are prone to heart conditions, or who exercise at a high-frequency / intensity. Exercise addiction has its own ream of dangers, particularly in conjunction with an eating disorder; but anyone can be vulnerable to injuries incurred through inadequate rest and/or over-training muscle groups, as well as depression, limited appetite, and decreased illness immunity.

burnout
Image: http://www.the-fitness-doc.blogspot.com

All this being said, there is a “comfort blanket” mentality to using the gym, which has kept me in a good place for some time. I still dream of one day owning a house with a basement gym – if only to play my choice of music, and avoid other’s sweat – but there is the lingering thread of wary precaution against returning to exercise that is out of the public eye. The allure of an addiction is that you are never quite aware of its presence until it’s too late to care, and I still hold a fear of crossing back into those bad old days of not staying still until bedtime.

Though I no longer work in a fitness environment, the mentality still carries over; it has the double-edged influence of allowing me to spot a potential accident before it happens … while feeling my hackles rise at the sight of a staff member using a machine as a couch, to text / call on their phone. It makes me feel a bit invasive, not to mention snippy; but I can’t get along with the “sloppiness” of this image, when staff – while not employed to be performing monkeys – are hired on the basis of their accessibility, as well as their knowledge of health and fitness.

Good gym etiquette doesn’t cost much. It’s the little things – pausing to pick up a scrap of paper towel dropped on the floor, reporting a water spillage to staff (or mopping it up yourself) – that make the difference. It’s about being aware of how bloody heavy those weights are before attempting a lift (and knowing how to do so safely in the first place), balancing this against awareness of the physical proximity of others. It may well be the alternative to someone spending time in hospital after they’ve tripped over a barbell, or caught an infection from someone who has decided to come to the gym when they’re down and out with the ‘flu. The disinfectant wipes placed at strategic points across the gym floor, particularly in “heavy sweat” areas like aerobic stations (treadmills, cross-trainers etc), are a must-use. If dispensers are empty, don’t be afraid to approach a member of staff for more. Those little sweaty angel-wings might testify to a good workout … but they’re also off-putting for the next gym member to come along.

On the subject of hygiene – Chris told me of finding signs stuck upon the mirrors of his own gym, asking members to not spit upon the glass. Exercise is, by its nature, rather vigorous, and projectile saliva can be an unfortunate side effect when pedalling at Mac 3, or running down the last mile on the clock. That being said, the average gym layout tends to position machines at a fair enough distance from all glass panels, for safety reasons. So it’s either an impressive range, or someone has an acute aversion to their own reflection.

Sanitary items were an occasional occupational hazard of my old job in that health spa. First thing in the morning, on an inspection of the female changing rooms, I’d find used/unused items left on the floor tiles. Since sanitary bins were in evidence by the toilet stalls, I can only assume that convenience was the pretext for such actions. I know I’ve wished my own ovaries a thousand miles away on more than one occasion, but have yet to take such an overt stand against the curse of womanhood. Maybe I’m missing a trick.

One aspect of gym etiquette which I enjoy (covertly) watching, is the sociability between new and old members. In the free weights section, it’s not unusual to see a veteran offer to spot for a newcomer; a bridge of trust is formed between two people who are testing both the fitness and self-awareness of the other. Between the sweat-strain of reps, the schadenfreude-shine of grins, and not-so-soft sounds reminiscent of a farm yard, there runs a cunning weave of words to pull together a unique form of companionship found in exercise. Rivalry seems to have a lot to say in the matter; of particular interest are the couples who, on a joint membership, egg each other on to greater efforts, gleefully setting weights higher and ratcheting up the speed of a treadmill, to watch their partner’s face turn pink. The way some words are crossed with knives, I imagine it’s all for the benefit of the other, as well as personal health.

Spotting
Image: http://www.gettyimages.com

A change in routine is necessary to combat exercise-stagnancy, and the dreaded plateau. While the afore-mentioned regularity of a fitness program keeps exercise at the forefront of the mind, it can also create a complacent attitude:

“What I discovered is that exercising in the morning is awesome. Brad is a pillar of consistency – he had gone for the previous year by himself, though when he started exercising regularly he had an exercise partner as well. I drastically changed my workout routine to match up with what he was doing, and this is where I discovered that I have a love of freeweights and different lifting techniques.”

Exercising at an unfamiliar time of the day, and with a new companion, Chris broke out of his comfort zone by pushing against personal physical and mental “boundaries.” Had he stuck with only the familiar routine of running – an activity he admitted he was not overly keen on – there is the chance that he would not have made progress:

“Andrew loved running, and while I certainly didn’t (and don’t) love running, it felt good to be able to do it. It was also during this time that he and I both started getting complacent. You saw me mention that we were running it three-or-more times per week; that’s because we both started getting lazy. We were comfortable enough with one another that on days when we were both tired, we would decide to skip the run, or just do something “lazy” at the gym.”

Of significant importance when engaging in exercise, is to find an activity and/or routine that does not feel like exercise, but is closer to forming a strong pyramid of physical, emotional and mental stimulation. It must be both sustainable and dynamic – something to be enjoyed, adjusted accordingly when a certain level becomes too easy, that no more benefits are being made.

To leave the gym barely standing was once the daily target (I still wonder now how I made it through A Levels), and if even a scrap of energy remained, I had not done my work well. What eluded me – and still does, from time to time – was the sheer pleasure of feeling my body work as I wish it to. I danced ballet as a child, and those were times when I felt quicksilver with life, fluid and keen – proud of my appearance, as something alive and alert, symbolic of both strength and grace. If any concern for imperfection was felt, it was based more upon choreography than calories burnt.
ballet
Image: http://www.favim.com

Movement, for its own sake. For all my strict expectations, each gym session is not a foregone conclusion, but an achievement in itself. The fact that I – and others – have turned up at all, should not be overlooked.

I wonder now whether the reason for my doing so, is rooted in a continuation of this perceived idea of exercise-solitude. For all that I workout alone in the gym, I can guarantee being greeted by name at the front desk, while other members will take the time to initiate conversation with me as well as each other. Out in town, we exchange the gym equivalent of the “biker’s nod,” where a name might prove elusive but the face is indelibly familiar.
Along with the obvious physical benefits, it’s the positive social aspects of exercise which need taking into consideration, for a balanced lifestyle.

“The morning employees greet us by name, and at times when I’ve missed a few days, I always have people asking where I’ve been… With better physical health comes better mental health. It’s nice to feel a sense of belonging at the YMCA, with the morning crowd; that same feeling you get when you see friends you haven’t seen in a while? That’s the little shot-in-the-arm I get, every time I step through the doors and am greeted by some employees or other regulars. I start my day with physical activity, which gets the blood flowing and the brain working hard. I really find it worthwhile for the better sense of well-being, overall.”

Barbells
Image: http://www.imacwallpapers.com

Special thanks to Chris for his insight, help, and limitless patience. Chris can be followed on Twitter at @Reckoner67

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Writing Reality: Balancing Act

29/08/2013 at 12:05 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )


As writers, we are obliged to sacrifice parts of our lives in order to fulfill the promise of well-nuanced writing. How often have you begun a day in the lightest spirits, only to find yourself stuck in the deep blues of nightfall, because a character has had some calamity befall them? Sometimes, I’m not entirely sure whether what I’m feeling is my own irritation, cheerful spirits or doldrums.

Try explaining this to someone not of a creative bent, and the inevitability of crossed-wires generally sets in. I’ve been asked more than once, why I bother to put myself through such experiences as field research in dodgy areas, for the sake of a story. My response is always, “Why not? I’m curious. I want to know, the better to write.”

That being said, I’m already aware of my somewhat obsessive personality when it comes to creative detail. I don’t know about you, but the serotonin rush of brandishing a new article to the breaking light of dawn, generally kills the red-eye pain of no sleep … for about half an hour. Then I have to go to work, in the regular day job that keeps my income flowing. Living the dream, huh?

So I’ve recently begun to take note of certain aspects of my welfare, which might need fine-tuning in accordance with energy levels x writing output. Let’s face it, there’s only so long the average human can subsist on Red Bull shots at 3am, and snatched sleep on lunch breaks. I’m as guilty of these health faux pas as the next. The trouble is, after years of sustained low weight due to anorexia – now thankfully more a shadow of the mind – my body is already something of a chipped plate, liable to fracture if I’m not careful. Pushing a grueling writing schedule, alongside the day job, will catch me up all too soon. As a chronic insomniac, I’ve already felt the twinges of production-guilt if I’m not at least utilizing those wakeful hours in some writing format or another.

Having trained as a fitness instructor in 2009, and with a keen interest in general health, I’m always on the search for ways of setting that all-too-necessary balance between body, mind and soul. Kooky it might sound, but I wholly believe in the need for such things, in order to benefit fully from any one aspect of our lives. I thought I’d share a few ideas with you; not so much rules, as guidelines.

1) By day, in part due to my job, I am very active. High energy levels, dating from childhood, can be also accredited. I’m never truly happy to sit down to writing, until they’ve been somewhat blunted with exercise of any kind. Whatever your own physical state, energy levels or views about exercise, do bear in mind that writing is essentially a static state of productivity. We can spend hours at a time in one spot, and though this is great in terms of output, it’s not such good news for the muscles and bones, which over time may become depleted from lack of use.

Take time to move about during your writing day, especially if this is your dominant career. A break every two hours or so, to move about and breathe, think over what has already been written and what is to come, is beneficial both for physical and mental well-being. It segments the long block of being sedentary, keeps blood flowing and your appetite regular.

2) In this context, I wholly recommend resistance training as a means of both staving off excess weight, and for building up lean muscle mass. The latter is nifty, in that it’ll chew up calories even while you’re sitting still, and will keep your metabolism revved for hours after a workout. The weight-resistance requires the body to lay down new bone minerals – a real plus, particularly for women, whose calcium / estrogen levels drop dramatically as we age. Osteoporosis is an ever-present fear for me, after years of depleted nutrition in my youth. I use resistance training now to keep my skeleton as strong as possible, against the chance of porous bones later in life. I find that the controlled movements are also a great way of releasing a build-up of mind pressure. Writing, post-exercise, is far more free-flowing.

3) Walking / running for cardiovascular health, is the simplest and most inexpensive means of keeping your heart and lungs healthy. This can be coincided with field research. If you’ve some location that is hazy on the details, take yourself to it on foot wherever possible. The rhythm of pace is another great way of promoting freeflow-thought.

I don’t know about you, but the completion of a written piece charges me with an endorphin rush similar to that released post-workout. I always feel the need to move. Use this to your advantage where fitness is concerned; if you’re riding the crest of a writer’s wave, turn it into a jog, a weights session, an impromptu dance. Heck, people generally think writers are weird anyway. Give them more ammunition. Best of all, prolong that fantastic feeling for as long as possible.

4) We may be stuck behind a screen for hours at a time, or poised over a writing medium that requires our eyes to be constantly alert. I use eye-drops every two hours to keep them fresh, and always have a bottle of water nearby (and if you’re of the same mindset as me, in that a little alcohol helps unpin inhibitions and settle the mood, then the water is doubly essential.)
An hour before bed, I’ll turn the computer off, and try to avoid overuse of my phone. According to research, those bright screens have a habit of messing with our sleep patterns and mine’s botched enough.

There’s also the content of your writing to consider. If your last piece was particularly emotive or dark, chances are it might hangnail in your mind. Try reading something light before sleep.

5) If, like me, you have an internal deadline-demon that kicks your butt each time a piece isn’t finished by such-and-such day, you’re probably experiencing some kind of productivity-powerplay. Once the computer is on, my mind switches to Work mode and sleep is a sure impossibility. Likewise, pushing back the boundaries of bedtime in an effort to keep on top of an ever-increasing workload, isn’t exactly conducive to relaxation. Unless you’re actually employed for writing to a set deadline – in which case, a regular routine should be adhered to, more stringently than those of us who set our own lines – it’s You playing the taskmaster, here. That’s fine, in terms of keeping up a regime. But allow yourself breaks, too. Athletes certainly don’t train to peak performance each time, and neither should we expect this perfection of ourselves. It can become very addictive, with each new achievement of output meaning another push against boundaries, and less downtime considered.

Only you know how much sleep is required to keep yourself functioning. Bearing in mind that cognition rapidly depletes with each hour lost, it’s not great news whether you’re in freeflow writing or editing form. Along with these side effects, emotional stability as a writer is thinned. I know I’ve reacted badly to criticism before, taking its objectivity personally, after too little sleep.

Listen to your body; learn from your activity levels. If you’re alert enough to juggle daily life and its pressures, have enough mental input to form creative output, and can engage in physical activity with the required cognition, then chances are you’ve got the balance right. A few missed nights sleep here and there won’t make too much deficit. But prolonged bouts of insomnia can have bad effects on your well-being. Don’t give your writing demons the chance to use more-than-average wakeful hours to press an advantage, which might ultimately undermine your health.

6) Eat to suit your lifestyle. It sounds simple, right? The concept of intuitive eating is nothing new; it’s something we practised as kids, relying on appetite levels rather than social trends and advertising campaigns. By all means, give yourself the food that you’ve a taste for – so long as you’re aware of when it’s time to stop, to realize when you’re putting food inside as more than just a means to an end; when it becomes about finishing the plate out of manners, or a loathing to see food go to waste.

Become familiar with what your body’s telling you. If you’re feeling real hunger pangs, don’t drown them in coffee etc. Don’t be afraid to break the writing flow to grab something to eat, and if – like me – you happen to forget a meal due to writing, compensate by eating more calorie-dense health foods (oats, bananas rather than apples, pasta/rice as opposed to bread, etc) to make up the difference. Likewise, if writing about a particular food stuff triggers a craving, more often than not this is all it is – an evocation of the senses, a memory of an enjoyable experience. Don’t let these become a substitute for feeding your body as and when required.

As a recovering anorexic, I’ve learned over time to tap back into my body’s basic needs. From having to set alarms to remind myself to eat, I can now differentiate between real hunger and thought/emotion-appetite. It’s a newfound sense of freedom, one I nurture; along with the knowledge that my productivity will only ever be constant, when the most important aspects of my life – those I can control – are well set.

In short, it’s about looking after ourselves, as individuals and writers.

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