When Did Smiling at the Gym Become Dangerous?

I’m definitely guilty. Headphones in, no smiling and distant stare. The weights at the gym provide one primary purpose—to create resistance, and my attitude at the gym often reflects a singular mood, the typical mantra of, “I’m not here to socialize, I’m here to work out.” I see this all-business mantra mirrored in so many other gym-goers. Many like myself venture from one station to the next, our quest broken only by the occasional water break. There is no time for chitchat, there is only time to complete the specific regimen at hand.

I understand that for some (myself included), the gym can be a kind of sanctuary, a place to escape the mindless social interactions that seemingly consume our daily lives. I don’t need an update about that weekend party, a play-by-play of your kid’s soccer game or your complaints about being ghosted on Tinder. In the gym, I can use my headphones as a crutch to avoid people all together. “What was that you said? Couldn’t hear you,” as I smugly point to my headphones.

I wasn’t always like this. I first started lifting weights as part of a team. We used the weight room to supplement our performance in sports. We lifted together, often encouraged each other, often joked with each other and often reinforced our sense of community. At some point in my life, this sense of community fell by the wayside. Some might point out that my aloofness was born out of necessity. Too many people wasting time on their phones, too much mindless banter between sets, too many people curling in the squat rack and too much stretching right in front of the dumbbells. The only way to find solace in all the madness: develop an attitude that promotes isolation and singularity of focus.

I believe this loss of community has helped give rise to many of today’s popular fitness movements. For someone looking to get in shape, it can be a lot more fun to be a part of something bigger, something like Crossfit, Soul Cycle, Zumba, Camp Gladiator, Tough Mudder, etc. These kinds of activities embrace newcomers into the fold, offering structured workouts and encouragement from fellow participants. I support any activity that gets people moving towards their fitness goals, and I understand how being part of a team can help with motivation.

I see the fun in fitness exemplified by my young son. While only three-years-old, he finds absolute joy in developing his physical abilities. His current fixation involves going to the pool and learning to swim. He runs towards the pool with complete abandonment, smiling and laughing as he hurls himself into the water. He loves to engage others, looking for a possible playmate or asking other adults to watch him “swim,” an endeavor which involves flailing limbs and a torrent of whitewater. He requires assistance to avoid drowning, but always emerges from these thrashing sessions with a toothy grin and an insatiable need to be high-fived for his efforts.

Reflecting on my child’s exuberance, I began wondering if I had become the brooding and judgmental old man of my gym? Had I now devolved into the epitome of gym rudeness? Was I now at the same level as the gym-bro who constantly annoys young females with surly looks, pointless advice and endless one-liners? Would it kill me to take off the headphones every once in a while and say a few complimentary words to a fellow lifter?

I think for now, small steps are in order. A short conversation here and there. Perhaps a head nod every now and then. Maybe even a fist bump every so often. Small steps can lead to big gains, and I think a more positive demeanor is something worth striving for. I absolutely enjoy working out, so why not try and make the experience more positive for everyone involved?

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