I abandoned the gym for a martial arts studio about a year ago now. I love gyms. Now that I'm back in New York City, whenever I walk past an Equinox the smell pouring out from the vents fills me with pleasant nostalgia. I did a lot of good work within the confines of a gym: I did my first push-up, and I did my first set of 10 push-ups, ran a mile without stopping for breath, and then two and three miles. I was not a sporty child, so I discovered exercise as an adult and gyms are welcoming, no-pressure locations where you can explore as you like and nobody bothers you. That's a good situation for a beginner. Most gyms have classes, and those classes tend to be set up so that people of all fitness levels can join in. Another really great thing for a beginner.
I had years where I worked out constantly, and I had years where I worked out less. That's fine. Motivation waxes and wanes, and I'm in it for the long haul: rather than flog myself about low-intensity phases, I simply made sure that exercise was always a part of my routine, so that when I built up more motivation I'd only have to modify an established habit, not start from scratch.
I loved getting strong. But plateauing is really boring. I love being in shape, but I got to the point where I questioned my reasons for going to the gym and they came up lacking. I was going to the gym to look good. Now, I think it's important to take care of your appearance - and I think the best thing anyone can do for their own looks is work out. It's better than makeup and clothes combined, by a long shot. Even diet. A diet doesn't give you a healthy glow, but exercise does. A diet will slim you down, but exercise will improve the figure you have, smooth and tone, give you added grace and bounce.
But looking good...it's not a powerful enough motivation. If your self-esteem is high enough, looking good just feels like a perk - icing on the cake. And if your self-esteem is low enough, you'll never really be satisfied with how you look, so the reward will never be satisfying enough. And if you're somewhere in-between, nice and centered, well, that's worst of all: at that point, spending 8-10 hours a week at the gym seems ridiculously vain. For the first few years I was making so much progress, really developing an understanding of what my body could do and learning a lot in the process. But eventually, I got to thinking that strength training and running on a treadmill were empty exercises, and they kept my focus on what other people thought of my body, not on how I felt about myself.
I decided to make a change.
So that's when I got into martial arts. And it makes all the difference. Is it as efficient as the gym? Absolutely not. If I spent as much time working out at the gym as I spend doing jiu jitsu right now, I'd weigh less, I'd be stronger and more toned - I'd look better. No doubt about it. But for the year plus before I switched to martial arts, I was only going to the gym 2-4 times a week; I worked out for an hour each visit; that added up to, yep, 2-4 hours of exercise per week. That's better than nothing, but it's not really enough. These days, I'm at my martial arts studio for at least 4 hours per week, and usually 8, sometimes more. I've more than doubled the total amount of time I spend working out. The results are a hell of a lot better than they were when I was going to the gym for 2-4 hours, I'm having a lot more fun while I'm there, and I'm finding fitness exciting, and totally engaging - it's mentally and physically challenging for me. It's progressive. There's no plateau. A decade down the line, I will still have more to learn.
Here's where gyms win out over every other outlet: efficiency and convenience. That's it. Those are real advantages. And there are people who put "efficiency" and "convenience" at the top of their "must-have" lists, not just theoretically but in practice, too. So they sign up at a gym and they go. But most people will find that "efficiency" and "convenience" just aren't enough to get them out of the house after a long day at work, running, sweating, pushing themselves so hard that their muscles start breaking down and have to knit themselves back together. Because that's the other thing that a lot of people don't appreciate about the gym: it's not enough just to go. If you want those results, and you want them efficiently, you have to make every minute count. You have to embrace the pain.
Strength training works. And it hurts. Two true things.
So here's my point. Say you think exercise is important. Say you go to the gym, but not as much as you want to, or think you should. Say you're not getting the results you want, or you remember a time when the gym felt way more important than it does to you right now.
You probably don't belong at a gym.
I'm not saying you belong in a martial arts studio. I'm saying you belong at the place where you'll find yourself engaged, having fun, and working out at the same time. Maybe that's a traditional sport like basketball or tennis. Maybe it's yoga or dance. Either way, if you trade efficiency for something that you're truly passionate about...you're a lot more likely to succeed. Find the place that renews you. Find the place that feels like the awesomer, more productive equivalent of relaxing in front of the television. Find the activity that you look forward to, that offers a good social atmosphere and really enriches your life.
Efficiency is great, but results are better. Don't settle. Don't get complacent. Demand more from yourself, more from your body, and more from your fitness routine.