Eleven days into the New Year and already the throng that appeared in the exercise room on January 2 has disappeared, leaving only the regulars. I can’t say I’m surprised; just looking at them, most people would have predicted that they would break their resolutions quickly.
You could see in their faces that they didn’t want to be there. The fact that they had screwed themselves up just to go to the gym could be seen in the wary way they approached the exercise machines, almost as if the machines were animals that would turn and savage them. There was a doggedness in the way they pushed the pedals around or plodded along the treadmills, and a twist to their features and a slump to their shoulders that showed their reluctances. And when they finished, they did not so much walk away as drag themselves, held up largely by their wills, looking faintly disgusted by their own sweat on the designer clothes they had bought for their efforts.
I’ve got back into shaped so many times in my life that I sympathized with them – I really did. The trouble with starting an exercise regime is that it’s at the start, when you really need the encouragement, that you feel the most discomfort. Later, it gets easier, but in the first few days after exercising, when your throat is dry and your legs feel deboned, when you think at the end that your whole body is about to burst out in the shakes, any relief seems far away. And if you haven’t been through the experience before, so that you know that your sense of humiliation will be slowly replaced by a sense of confidence, you don’t have very much to keep you going. I considered telling one or two of them that it gets easier, but I didn’t think they appreciate a stranger observing their difficulties.
Besides, they weren’t likely to stick around, as I said. Most of the people who suddenly appeared with the New Year were at least in their early thirties to mid-forties: Young enough to remember the resilience of youth, but old enough to have lost it if they hadn’t kept physically active. For some, it may well have been the first time their bodies hadn’t lived up to their expectations – a milestone of aging that’s uncomfortable for anyone.
Experienced or strongly motivated people might stick out the discomfort to win through to fitness. But, to do that, they would need an ability to take pleasure in using their muscles, and most of them manifestly couldn’t do that. They used iPods and magazines while they were exercising, but they got bored anyway. To them, the exercise bikes were a chore, somewhat more pleasant than housetraining a puppy, but not very much. Not being used to exercise, perhaps they didn’t even imagine that there might be some other form of exercise they might enjoy. All they could think of was that getting into shape was something that needed to be done, so they marched down the gym, braced for the failure that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It seems to me that New Years’ Resolutions are a cruel custom, because they encourage people to try to make changes, while everything in our culture says that the likeliest outcome is failure. Having seen all the cartoons and jokes about breaking resolutions, people expect to fail to change their lives in January. Perpetuating such a vicious cycle seems a needless refinement of cruelty, especially when the average person has enough failures in their life.
For me, I don’t mind so much. Now, I can get on the exercise bike when I want to, instead of waiting in line while someone struggles through their self-appointed misery. But other people’s disappointment in themselves does seem a high price to pay for my convenience.