Wherefore and 'The Y'
As it turns out, a collection of shiny new workout machines offered a different kind of inspiration
The first gym I ever joined was the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. As a recent transplant from California, I signed up for an "Introduction to Karate" class in preparation for the mugging I was convinced was imminent.
When it finally came, my legs proved more reliable for running than roundhouse kicking. I was 32 years old and already believing I was too old to start working out. Now, nearly 40 years later, I'm probably in better shape than I was then.
The venerable edifice, the West Side YMCA, was the Grande Dame of fitness centers, built way back in 1930. There's a stinky splendor to old gyms, a nostalgic romance for dilapidated punching bags, clanging dumbbells and hissing steam rooms where you half-expect journalist Damon Runyon to amble in with Jack Dempsey.
Farewell, antiquated dumbbells, rusty free weights and glitchy cable machines. Hello, shiny new digital zero-emission cardio and strength stations.
In those days it was the YMCA, an acronym for Young Men's Christian Association. By 2010, they had dropped the M, C and A, re-branding themselves into the more streamlined moniker, "The Y".
Times and places change. I left NYC for Austin in 1997, and I've been going to the same neighborhood gym now for over 25 years.
So it was with some apprehension that I heard the news that my longtime fitness center would be closing for two weeks to be totally updated and refurbished with brand new fitness equipment. Farewell, antiquated dumbbells, rusty free weights and glitchy cable machines. Hello, shiny new digital zero-emission cardio and strength stations.
My Gym Routine
My gym routine was one of the few constants I could cleave to, the rare daily habit I felt good about, and I was wary of the impending change. The interim gym-less weeks proved frustrating but fruitful. I began improvising a makeshift program during outdoor walks using my own body weight — chin-ups on poles, push-ups on park benches, dips on stairway railings. It felt good. It forced me to shake up my routine.
One week before the grand re-opening, they held a sneak preview of the new, improved fitness gear. The new equipment — all jet black — was simultaneously impressive and intimidating: Glistening new barbells, versatile strength machines, clang-less rubberized free weights and glossy cardio gear were all lined up like monolithic dominoes. The company spokesman for the new equipment flew in from Miami to orient the members and staff to the new equipment.
Toned and tan in a form-fitting monogrammed T-shirt, Marty was equal parts Jim Thorpe and Gordon Gecko. Gathering our small group into a semi-circle around one of the new treadmills, he pulled his cellphone from his pocket, announcing, "First, let's install our app on your phone."
My heart sank. I'm app-averse, suspicious of such vaporous technology. "Do you have to install the app to use the equipment?" I asked tentatively. My little tour group looked at me like the resident class geek.
Marty was indulgent and reassuring. "No, no," he said. "But it does let you access all pertinent stats, maximize your gains, track losses and monitor your ratio of time investment to maximize results." I had the disconcerting feeling Marty's previous gig was as a stockbroker.
Apparently, the only thing this new gear couldn't do was to offer up a post-workout cup of chai tea.
Stepping gingerly over to a gleaming new stationary bike, Marty climbed astride and began peddling. It was indeed a cycle to behold, complete with a high-def TV screen with virtual videos of various biking trails around the world.
"You can ride through the streets of Rome, cycle the bridges of San Francisco, or climb the biking trails of Machu Pichu," Marty rhapsodized, flipping through an array of scenic vistas. That sounded cool to me, though I wasn't previously aware of any biking trails built by the Incas.
"You can also access personal training programs," he continued, "with our virtual team of certified fitness coaches." At the touch of a button, a tanned virtual training partner materialized onscreen, furiously pedaling and encouraging, "You got this! You're crushing it!" Apparently, the only thing this new gear couldn't do was to offer up a post-workout cup of chai tea.
After the tour, Marty asked our little retinue if we had any questions. A staff member raised her hand, asking, "How do our blind members access this equipment?"
"Damn new machines. I pulled a muscle on that chest press. Probably take a month to heal."
Marty's face went white. He appeared as stumped as a contestant on a quiz show in Latin. "I'll have to get back to you on that," he stammered, before leaving to catch his flight back to Florida.
The honeymoon went south the day of the grand re-opening. The first mishap occurred when a longtime member was going through his paces on the new speed-programmed treadmill and pressed a button saying "MAX," thinking it was a cable channel. It wasn't, and he was sent flying like a tossed squirrel. The virtual coach on the video screen was oblivious, still exhorting, "You got this! You're crushing it!"
That was only the beginning. Returning members began grousing about limited access and range of motion in the new gear. Two days later, my longtime fellow gym rat Ron arrived with his arm in a sling.
Flexibility of Body and Mind
"Damn new machines," he grumbled. "I pulled a muscle on that chest press. Probably take a month to heal."
"Give it time," I said. "They say the body remembers."
"Yeah," he said. "And it holds grudges, too."
It's been a few months now, and I've started acclimating myself to the New Normal at my revamped fitness center. I've even developed an appreciation for the new squeek-less cable machines. The incline benches are much more versatile and the mint-scented antiseptic wipe dispensers beat the heck out of the malodorous old rag piles. Still, like old high school crushes, I sometimes wonder whatever became of those old weights and machines.
We can adapt. We got this. We're crushing it.
One day on the stationary bike I found my eyes drifting up from the video screen to the large window overlooking a real trail outside, inviting me to get on a real bike with two wheels that would actually transport me somewhere. The next week I found myself riding through hills capped by bluebonnets under a crisp blue sky, and it felt great. I've begun mixing my workouts between indoors and outdoors.
Flexibility is as much a matter of mind as body, and we need it to survive. We adapt or we calcify. I'll always retain an evanescent affection for all the gyms I've loved before. But the retrospective truth is it isn't the Y, or the trendy new apps, or the virtual machines or familiar workouts that keep us fit and active. It's us. The gyms, machines and old routines are merely the vehicles we take, not the destination.
We can adapt. We got this. We're crushing it.