On Life

Confessions of an ageing gym member


Swish new gym shoes

It’s anniversary time. A biggy: one year of gym membership. One year of three – four times a week (most weeks) pumping iron and sweating it out on the bike or the cross trainer. For those of you who are long-term gym attendees you might wonder why I’m making such a fuss. 

For me, signing up at the gym involved the breaking of an oft-repeated vow:

Not in my lifetime


Not ever

I’m not the gym bunny type (still true)

That sort of exercise is for everyone else, not me

But a sedentary job, the love of good food, nice wine, books, and music, were beginning to take their toll. I was worried about what lay ahead if I didn’t start to move my old body a bit more. And I’d discovered, during a trip to Thailand a few months before, keeping up with my kids wasn’t as easy as it once was. And we were planning to go back. So, you see, it was fear that made me do it, laced with a smidgen of ambition – a heady mix for someone like me. What could go wrong? Millions of people all over the world go to the gym. Just because I’d laughed at them all my life didn’t mean I couldn’t swallow my pride.

It’s been a year of lowlights and highlights. The lowlights began at the beginning. Yes, on sign-up day. I shared my-oh-so-lofty goal: losing an entire three kilos. There was no mistaking the look of unmitigated shock on the young trainer’s face. (I’ve lost seven or so now, but just not that last three.)

Picture me: short, grey haired, in an old pair of sneakers, the baggiest pants and tee-shirt ever seen, stepping on to the treadmill for the first time, attempting valiantly to retain my poise. Picture the nice boy/trainer, who has lots of qualifications in personal training and a body that won’t feel the ache of old bones on a cold morning for another couple of decades, explaining the settings. He kindly suggested I attach the safety trip –  in case I fell over, or worse. I still use it. (I have no problem imagining the things that could happen to my anatomy on an apparatus operated by electricity.) He showed me where to place my hands to record my heart rate. I was outed then and there. If I had succeeded in appearing poised, and I like to think I had thank-you very much, my heart-rate gave it all away. Yep, I was so terrified it was actually lower five minutes after starting on the treadmill. Nothing has gone wrong on it yet apart from the time I tripped the emergency cord by accident and then fell off. I’ve also fallen off the swiss ball – quite a few times. Less often recently.  Maybe that’s progress right there.

Six months after sign-up day, as a reward for all that hard work and to celebrate some obvious signs of progress, I bought brand new gym gear. It’s designed for ease of movement. I felt very self-conscious the first time I wore my new outfit – I thought everyone would stare. They didn’t. That only happens when you do something spectacular (see below). I positioned myself on the mat and attempted a reverse lift. This involves lying on your back and lifting your legs and buttocks into the air. Take it from me, it’s not as easy as my trainer made it look and it hurts!  My swish new pants were uncomfortable, that reverse lift was every bit as difficult as it had been in my old gear.  I knew the clothes would not make me an athlete but I was holding on to the hope, just like I always do, until I heard the unmistakable sound of fabric splitting. It turns out the right clothes don’t make me any more sensible or practically minded, either. Yep, I’d put them on back to front. At least they weren’t on inside out.

It hasn’t been all lowlights. One day when I was using the Smith Squat Machine, a young man, all dread locks and muscles, was sitting nearby staring absently at the wall mirror. By the way, those mirrors aren’t there because gym goers are a vain lot. Oh no! Not at all. They are there to help people maintain good form, or posture, when lifting weights. It’s a serious business – good form reduces injuries. The young man was resting, I thought, between his sets. Picture me at the end of my repetitions, face bright red, legs shaking with the effort, shoulders complaining they were much too old to go through all this, as I replaced the bar. (I’ll own up, right now, the bar without weights is ten kilos. That’s what I was lifting – the bar – no added weights. Hey, it’s ten kilos more than I used to lift!) The young man caught my eye in the mirror. He said nothing, simply held my gaze for a moment and then he applauded. That still makes me smile.

More highlights:

  • Fitting easily into my togs
  • Hacking the pace more readily when we went back to Thailand
  • More energy and believe it, or not, fewer aches and pains

The lowest of all lowlights has to do with  the assisted chin-up machine. Part of what drove me to the gym was my fear of bat wings: those dangly bits that droop from the arms of old women, that are prone to flapping in the breeze.  After several months of hard work there had been some progress but not nearly enough and so I spoke to a trainer – a woman this time. She understood my plight. “I have just the thing for you,” she said, pointing to the machine. My mind flashed-back to Phys-Ed classes at school. I’ll just say it wasn’t pretty and leave it at that. I told myself that was then and this is now. I am a grown-up, an old one and a short one, but still a grown-up. I listened carefully and watched closely while my trainer showed me what to do. And I discovered I could do it. I could use that machine. But as with all great achievements ridding oneself of bat wings takes perseverance.

I went back to the gym to practice. It was busier that usual. There were people on the treadmills, on the cross trainers, on the bikes, people using the Smith Squat Machine, the bench press, the leg press, the chest press, the rowing machine. I was, I noticed, the oldest there, but that is not important I told myself. What is important is focus, determination, perseverance. I clambered up on to the stool. I grabbed hold of the bar, and somehow, amazingly, scrambled on to the padded platform, kneeling on it like I’d been shown. I reached up to the handles and pulled. Up I went. I was looking down on everyone else, down on the man with the hugest muscles you’ve ever seen, down on the other people lifting weights, down on the people on the treadmill, the cross trainer, the bikes. Being vertically challenged, this had a certain appeal. I did it again, and again and again. My arms, the ones with bat wings instead of triceps, began to shake. But, oh, just for the chance to be up there looking down one last time, sweat running down the sides of my face and down my back, my arms protesting, I pulled and I huffed and I puffed and I made it one last time.

And. Then. I. Let.Go.

The padded platform, with me kneeling on it, fell to the floor with the loudest crash you’ve ever heard. The gym went quiet. Even the music stopped, or so it seemed. All those people doing their exercises, they stared. “Are you okay?” someone asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I just forgot how to get off.” Which is the truth.

Defeated? No way! I’ve got that machine sussed now. Although these days I call it quits before the shakes set in.

What are  your  gym survival stories?

Categories: On Life

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32 replies »

  1. I enjoyed the read and can identify with many of your experiences. I wrote a blog post in May about having to leave the gym behind after several years of membership starting from a point similar to your own. Two months later and I have done no exercise and am starting to put on weight again. It is very easy to regress, so do keep at it. Sounds like you are doing a great job. I know the feeling of looking around and registering that everyone else is at least 10 years younger, and the horror of realising that you are signed up for a class that is almost definitely beyond your fitness level.


  2. I love your sense of humor. I felt so proud of myself last winter when I regularly ran on the treadmill, with my 5-finger shoes. They felt so good – until my heels started hurting from the lack of arch support and I had to stop running. It’s been 4 months or so and I still can’t run because my heel pain now has reached up into my knees. Yikes…the ambitions of a youthful mind sometimes collide with the limitations of the middle-aged body. I have taken up swimming and building up to a mile, that feels much better to this body and very little hurts in the process.
    Congratulations on hanging in there…keep working it 🙂


    • And isn’t that the truth about the ambitions of a youthful mind and the limitations of a middle-aged body! Last week I decided to push it out a bit and signed up for a women’s only lunch time circuit. I asked the trainer (a young man who I’d guess is in his late twenties) if any one else my age had signed up. Oh, yes, he says to me, there’s at least one other woman your age coming along. I get there and I’m the oldest by at least ten years, probably fifteen! I was flattered and terrified all at once. Turns out I was right to be terrified – I hurt, a lot, the next day.

      I’m interested in your five finger shoes experience. I’ve seen a few people wearing them. I hope your recovery goes well, from here on in. I’ve noticed injury recovery takes longer these days.
      But I’m seriously impressed about the swimming! I’d struggle to complete one pool length.


      • Jill – there’s actually a class-action suit against Vibram, the manufacturers of these 5-finger shoes (I refuse to participate in class action suits because the only ones benefitting here are the lawyers). I got myself a case of plantar fascitis because of the lack of arch support from these shoes. I was enamored with them because they provide an almost barefoot feel, which of course is the “natural” way to walk – so that can’t be bad, right? Oh well, as the body ages, we just keep learning new things…


  3. Congratulations Jill, that is a real achievement. I must admit I am an on again, off again, on again and at the moment off again gym junkie. It all started in 2008 after a heart attack scare and the heart rehabilitation people gently coax me into a 3 month gym session going 3 times a week. Then they tell you to go forth and do your own thing, which I did, and joined “Curves” (women’s circuit training gym) When they closed down I moved onto a real gym, bikes, cross-trainers, weights the lot
    When we started travelling I vowed I would some how keep it up, but I didn’t. ! year and many happy hours later I had put on weight and yes those flappy bat wings were reappearing. 😦 So in Geraldton I took out a 3 month subscription while we were there. Now we have moved on again and I am trying to persuade myself that the gym will be much warmer than Canberra’s outside temperature and wean myself away from the log fire to find a gym and “just do it!”


    • Best wishes, pommel, its a challenge isn’t it? And not nearly as easy as it sounds, either. Apart from the bat wings, and keeping up with the kids it was heart health that got me there – being short and stocky, the odds weren’t in my favour. Sometimes I can only go at night because of work commitments. It’s my least favourite time to go. My most favourite time is the morning, between 7 & 8, the gym is always quiet then – there are usually only two or three others. And somehow because it’s the morning I feel extra virtuous – no sense to that one but there you go!

      And it’s very difficult to organise when you’re travelling. Even on something as simple as our road trip back in May – I put my gym gear in the car, filled with all good intentions, but that’s exactly where stayed until we got home again!


  4. Congratulations!! I used to be a bodybuilder way back when. Before women bulk up the way they do now. I would go for three hours a day 4-5 times a week when I wasn’t working. I can’t imagine doing that now. I am trying to get up the nerve to spend the money on a gym membership and I have decided my husband and I just need to do it. I want to go hiking this fall on a 3 mile hike and there is no way I can do it without getting in better shape. So, again, congratulations to you for sticking to it and learning to “suss” that machine!


    • Wow, three hours a day, 4-5 times a week. Now that was dedication, Pavanne! You’ll be familiar with all those machines they have in gyms. Will you post about the hike?


    • Thanks, Dan. I think the difficult part is getting to the point where going along is just part of the weekly routine. Hopefully it’s pretty well set for me now.


  5. So proud of you! I have bat wings, too, but even that doesn’t get me out to the gym. I walk each day but really need to work with some of those young people you described! Keep at it. And keep reminding us of how good this could be for the rest of us!!


    • Oh, thanks, Rusha. I do feel a lot better for going along to the gym. The young people are terrific, and very polite to me, like they might be towards their grandmother.


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