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My Belly Is A Science Fiction Double Feature

(OK, that's a pretty surreal headline.)

Let's take a break from my normal discussion of law, law school, and politics to discuss something else that's been weighing on my mind. Three forces are creating a perfect storm of discomfort in my life: it is very, very cold outside; law school might be considered the ultimate anti-diet of junk food and sedentary reading; and I am almost pathetically ignorant of the Way of the Gym. All of this is resulting in there being more of me than really is ideal.

When I lived in England, I didn't really worry about this because my lifestyle involved much more walking than I do these days. And my general attitude towards exercise has always been to do more when it looked like I might slip up a waist size: whatever I might lack in motivation or vanity, I rarely look forward to the prospect of paying for new clothing in larger sizes.

Now, however, a combination of age and being stuck to a desk seems to actually be doing me cardiovascular harm. Were it spring or summer, I'd start jogging, but right now every step outside involves an immediate desire to seek warmth. My schedule precludes attending a weekly martial arts class. And so with some reluctance, I'm thinking I should figure out where Columbia hides its gym.

Unfortunately, I have a phobia of gyms. Twice in my life I've joined them, once when I lived in D.C., and last summer in Tokyo. Both times I encountered the same problem: I am wholly ignorant of gym etiquette and formality.

For instance, what does one wear to a gym? I dimly understand that there's an entire industry of spandex and lycra that has to do with arcane subjects like "breathability" and cloth that molds itself to one's body mass. Variously remembered snippets of stand-up comedy suggest to me that those not already body-sculpted are advised to avoid them, and this seems prudent. But for a student gym, are old shorts and a t-shirt too much/too little? Are white socks gym attire, or has something changed since I've been last? What about shoes: black, white, striped, does it really matter?

As someone whose physical vanity can't normally be described as excessive (an exception should be made for suits, which I find more of a hobby than anything else), gyms are intimidating. In most situations I'd put together some outfit that combined my personal convenience with some aesthetic preference, and convince myself that the rest of the world can look elsewhere if they don't like it. (Needless to say, I'm not winning any "best-dressed" awards at Columbia.) But a gym seems to be an exercise in being looked at, and I find such nonchalance impossible there.

This summer wasn't so difficult, perversely because of the Japan factor. Wandering around as a foreigner can sometimes be annoying, but in the gym it's liberating. I wasn't going to buy the $250 worth of gymwear common to most of the other sweaty men in the weight room, but who cares if they stared at my t-shirt and old jogging shorts? I'm five inches taller than the average height, a completely different skin tone, and the only person trying to balance a bilingual dictionary on top of their magazine when using the treadmill. I had no illusions that I'd blend in.

Here it's more difficult. Between stylistic concerns, the normal comparative vanity that's involved in group exercise, and the fact that I really don't know much about how to do gym exercise anyway, I feel in need of some Virgil or Beatrice to guide me through the maze of machines and aerobic exercisers.

I hope most everyone has some area lilke this: a perfectly normal thing that they feel ill-equipped to deal with. It would make me feel vaguely less silly. Nonetheless, it's getting to the point where I have no choice but to solve the problem somehow. To quote the old Rodney Dangerfield line, "I'm so out of shape, when I die they're going to donate my body to science fiction."


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» Gym-phobia from IrishLaw
Tony Rickey is experiencing a dilemma: it's cold, law school leads itself to a sedentary lifestyle, thus there's "more of me than really is ideal" and he knows he needs to exercise -- but he has a fear of gyms. I completely empathize [Read More]


What, 4 degrees wind chill and you don't want to head to Riverside? Wimp. Eh. Everyone feels that way. Altho' I'd suggest, since it is your theme, that you work up more of a deadly sin of pride and vanity. "Breathability" refers to your clothes interaction with sweat. It mostly means you can wear it to the gym multiple times before it's repulsive enough that you have to wash it. A sufficiently deep closet to hang your gym clothes in is a perfectly adequate substitute. Shoes? Black, white, fine. Stripes, fine. Polka dots, stay away from. As for the machines, can't help you. A good rule of thumb is that if it starts pinching your crotch, you're on it backwards. And while it's acceptable to drop the free weights on the mat when you've finished your set, it's considered poor form to hurl them at a stranger from across the room just to avoid being enlisted as a "spotter."
You should look into taking a voluntary PE class. Here's the page, but the schedule isn't up yet: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cuathletics/phy/phy_vol.html I do several every semester, and they're super fun. Since you've paid (nominally) you have to go, and once you're at the gym, it's easy enough to add a bit of cardio or weights before or after class. Take squash - it's great for stress relief, too...
For wearing to the gym, shorts and a t-shirt is good. You could wear lycra, but then you'd look as if you were headed to an outing on the Cam, and if there's more of you than you like, it'd all show! Don't worry about the machines because any semi-competent gym will induct you first. If you're anything like me, and your gym has mirrors, you will dread it. My college gym didn't, but it's being redone at the moment and I fear that mirrors are going to be added!
Shorts, baggy T-shirts, cheap comfortable trainers (preferably not made in a sweatshop) Exercise : When you join it's best practice for someone to walk you through every machine and the best way to use it. If this doesn't happen you're at a bad gym. Once this has been done you'll probably realise that many people who look the business don't know what they're doing. Good gyms should also do things like check your heart rate and blood pressure and suggest a programme for you to follow. The only important etiquette is to wipe off machines when you've finished since no-one likes other people's sweat. For more information I'd suggest Matt Roberts 90 day fitness plan (it was murder, but I've never been fitter) Amazon Link , although the diet section is a bit vague on the science. Also recommended is another Matt Roberts book, Amazon Link, fitness for life which has a good range of exercise regimes for accomplishing different results (lose weight, add muscles, get a six pack...)
I am clearly not the person to ask for fashion advice, but if you're wearing something that's comfortable to work out in, you're pretty much fine. As best as I can tell, the people who put a lot of thought into their gym appearances are typically trying to pick up. If you just want to get in shape, any old thing will do.
One of the beauties of gym fashion is the less you follow it, the cooler you are. Go for your personal style in the gym...but never jeans or black socks...otherwise your in good shape. If you want a walk thru on the machines, I was a pro for a year with over 2000 hours of personal training experience, I'm happy to help you out...in exchange for fixing a little DLL start- up problem I'm having. :) I'd also recommend Bill Phillips, Body for Life - it has an excellent "how to" for each exercise.
The Columbia gym has a caveat exerciser policy, I think; while a kind and bored employee might volunteer to help a novice out, this doesn't seem to be required. I'd recommend fixing Deb's computer :-) Clothes: the Workout Nazi wears shorts, Tshirt and sneakers, though I recommend that unlike WN, you put track pants and coat over these when going to and from the gym, unless you mean for beat-hypothermia runs to be part of your cardio routine. I'm personally wary of squash and racquetball because of the goggles, but they're nice yuppie lawyer sports to take up, and especially useful if you'll be practicing in climes where golf and tennis aren't always feasible.
You've demonstrated the secret to breaking through the gym barrier. Post about it on your blog first, and you'll get generally excellent advice about what to wear and what to do. Here's my advice: get on the machine of death, and in a few minutes you'll be in such exquisite pain that you won't care about how you look or what people think.
Carey: You might almost think that was my cunning plan. Thanks to everyone who's given me some advice above. With your help, I might actually get the belly to a Plan 9 From Outer Space problem, instead of a Star Wars Trilogy sized mess. I really appreciate it. (Next step: explain to your author how to stop stretching his metaphors way too thin...)
Sweetheart, it happens to the best of us. I used to be skinny. But after last semester's exams, when I had pizza and vending machine food for dinner and took cabs home at 2 am, I find myself with a tire around my middle. Albeit it's a bicycle tire, but still. Baggy clothes and I don't give a fuck attitude. That's what it takes. You've at least given me inspiration to start doing SOMETHING.

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