A Gym-Free Life

September 29, 2011

Yesterday morning I got caught outside in a mini thunderstorm. At 6:30, when I left the house for my five-mile run, it was super humid—a funky fall humidity that has been lingering for days—but it wasn’t raining. About five minutes into my run I noticed a flash of lightning. It was dark out and the flash crept up on me from behind. It was bizarre, but I couldn’t hear thunder. I figured I’d just keep going and see what happened.

For the next three or four miles, nothing happened at all. I saw a few more distant lightning flashes and heard grumbles of thunder, but there was no rain to speak of and certainly no apparent danger. The sun finally started to rise, and I could see breaks in the clouds. I thought I’d make it home before the rain blew in.

I didn’t. When I had just about a mile left to go, the heavens decided to open—big, heavy, soaking drops. You know the kind I mean. By the time I made it home, I was drenched from head to foot and happy about it.

Since I quit my gym membership four years ago, I’ve learned to love the rain. I run in fog and in drizzle, both warm and chilly, and I’ve been stuck in my share of downpours. And you know what? I haven’t melted yet. I also haven’t gotten pneumonia or, for that matter, any other weather-related illness. Sure, some of those rainy runs haven’t been all that pleasant, but for the most part, I like a good mid-run rain. It makes life interesting—and it makes a warm post-run shower all the more rewarding.

I can give you a laundry list of good reasons to quit your gym—learning to love the weather isn’t the only benefit of gym-free living. Energy usage is a big reason to quit. Gyms are pumped full of cool air at all hours, even when no classes are scheduled and only one or two people are around to use the weights and cardio equipment—machines that require plenty of energy themselves.  Add to that your drive to and from the place, and your annual gym-related fossil fuel usage can get pretty steep.

Time is another good reason. How much time do you spend driving to and from the gym? Packing a bag for the gym? Filling your water bottles? Wouldn’t you rather use that time to exercise (or sleep a few extra minutes)?

Money is the reason I left. In 2007 I was trying to pay down some debt and cut several unnecessary expenses. The gym was first among them. By that time I was running outside more and more often, and using the gym only once or twice a week for cross- and strength-training workouts. I spent the amount of a month’s gym membership on some basic equipment—a couple free weights, an exercise ball, resistance bands—and then I called it quits.

Money is also the primary reason I haven’t returned. I can’t imagine shelling out eighty bucks a month for a gym with an indoor pool when I can use the pool at the community center for $2 a visit (or Reston’s outdoor pools for $15 a summer!).  I do pay to go to a yoga studio these days, but while I was pinching pennies, I did hourlong workouts that I found for free online.

Oh, and all that exercise equipment I bought was not worth the money. Lunges, squats, sit-ups, and push-ups do the trick and require no financial expenditure. What has been worth the cost to me is the weather-appropriate gear, the headlamp, and the bicycle. But all of these things are optional (and have cost me less than the four years of gym membership would have).

I guess what I’m trying to say is you do not need a lot of stuff to get in a good workout. Nor do you need a big air-conditioned room full of equipment or shouting instructors. In living gym-free, I have found that exercise is one of those things that is most beneficial—for body and mind—when you’re doing something you love at minimal cost. I like to do yoga at home in my pajamas early in the morning, when it’s still dark outside. A walk or bike ride with a friend is pretty much always a good idea. And certain three-plus-hour long runs count among the most gratifying experiences I’ve had in the last few years (nonrunners will have to trust me on this one).*

I quit my gym in the middle of training for my third marathon, and I was very nervous about it. Could I cross-train without the elliptical? Could I strength-train without the weight machines? I could, and I did. For one thing, I started swimming again. For another, I discovered the miracle of free yoga. But, most important, I learned to love the weather—not just the sun and the perfect 60-, 70-, and 80-degree days, but also the rain, the snow, the cold, the ice, the blistering heat, and Virginia’s swampy humidity (OK, I’m still working on that last one).

*Not interested in a typical American workout? Here’s an alternative. Green gyms aren’t prevalent in the United States yet, but now seems like as good a time as any to start one, right?