Couch potato among the gym rats

The other day when I was at Bristol Health and Fitness, I saw my friend John Vautier on the elliptical trainer — a stationary exercise machine that is easier on the joints than a Stairmaster or treadmill — and he was working up a pretty good sweat. Now, John is a lifter. Usually he steers clear of any machines that involve running and pedaling as if they were radioactive. So I asked him what he was doing and he shook his head and said, “I’m getting fat. Well, fatter.”

Fat is a relative term. So is working out. I mention this because I have come to the realization that my wife, who never does anything halfway, is a gym rat. Without giving you more information than you need to know, half her laundry is gym clothes. Three days a week she is at the gym for a fitness class at 5 a.m. This means she gets up at 4:15 in the morning. Two days a week she spins at 6 in the morning — living large those two mornings by sleeping until 5:15. On weekends she goes at a more civilized hour, but her workout is still all business.

I, on the other hand, am not a gym rat. I am a total slacker compared to her. I get to the gym a mere three or four days a week, always in the afternoon, and I have noticed the following: There is no conversation that I will not allow to interfere with my workout regimen. During a perfect 75-minute-long workout, I will do the following: Talk with the above mentioned John Vautier about football; talk with Drew Smith about Cubber’s, his restaurant; talk with John Elder about whatever books we’re reading at the time; and talk with Geoffrey Jones about raising our daughters. In addition, I will joke with Andrew Furtsch about Tiger Woods or chat with David Furney about a new iPhone app. Finally, there is Chris Nugent, a terrific trainer who gives his heart and soul to the gym and agrees with me that the demolition of the Champlain Bridge was the coolest thing to happen on the lake since Ethan Allen waltzed into Fort Ticonderoga. We can kill a boatload of time together.

In a perfect workout, these conversations will add up to 38 minutes, or exactly one minute more than half my budgeted time at the gym.

But given how much time I spend alone at my desk talking to fictional people who don’t talk back (thank heavens), I have come to the conclusion that spending about 51 percent of my workout not working out makes sense. During the winter, when I don’t ride my bicycle, there are days when I venture no further from my front door than the end of my driveway to get the mail. Consequently, the gym has become a place that is as much about human connection as it is free weights and spin bikes — or, perhaps, a place that is as much about mental health as it is physical health. And while my wife is considerably more disciplined than I am, I think this is true for her, too: She says that even if the gym conversation is limited at 5 in the morning because everyone is still half asleep, there is a real “the few, the proud, the chosen” sort of camaraderie.

My sense is that I am a more social person than I like to admit. When I went to the American Legion Post in Middlebury this month to get an H1N1 flu shot, I was excited to see the place was crowded and I would be there for an hour. I saw my friend and accountant, Sue Lilja, and I saw a half-dozen area neighbors who otherwise I would never have had the pleasure of meeting. I had a fine time.

And in the winter, when it’s all too easy to hibernate if you live in a small Vermont village halfway up a mountain, sometimes getting the latest Tiger Woods joke at the gym is as important as adding a few extra minutes on the Stairmaster.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 31, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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