Jason Gay, a sports writer at the Wall Street Journal (yeah, they have a sports section, and it’s not half bad) has written a funny little article The 27 Rules of Conquering the GymHis 27th rule?  “There is no secret. Exercise and lay off the fries. The end.”

Indeed.  But why does anyone who really wishes to shape up physically think joining a gym is the answer?  Even my son, the one that’s had two bone marrow transplants who is now doing well enough to contemplate such things, resolved to start working out at our church gym (it’s really a lot nicer than most commercial gyms) after school so he could begin getting in shape for maybe some outdoor fun this summer. 

I asked him “Why don’t you just do some pushups and situps here?”  Which he didn’t want to hear.  I suspect, like a lot of folks, he likes the idea of getting in shape that visiting a gym provides, but doesn’t really care to contemplate the actual pain of exertion getting in shape will entail.   

It doesn’t matter what you do, or where.  It just matters that you do, and consistently. 

I’ve tried working out at gyms once or twice in my life, but I couldn’t see where there was any reason to pay someone to allow me to do things I could do on my own, and the whole gym etiquette and preening social aspect of it meant that it was more like a nightclub than a place for someone who seriously wanted to get in shape. 

So I don’t work out at gyms.  I run, outside, for cardiovascular health, and do calisthenics–pushups, squat thrusts, pull-ups, dips, etc–for muscle toning.  I weigh myself every day to keep a watchful eye over caloric intake.  And that’s it.  Keeping fit is not an obsession, it’s just a way of life.   And I don’t let it get in the way of life.  For instance, I like my beer, and have never trained so hard until I felt the need to be a teetotaler.

Because it almost never snows down here, I can run year-round outside.  I’ve tried running on a treadmill or around an inside track, and utterly loathe it.  Running season in Alabama is winter time–the mornings can be brisk, but are usually not too bad (except yesterday morning it was about 25 when I left on my run, which is cold, but not intolerable).  I set my lower limit at fifteen degrees for running, which means maybe one or two days a year it’s too cold.  July and August are the hard times.  Even in the early am, it’s miserably hot. 

I’ve managed to run the local half-marathon eight times (with a full marathon thrown in for good measure) between my son’s transplants.  I missed the last couple of years because I just didn’t have time to get in good enough shape to bother, what with the round-the-clock challenge of nursing him through his latest transplant, but I’m thinking I’ll do the next one, which is next month, in February.  At forty-nine years old, I feel rather lucky that everything is holding up well enough for me to even contemplate such a thing.

Other than the one race I occasionally do, I run and do my workouts alone.  It’s not anyone else’s body I’m trying to keep in shape, just mine.  Keeping my body in shape is my responsibility, and it’s one that is not delegable to some gym, or group of running buddies.

There’s a line Jimmy Buffett borrowed from Mark Twain and used in a song that I think explains why people prefer going to the gym rather than actually getting in shape, “…be good, and you will be lonesome…be lonesome, and you will be free…”  Facing that man in the mirror–the one who knows whether or not I’m doing what I should to stay in shape– is a lonesome prospect, but is the only route I have found that actually allows me to achieve the level of fitness I know I should.  Be good, and you will be lonesome, but you will also be free.  No demons can haunt a man who has looked into his soul and faced them.  Only then can anyone ever really be free.

As I’ve explained before, the man in the mirror is the true measure of a man.  Even though gyms usually have a plethora of mirrors for their preening customers, I’m pretty sure none of the posers is looking so they can compare themselves to what they know they should be.  Instead, they’re seeking solace in comparing themselves to others.  Which probably explains why so many people prefer the society of a gym when they decide to get in shape, and is also why so few of them ever do.