Friday, June 19, 2009

The Fitness Center

Dear George,

When our friend Donna invited me in January to try out the Fitness Center as her guest, I was dubious but went along as a lark. Years ago Katja bought me a one-year gym membership for my birthday. The whole thing made me nervous. I didn’t want to go by myself, and I put it off until the year finally came to an end. All I got for her $200 expenditure was a T-shirt with a fitness logo. Going there with somebody was much easier. Donna showed me the various machines for an hour or so. It was fun and I decided on the spot to sign up. Partly I have lots of time on my hands and am looking for ways to fill it up. Also I’m a few decades older than the first time around and am necessarily more concerned about good health. Plus I liked the fact that everybody there was so busy working on their own individual machines that you don’t have to talk to anybody. I can do this, I thought to myself.

The Fitness Center is a big fancy place. It’s associated with a big hospital on the west side of town and is housed in its own large building on the hospital grounds. The first floor has a lobby, warm water pool, lap pool, whirlpool, sauna, locker rooms, and offices. The second floor has a main workout room with roughly sixty cardio and strength machines, a spinning room, rooms for group classes, separate physical therapy and cardio rehab units, and other meeting rooms. The big fitness room is about 35 yards by 50 yards. There are recumbent and upright bikes at the front; then treadmills, ellipticals, and arc trainers; upper and lower body strength machines; and a free weight lifting area. This is where I spend my time.

I had an initial diagnostic meeting with one of the trainers, Ellen, a friendly blond woman in her late twenties. Ellen remarked that she had expected from my application to meet a shrunken gray-haired man, but I looked pretty well-preserved for my age. She interviewed me and had me do some physical tasks. I had judged myself to be in excellent shape until she scored my results and reported that my body age is roughly a decade older than my chronological age (about my father’s age when he died). That got my attention. I told myself later that they do this to motivate new members by scaring the wits out of them. Whether true or not, Ellen’s input was successful. She scheduled me for back-to-back meetings with Rocky, another trainer and former football player, who set me up on six strength machines the first week and added four more in the second week. These machines are state of the art, very solid, and completely smooth in their operation (thus minimizing the likelihood of injury).

The fitness center has a diverse clientele. Because it’s hospital-associated, there are a lot of older people, some number of whom have graduated from the cardio or physical therapy units and are continuing in the fitness center. These folks tend to be in fragile physical condition, using wheelchairs or walkers or canes. They are people I admire the most, given their strenuous effort in dealing with major health or disability problems. At the opposite end of the age spectrum, there are young people in their twenties who are exceedingly fit and have clearly been using the gym for a good while. There are lots of overweight men and women, sweating off pounds and inches on the treadmill. Some of the gym regulars look like former professional football players, barrel-chested with arms like tree trunks. They concentrate on weight-lifting. Others are completely wiry without an ounce of body fat – they’re labeled “sticks” in the fitness world jargon, and they work out on treadmills or ellipticals at a frightening pace. There are similar numbers of women and men. Standard apparel is T-shirt and workout shorts, though you also see people in jeans, plaid shirts, and cowboy boots. I initially bought a couple of warmup shorts at Wal-Mart, but then discovered that Goodwill has a lot of gym apparel, apparently donated by overly enthusiastic persons who purchased their Nike outfits but never got around to using them. Given my obsessiveness about collecting, I now have a very well-stocked thrift shop wardrobe, along with a Menominee Maroons gym bag in which to carry my gear.

An appealing part of the fitness center is that many of the machines (particularly the strength machines) are hooked up to a computerized system which records details of your performance in a cumulative data base, enabling tracking of the your workouts over time. This provides accurate data about pounds lifted, cardio time, and calories burned, as well as offering comparisons with 700 local and 100,000 world-wide users. Calories are represented by “Apples”, and weight lifted is calculated by Elephants. I lifted 43 Elephants in May. Needless to say, this cumulative, quantitative feature has high appeal to me. Donna claims that I like to look at my points on the computer more than doing the actual workouts which generate them.

Right now the Fitness Center occupies an important part of my existential universe. For the first couple of months I approached it with feverish intensity, going to the gym five or six days a week and spending two to three hours each time. Now I’ve leveled off to three to five days a week for an hour or two. This venture has taken on a lot of personal meaning, mostly centered around diffuse anxieties about death and efforts to conquer the threat of old age. I realize nobody is ultimately successful in this venture, but a good workout helps for the time being.



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