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Gym workout provides social nutrients

Seated at the leg-press machine, I count an assemblage of six flat-screen TVs. Beside me, outfitted in the latest wicking fabrics, a 50-something man pants and sweats as he attempts to track two different sports games at once.

On one screen, color-coordinated sets of hulking athletes hurl themselves at each other. They are obsessed and will stop at nothing. On another screen, a whistle is blown and everyone freezes. Presumably, someone has done something wrong and needs to be punished. Half of the colorful figures are upset, but the other half appear pleased.

The sweaty man beside me is also pleased. His treadmill whizzes and whirrs and he whips his head around to look directly at me. I raise my eyebrows and nod approvingly toward the TV. I have no clue what has taken place in the game, but the camaraderie feels connective nonetheless.

Behind a plastic face shield, an elderly woman begins to hum her favorite Christmas carol: “Oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant...” She’s apparently stuck in a cognitive loop of some sort, but it is bringing her tremendous joy and also seems to be fueling her exercise routine.

I find it quite endearing at first, but by the 10th repeat, I decide to switch locations. I look back at her smiling ear-to-ear, totally enraptured, and wonder what it would feel like to be comforted by something to that degree.

As I round the corner, I realize that I forgot to grab the mandatory sanitizer and rag used to wipe COVID cooties off the equipment. I approach the counter and a happy muscular attendant calls out to me.

“How’s it going, man!”

“Fine,” I mutter under my breath. I sound like I’m pissed off at him, but it’s not on purpose, I just haven’t spoken to anyone yet today. I turn to walk away, and he shouts at my back.

“OK! Fine it is then!”

His words pierce my skin and rattle my spine. I take a deep breath to stabilize myself and keep walking.

“Have a great workout,” he bellows, chuckling to himself, seemingly amused by our non-exchange.

I head for the stationary bike section. Every other bike has a “not in use” sign, with the pedals removed to ensure 6-foot distances between gym members. I climb aboard one of the bikes with pedals and gaze out the window at the clouds rolling by. It’s been a long day of wondering what do to with my life, and I am grateful for the mental pause. My face mask tickles my nose every time I inhale, and it makes me feel like sneezing.

In the parking lot below, a young woman in fancy Lululemon tights climbs into her car and yanks down the visor to check her makeup. She seems nonplussed, but willfully shakes it off with a flip of her hair. Her physical appearance and mental composure restored, she steps back out of the car. Looking around like a nervous bird, almost as an afterthought, she bends forward to stretch her hamstrings. Her hyper-toned rump happens to fall directly in line with a young gym employee’s path as he carries a full bag of garbage to a nearby dumpster. He’s having a heck of a time not gawking, and stumbles over his own feet attempting to avert his eyes. Lucky a car drives by and they both move out of the way.

Back inside, my heart-rate is getting close to its sweet spot, and I take in a deep breath of gym air. With so few people in here, there is considerably less odor, which is really nice. As weird and restrictive as it is, I am grateful to be somewhere in public besides the grocery store. Being around other people restores an essential nutrient in me — social soul food.

For now, it’s just me, Sweaty Man, Christmas Grandma, Muscle Man, Lululemon and the Trash Guy, and we’re all getting along just fine.

Abram R. Katz lives in Ashland.


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