SINGAPORE: I hated going to the gym, until it became my safe space over the last six months of the pandemic.
Up till my late-twenties, I equated exercise with toxic gym culture, no thanks to the slew of gym bros and fitness influencers who humble-bragged about their physique any chance they could. No way could anyone look like Adonis reincarnate so effortlessly, as they seemingly could, which intimidated regular plebeians like myself.
Even when I finally convinced myself to give it a shot and got a gym membership, working out felt performative and obnoxious, as though a lean and fit physical appearance was a reflection that I could indeed be the proverbial woman who had it all.
Not to mention, standing out as one of the few women in a testosterone-filled space in most gyms, made it an unbearably self-conscious hour.
Then COVID-19 hit and my relationship with gyms changed.
With all routine and structure thrown out the window during the circuit breaker, I didn’t have anything more to lose. I needed to reintegrate those elements of order into my life through the quickest way I knew — exercise.
After several outdoor exercise sessions, like running along the park connectors and playing sports with friends, I realised I preferred individual workouts. I could zone out without interacting.
When gyms resumed operations in Phase 2 last year, I decided to set aside my reservations about gym culture, while I used physical activity to get my mental health back on track. And so the gym became a regular haunt.
I figured I also needed the strength and conditioning training I could do in a gym with the equipment, and could make better use out of my hour-long exercise sessions.
I’d been to a couple of gyms in the past where I felt safe and comfortable, so finding another similar space that met my location and budget criteria, and had a culture I appreciated, wasn't impossible.
I developed a routine of four gym visits a week — a habit I was really getting fond of until the Government announced tightened COVID-19 measures on Tuesday (May 4).
Under the tightened measures, indoor gyms like mine will be closed from May 8 to May 30, as they have a “tendency to be hotspots for COVID-19 transmission”, said the Health Ministry.
READ: Cap of 5 people for social gatherings, household visits to return as Singapore tightens COVID-19 measures
It might be just for three weeks and it’s a reasonable restriction as we hunker down to curb the rise in infections. But understanding why gyms need to close didn’t stop me from feeling like I’d been walloped by a new wave of uncertainty after I’d just found my footing.
A SEMBLANCE OF CERTAINTY
Admittedly I’m painfully slower than the average person at adapting to change.
For at least half a year after the pandemic began, I spent most days languishing at home. Adam Grant, best-selling author and organisational psychologist, described languishing as an experience that’s neither burnout nor depression, but nonetheless feels “somewhat joyless and aimless”.
“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield,” he wrote in a New York Times article.
But after more than a year of not knowing when we could return to the office regularly, stop wearing masks, or travel again without the fear of disease, I rediscovered a semblance of certainty within the confines of an indoor gym.
At the gym, I knew which weights I wanted to lift and machines I wanted to use. I could plan for a certain number of reps in a fixed amount of sets. I even figured out the timings when the gym was emptier, so I could take my time with every equipment.
Since the pandemic began, our linear concept of time has been warped. Living in limbo, between the “Old Normal” and the “New Normal”, a month sometimes felt like a week, and other times, like a decade.
But in the gym, time was measured in sets. An hour meant a 20-minute run, followed by six sets of 10 to 15 reps, while half an hour meant cutting out my treadmill run.
There was a sense of rhythm and autonomy in my life again. A toned body was just a bonus.
Looking after my physical health also saved my mental health.
WORKING OUT AT HOME NOT THE SAME
Naysayers might wonder why not save the money and workout at home. It’s also probably more hygienic than sharing gym equipment with many other sweaty bodies.
Just before the circuit breaker kicked in last year, there were photos on social media of long queues and empty shelves at Decathlon. This sparked memes mocking people who seemed to build their personality around going to the gym, a comparatively superficial concern in a pandemic.
At the risk of sounding excessively fussy, working out at home isn’t the same — even if you have a Peloton, yoga mat, a set of weights, a pair of overpriced tights, and Chloe Ting’s abs challenge on loop.
Working out in the gym isn’t just about having the right equipment. Having a different, dedicated space matters as much. Humans are probably not meant to work, eat, sleep, exercise and live in one space.
There is also an unspoken comfort in seeing familiar faces in the gym, even if we never speak. For someone who doesn’t want to interact when I’m working out, I appreciate not being isolated at home or exercising alone in public.
I’ve found this quiet camaraderie in a gym to be a pleasant compromise.
Having the presence of a like-minded community also surprisingly motivated me and held me accountable on days I was tempted to slack off.
The next three weeks won’t be enough time to carve out a new routine lest we can’t return to the gym in June. But a year of living under the pandemic has taught me that even the best laid plans can be upended by a pesky virus.
If I could learn to love the gym, maybe I can learn to embrace uncertainty, adapt to change and even workout to a chirpy Blogilates YouTube video at home.
It will just take a lot more than three weeks.
Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist with CNA Insider.