After spending much of lockdown exercising at home alone, I wanted to approach things differently.
I joined a gym and signed up for fitness classes. I was the only man in the room time and again.
I wasn't sure it was for me at first, but they're the most challenging workouts I've ever done.
As I head toward my late 40s, staying in shape and maintaining a healthy lifestyle becomes harder. So when a new gym opened in my neighborhood at the end of last year with heavily discounted opening deals, I decided to become a member.
I had joined several gyms over my lifetime but had always found working out by myself quite dull, which affected my motivation. But this time around, I was determined to stick with it, so I decided to try something new: I decided to join group fitness classes.
At college, I stuck with lifting weights, but I found I didn't enjoy it
The gym at my college was a testosterone fest — it was full of young men showing off and bragging about their enormous muscles. I was certainly no Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, but I lifted weights daily to fit in with the Bench Press Bros. We came, we benched, we squatted, and we would parade in front of the mirrors like peacocks admiring our physiques.
While the exercises I was doing did work to develop some muscles on my previously small frame, it wasn't an enjoyable experience for me, and as soon as I graduated from college, I quit going to the gym.
While my wallet got a workout over the years, my body didn't
Post-college, it seemed like I was following the same cycle every few years.
I would buy a 12-month membership to a gym, lift weights for a few months, and then become disinterested and stop going. This is quite common; in fact, it's something that gyms rely on. Research from the Global Health and Fitness Association showed that only about 18% of people with gym memberships go to the gym consistently.
Having a gym membership you're not using is like throwing money down the drain, and it's a cycle I was determined to break. I knew I needed to do something different and go in with a new mindset.
After lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, I missed social interaction and decided to try a new fitness strategy
I live in Melbourne, Australia, and we begrudgingly earned the title of the world's longest lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic: 262 days, to be exact. This meant I spent a lot of time at home, and spent much of it working out by myself in my house. Once lockdown ended, I headed back to the gym with a new objective — I was going to do group fitness classes.
During the extended lockdown period, I'd missed seeing other people and thought I'd take a two-birds-one-stone approach to exercise and get some social interaction in as I moved my body. I figured working out with an instructor and a group of like-minded people would be more motivating.
I almost walked out of my first class, as I felt like a fish out of water
The first class I signed up for was called "Body Sculpt," and I had no idea what to expect.
I walked into the fitness studio and almost walked straight back out. There was salsa music playing, and the room was full of women with expensive yoga mats wearing their trendy Lululemon activewear. I, on the other hand, was in a baggy old T-shirt and shorts and hadn't brought a water bottle, let alone a mat; I felt like everyone was staring at me, like I was an unwelcome stranger. I was literally the odd man out.
The instructor, Milan, introduced himself and told me to borrow a gym mat from reception. With my loaner in hand, I walked to the corner of the room in an attempt to make myself as scarce as possible. The class started, and Milan led a choreographed warm-up, with the whole room moving in unison as I flailed around, a beat or two behind each step.
With my two left feet and lack of coordination, I felt self-conscious and regretted my decision to stay. Dancing is not a skill I would list on whatever the social version is of a résumé, but I continued with the encouragement of Milan and the others in the class.
I felt less masculine by attending group fitness classes, and knew I needed to challenge that way of thinking
At the end of 45 minutes, I was exhausted, and most of my body hurt. The class was part cardio, part working with weights, and one of the most challenging workouts I had ever done. Still, I did feel awkward being the only man. Was I somehow less masculine for choosing this style of workout? And if not, why were no other men in the class?
Even though I felt great after my first class, I still wasn't sure it was for me. The truth is, there are a lot of outdated stereotypes when it comes to group fitness classes. People still have visions of spandex-clad instructors like the inimitable Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons leading groups of women in sync with the music of Olivia Newton-John, urging people to get physical.
That may be why nearly 80% of 1,500 group fitness participants surveyed between 2016 and 2018 by Statista were women. If you do a Google image search for "group exercise" photos showing groups of women will appear, one after another. Even though these images persist, I couldn't ignore the fact that I'd really enjoyed my time in "Body Sculpt."
You can stop the music — there's a wide variety of group fitness classes
As I walked out, Milan asked if I was coming back. I looked a little unsure, so he suggested I try a high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, class later that week; as an incentive, he told me there was no music. I was determined to break old habits, so I agreed.
Two days later, true to Milan's word, there was no dancing in the class — but again I was the only man in the room. Yet many of the participants had also been in my first class, and they warmly welcomed me. I gave an embarrassed smile and warmed up along with them.
The HIIT class was an hour long and incredibly exhausting. But Milan provided encouragement and a good structure, ensuring all parts of the body were worked on while maintaining form, and the intensity increased over the 60 minutes. I didn't recall ever working this hard when was a Bench Press Bro!
It's a challenging workout, has improved my mindset about exercise, and makes me feel like part of a team
For the next few weeks, I added more and more group fitness classes to my exercise schedule. Some involved music and some were on the gym floor. In all of them, I was still the only man in attendance.
I always found working out by myself boring. It's easy to find an excuse to sleep in or watch Netflix instead of heading to the gym alone. But having a group class on my schedule provides motivation and a sense of anticipation. It makes me feel part of a team and the variety of group classes means I don't get as bored as I did when I was just lifting weights. There's a psychological reason for the added motivation I had. Research has found that exercising with other people provides intrinsic motivation.
As I attended a few weeks of classes, I began to settle into the routine, the choreography, and the team mentality. I moved on from embarrassment or perceived shame at being the only man in my class, and I learned that there was no reason for either. Now, almost a year later, I look forward to seeing my fellow group members, and we encourage each other to push harder during class. There is no competition focused on lifting or doing more reps, only a supportive environment. I feel like I have a group of personal trainers all helping to push me.
I never thought I would be the type of person who would look forward to going to the gym six days a week — but thanks to group classes, I am. According to the 2021 Global Fitness Report, live classes are the single most popular gym activity, and it's a shame that many men are missing out on this.
I may be the only man in the group fitness class, but it's better than working out alone or not going at all. I'm fitter and more motivated than I have ever been. Now, I just need to work on my dance steps.
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