Hell on earth

I have entered into the jaws of hell, grasped the horns of Beelzebub, set foot upon the murky plains of Orcus and gazed upon the yawning chasms of Tartarus. Yes. I have joined a local gym.

It will be difficult for the uninitiated to comprehend the true extent of the horrors that crouch within the bowels of this threatening locale. We’re not talking luxury establishment here, we’re talking the most affordable end of the market: so affordable, in fact, that one finds oneself pondering exactly how it turns a profit for its owners. Are the fittest of the lycra-clad males somehow disappeared, kidnapped and butchered as unwitting organ-donors for the Diamond Membership gym-goers at David Lloyd? The cheap-tastic gym I’ve become a member of operates 24 hours a day: who knows what goes on in the early hours of the morning.

Simply entering the premises, which sits nestled next to Jewsons Industrial Supplies, is a challenge: one is provided with a PIN number and a QR code, which only veteran members seem able to operate with confidence. “Stick it under the wotsit” says a voice behind me, as I fiddle anxiously with my phone, my friend already through security and staring at me through the fishbowl doors. After a few more seconds of stress, I successfully scan myself into a sealed glass pod, inside which I wait for what seems like an interminable pause, trying to quell the rising panic that I might never be released from the upright glass coffin. After a few seconds, I am spewed out into hell.

WE ARE AN ALL-INCLUSIVE SPACE screams a metre-high wall-notice above a Huel dispensing machine, while the throbbing of intolerable, interminable and unidentifiable music confirms that this all-inclusive space is emphatically not for people like me. The hell-hole itself possesses all the worst qualities of a modern airport, combined with the most depressing establishments to be found in Vegas, Nevada; high ceilings, swirling carpet and synthetic air circulating around a room that never sleeps, no matter what the time of day. Glassy-eyed acolytes move around the equipment like drones around their queen, hovering and quivering with anticipation. Let the horrors commence.

First stop, legs. My ever-patient friend introduces me to a machine designed to supercede the need for squats. I assume the position, which appears to be the one favoured by brutalist midwives back in the 1950s – legs akimbo, knees bent and bottom up. “Put them on the pallet!” says my friend, as my feet flail erratically like the limbs of an upturned cockroach. “Push the pallet away from you as hard as you can.” I oblige, and the pallet fails to move, so my friend adjusts the machine to what must surely be its lowest possible setting, enabling me to gain some kind of purchase upon it. I strain my muscles. Nearby, an ashen-faced male in his 40s stares blankly ahead as he rows back and forth on the spot, AirPods bright white against his ears. Behind him, two younger men laboriously climb a pair of miniature revolving escalators in Sisyphean endeavour. This cannot be happening: I’m having a moment of existential dread and we’re only 5 minutes in.

More leg action with a new machine means using my front thigh muscles to raise a bar from ground level to knee-height. This is quite okay, but I veto the third and final leg-based apparatus, which requires one to lie face-down, spreadeagled over an A-frame reminiscent of the spanking horses favoured in boys’ boarding schools during the 18th century. There has to be a line somewhere, I decide.

The machines themselves are terrifying contraptions with indecipherable instructions, all sprung weights and glistening, wipe-clean leatherette. I survey them dubiously, pondering the fact that my friend had informed me of that morning, that the gym possesses a pool with no water in it. “Why?” I had asked her. “Well, the premises used to be owned by a more expensive brand, but the business model of this one doesn’t run to the cost of a swimming pool,” she said. So the empty chasm remains, presumably waiting for the surely inevitable moment when the gym-goers become overwhelmed by the need to throw themselves headfirst into the abyss.

Finished with the leg-machines, we investigate those designed to challenge the shoulders and arms. Most extraordinary is one designed to support users in attempting full-body pull-ups, a device so complex that I find myself whooshed uncontrollably into the air at the end of the set, dangling from its handles like a spider from a curtain. “There is a more elegant way to dismount,” says my friend, benevolently. “Put your feet on the footholds when you’re in the raised position, and climb down from there.” Of course.

Most of you are probably wondering why on earth I am putting myself through this hideous ordeal. Well, you may recall (I wrote about it here) that around 5 months ago I embarked upon a programme of resistance training with the friend who is guiding me through this chamber of horrors and, reader, I stuck with it. Against all predictions, with the exception of a couple of weeks away and one bout of illness, my friend and I have met twice a week every week since November and she has taken my embarassingly pathetic attempts and turned them into a really quite respectable performance of squats, lunges, push-ups and weight-lifting. My body-shape has changed considerably and I can do things I could not do 5 months ago. I have even tried my hand at dead-lifting and am currently managing 42 kilos (not bad for someone who weighs 47).

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. My friend has finished with a period of gardening leave and is about to embark upon a new, high-powered role doing clever things I don’t understand with sums of money I cannot comprehend for a company I’ve never heard of. As a result, she will regretably no longer have the time to supervise my own personal improvement path, so I am forced to find another outlet for my endeavours. Hence, with her unwavering support, I have set sail across the waters of Hades, with little to no idea as to whether I will honestly have the willpower to see it through in the longterm. We’ll see. My parents are appalled and have openly told me that I won’t stick with it. They may well be right. Yet a stubborn voice of self-knowledge in my head says that I’m more likely to work out if I have somewhere to go and do it; convincing myself that I shall do so in the comfort of my own home has not proved successful so far. My home is too – well – comfortable. So, the hell-hole it is.

Maybe I’ll be like Persephone, and manage to visit hell for at least half the year. Half the year is better than nothing.

Photo by Peter Leong on Unsplash

The key to motivation?

What is the secret to self-motivation? As a teacher who specialised for 21 years in secondary education, it would be very easy for me to point at today’s teenagers and remark upon their lack of personal motivation, but was I really any different? Am I really so different now? Many parents bemoan their child’s lack of self-motivation when it comes to study and I feel their pain, I really do. When what seems like a relatively small amount of extra effort on a child’s part would make such a difference to their outcomes, it can be really difficult to comprehend why they simply won’t do it.

Since hitting a rather alarming round number in years, I have found myself becoming more concerned with what longterm life-limiting problems I might be storing up for myself (assuming I am privileged enough to make it into later life, of course). Watching my parents age has been an education and in the last few months I have done what I always do when something is on my mind: I have done some reading about it. To date, I have always told myself that cardiovascular fitness is the only thing that really matters for longterm health and that so long as I’m walking briskly on a regular basis then all will be well; since looking at the facts, I have had to admit to myself that my beliefs on this are simply wrong. All the information we have shows an undeniable correlation between muscle strength and the ability to maintain independent living, so my hitherto scathing attitude towards anything even remotely gym-related requires some serious review. I have read about the importance of building muscle strength in relation to one’s ability to move freely and independently as one ages, as well as how it intertwines with building up one’s balance to prevent the risk of falls.

Right, I thought. Resistance training, here I come. But the gym is way too scary, so I watched a few YouTube videos from the comfort of my chair and tried a few exercises … and it’s just so hard! You’re using muscles you never knew you had, you’ve no idea whether you’re doing it right or not, your thighs start to tremble and you end up retreating to the sofa, while the cat looks at you as if you’ve just humiliated yourself in the worst way possible. As one friend put it, “the trouble with exercise is, you might feel great once it’s over, but I also feel pretty great on the sofa watching Netflix, so feeling great isn’t quite the pull-factor that everyone says it is.” This is perhaps the downside of currently feeling in relatively good health. Believe me, in theory, I’m motivated: I am worried about my longterm health and I want to fix that by taking action. But how does one take that desire and channel it into real action, when those actions are so alien, so difficult and so uncomfortable, and the theoretical longterm benefits feel such a long distance away? For perhaps the first time in years, I’m gaining an insight into how my students may feel about their learning.

Fortunately, I have another friend on hand, who is going to help. This friend is properly into fitness in a way that none of my other friends have ever been. She has hired a personal trainer to guide her through strength training in recent months and (even more scarily) she’s got all the kit – her house is full of alarming equipment. On Monday, I went round to her house wearing some secondhand pumps and my Primark leggings and was introduced to squats, lunges, push-ups and weight training. Suffice to say, while my friend sauntered about, demonstrating seemingly impossible moves without so much as breaking a sweat, I was a quivering wreck within minutes. When attempting the final push-up I collapsed onto the mat, unable to perform the downward pass. “Good,” she said, laughing. “That’s when you know you’ve done about the right number.”

All of this has reminded me just how impossibly hard it is to motivate yourself to do something that you find really difficult. You can give yourself as many pep talks as you like, it’s never likely to be enough. I need my friend to teach me how to do the moves correctly in an environment in which I’m comfortable (she understands that I’m somewhat dubious about a trip to the gym). I need her to tell me whether I’m getting it right, both to prevent injury and to ensure that the exercise is working as it’s meant to. I also need her to push me into doing it another few times when previously I had given up because it was getting so difficult – while we’re not quite talking “no pain, no gain”, it is true that when it comes to strength training, you should be pushing yourself to the point when it feels like you can’t do it any more. All of this is simply too difficult and too frightening to do on your own, when you have no experience with such things.

All of this started on Monday and the state I was in afterwards illustrates just how much work I have yet to do on myself. On Tuesday I was in agony with what I am reliably informed is called “DOMS” – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness; on Wednesday I was basically crippled and had to take the stairs while using the bannisters like a pair crutches. Today is slightly better – I can do the stairs, although not without yelping with every single step. In terms of motivational pep talks I have mentally pointed out to myself that this is in fact a little bit of a taster as to what life will be like in 30 years’ time if I don’t keep this up.

As I embark on my quest to gain muscle strength this has been a sobering reminder that motivating oneself is not at all easy. It has illustrated to me how near impossible it is without the training, guidance and support of somebody else, which forms a significant part of what I do as a tutor. I have always believed that motivation comes from success, not the other way around – motivation is simply too hard without some kind of inkling and insight into what gains it might bring you. In order to motivate someone to do something difficult or painful, whether they’re 15 or 50, it’s simply not enough to tell them that they can do it; we need to show them that they can, and cheer from the sidelines as they do so.

Photo by Graham Holtshausen on Unsplash