Why Am I Going to the Gym in a Pandemic?

My mom asked me that question over the phone this morning—I was talking to her from the Stairmaster at LA Fitness.

To be fair, when the pandemic began back in March, I avoided the gym from that point until mid-September. Terrified of going, catching the virus and bringing it back to my immunocompromised family, I knew that it wasn’t worth it. Even once gyms opened in Michigan over the summer, my endorphins weren’t worth getting my family sick.

But my mental health was suffering because of it. As a washed-up high school athlete, the gym kept me sane since I could no longer rely on my team to do that. My freshman year of college, I had to adjust to making time to go to the gym on my own instead of showing up to soccer or crew practice. I fell in love with weight training, so when the pandemic hit, I had nowhere to turn to.

At the beginning of quarantine, I was relying on fitness YouTubers like Pamela Reif to keep me in shape. I was doing a good job staying committed, until I realized something about myself: working out isn’t just about staying shape.

I started to hate tuning into her channel every day. It eventually got to the point where I would actively avoid doing it, even though the workouts were a maximum of 20 minutes. From that point on, I stopped exercising completely, and my mental health suffered greatly. Exercise for me is a way to control my moods, manage stress and stop thinking about my problems for a whole hour in the middle of the day. Getting in shape is just an added bonus.

When I decided to move back to my college town in September, I realized that the local gym was open and close to my apartment. To my roommate (who feels the same way I do) and I, getting a membership was a no-brainer. With it being just the two of us in the apartment, away from our high-risk families, we agreed that going to the gym was worth possible exposure to coronavirus.

While that is a privileged perspective to be able to have, it’s the right one for us. The Center for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield recently announced that lockdown has had disproportionately negative effects on young people’s mental health. I’ve felt that.

When I go to the gym, I wear my N95 from beginning to end. I avoid the other gymgoers, and I’m careful about wiping down any shared machines or other items. So far, I’ve had a good experience. Luckily, I know the odds are in my favor if I were to contract COVID…but I know that even if I did catch it, I would be worth it for me. My mental health has improved dramatically since I moved in over a month ago. When I go back in my journal and read about how I was feeling in March, April, May and even months after that, I can hardly recognize that person.

I am afraid of the virus, and I’m also afraid of going back to the dark place I was in during the beginning of quarantine—it’s not a binary choice! If utilizing PPE and following state-regulated safety standards is what I need to do to go to the gym and save myself from a downward spiral, then that’s what I’m going to do.