What we do while waiting for gyms to reopen

Kenny Mah
Gym members on treadmills — Pictures by CK Lim

COMMENTARY, June 6 — Many of my friends have taken to wearing caps or scrunchies as barbershops and hair salons remain closed during the lockdown. It’s understandable.

Me, I’ve used a pair of sharp scissors and my electrical shaver in place of clippers to trim my hair. I miss my favourite barber, but I get by.

My withdrawal symptoms are reserved for my neighbourhood gym, which like the barbershops, remains closed during the Movement Control Order (MCO) and subsequent Conditional MCO (CMCO).

Visiting the gym is a luxury; it isn’t a need. I understand that. For those of us who work and live in cities, however, it’s a common avenue for exercise.

A trip to the gym is a regular break from the endless cycle of work. We see familiar faces, catch up with friends we otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s the closest thing we have to a community space, the village square for urbanites.

Not being able to scan our gym card or dongle and gain entry to a vast floor of treadmills, stationary bikes, weight machines, rows of dumbbells and the yoga/dance studio? It feels like another slice of our life has been cruelly taken away from us during these trying times.

We can sit and wait and bemoan our fate. Or we can figure something else out.

We can also exercise outside where it is open and green

A few months ago, I was stranded in New Zealand during the country’s level 4 lockdown. Until direct flights back to Malaysia were reinstated, many of us had to stay put wherever we were and shelter in place.

Unlike the first phase of Malaysia’s MCO, however, we were allowed to head outdoors — albeit with requisite social distancing — to exercise in nearby parks. During the walk from our friend’s house to the park, we observed at least a couple of CrossFit gyms. I wondered what the CrossFitters would be doing without their battle ropes and giant tyres to flip.

As it turned out, most of them were at the park, armed with a single kettlebell each, running through their individual routines. There were joggers. Folks, young and old, playing with their dogs. Everyone at least two metres apart as required by the New Zealand government.

No gyms. But everyone managed to exercise all the same.

I did air squats, push ups. (In Auckland, do Kiwis do, I suppose.) No gyms in sight. Plenty of exercise though.

Later, when I returned to Malaysia and underwent the requisite 14-day quarantine, I no longer had access to fresh air or the outdoors. Imagine being in a single room, not a house with other rooms you can flee to or a balcony or a porch where you can marvel at the lack of exhaust fumes (that alas, is no longer true with the return of vehicles on the roads).

Surely this would be a good excuse to give up and stay stuck to the Internet for a fortnight till I was released?

Even the confines of four walls aren’t a deterrent to exercise if we put our minds to it

But there is a desk. A chair. A bed. The floor. I could do bodyweight exercises still. Dips using the chair. Burpees — pairing jumping jacks and push-ups — to get my heartbeat up. Options for exercising are only limited by my imagination and some googling (try the keywords “hotel room no equipment workout” and you’d get about 300 million results).

No gyms in sight. But no excuses not to exercise either.

You’d think there was some lesson or insight in this. An epiphany along the lines of “Aha! I don’t need to be inside a gym to work out.”

Alas, there wasn’t one. Once I was back home post-quarantine but still sheltering in place, I was back to not exercising. I think many of us underestimate the natural urge to return to a sedentary state. (And with such astonishing ease!)

Exercising outdoors in Auckland was a new experience. So was following a bodyweight routine within the confines of a hotel room.

But once I was back home, daily life resumed. Working from home, doing house chores, preparing a face mask and hand sanitiser before heading out to buy groceries: it’s life through the lens of that dreaded phrase — the new normal.

Gyms still closed? Check. Therefore no exercise? Check.

What I — and so many others — miss isn’t just the convenience of everything set out on a gym floor but the camaraderie of complete strangers whose faces you may recognise but names you might not know.

You could have an intense workout with a single kettlebell

There is an inherent social pressure — a healthy one most times — to stick to your workout routine and get that extra rep in at the squat rack or try that yoga pose you’ve always wanted to achieve. Having others around you is a form of competitive encouragement.

When we are alone at home, who’s to stop us from pausing the exercise clip on YouTube and hit the fridge for a tub of ice cream instead?

Thankfully, even with sloth, there’s only that much of it we can indulge in before we get fed up with ourselves and with doing nothing. Digging in the store room, I uncovered a single kettlebell (16kg), a pair of 10kg dumbbells, two mismatched yoga mats and an old gift of resistance bands from a decade earlier.

During the worldwide lockdown, I wonder how many people were cursing Marie Kondo for advising them to throw away stuff that didn’t spark joy?

These bits and bobs surely didn’t spark an iota of joy for years but I’m glad I have them now especially since most popular exercise (and haircutting) equipment were out of stock during the early days of quarantine when everyone was stuck at home.

So I learned, yet again, that I could exercise at home. Beyond the kettlebell swings and the planks on the mats, I rediscovered the joys of the outdoors. I head out for a run, albeit at a safe distance from others, of course.

To my surprise, I’m learning to love jogging when, before the lockdown, I was flabbergasted by friends who run and who would fly across continents to take part in marathons. (Cross continental flights now seem a fantasy... or a nightmare, depending how you look at it.)

I guess we learn to adapt or we learn how we used to do things. (Folks didn’t have gyms before and they still managed to exercise, no?) Aside from the basic needs — clean air and water, food, shelter, security, rest and a few more — everything else is extra.

Those of us who didn’t declutter along with Marie Kondo might discover hidden gems such as dumbbells in our storage

Gyms not open yet? It’s not the end of the world.

Why bemoan this temporary privation when I can exercise anywhere, if only I put my mind to it? I’m probably one of those who needed a gym membership as a crutch. If I can’t or don’t exercise when the gyms aren’t open, then I’m not really committed to exercising in the first place, am I?

Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the gym. I do.

And though going to the gym will be different with the new normal — perhaps we’d have to book slots to use the gyms given reduced capacity, and there’d be plenty of disinfecting going on by members rather than just the poor overworked cleaning staff — it’d be akin to returning home, after a fashion.

The familiar faces of strangers, the grunts of those pumping iron and the frenzied yelps from those in dance classes, the comfortable embrace of a routine we recognise, it’s real life for some of us.

Clearly I’ll be one of the first lining up to re-enter my gym once it’s allowed to reopen. Reverting to an old routine is not the same as not having learned some useful lesson, however (though I’d be hard pressed to tell you what that is).

And so we wait. For the return of gyms and the return – even if just a meagre slice — of life as we once knew it.

For more slices of life, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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