The Realist’s Guide to Going to the Gym


It was the last week of December, and the Planet Fitness on Wyckoff Avenue was bracing for its annual onslaught of new members. Straddling the border between Ridgewood and Bushwick, each January the gym with the purple-and-yellow-splashed façade draws droves of fresh hopefuls, novice athletes who rouse themselves from their hangovers and food comas to clog treadmills and drip sweat doing bench presses until their enthusiasm wears thin by mid-February.

“It hasn’t been too bad because it’s winter right now, but once the New Year’s resolutions come in, it’s going to be crazy,” Andre Rodriguez, a nineteen-year-old team member at Planet Fitness, told me as Smash Mouth blared from the speakers. At nearly 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, Rodriguez had just finished signing up a couple of sweatpant-clad twentysomethings who paid their holiday special $1 start-up fees in spare change. “It’s usually about two months” before the new members start to drop off, he continued. “People exaggerate and say two weeks, but [pretty soon] everyone is going to start leaving.”

Stuck in an on-again-off-again relationship with Planet Fitness for nearly a decade, I’ve become something of an expert when it comes to failure at the gym. The truth is I’m still trapped in the same cycle of bad habits that have stunted my gym progress since day one: an absence of concrete goals, a lack of accountability, and a level of commitment that waxes and wanes with my mood. My most recent tryst with the “Judgment Free Zone” began last summer, when I allowed Planet Fitness to start taking $10 out of my bank account every thirty days for months before I finally started a semi-regular routine around Thanksgiving. (The gym’s infamous pizza and bagel days haven’t exactly helped my physique either, but I digress.)

According to a 2016 study from data analytics company Cardlytics, nearly 50 percent of new gym-goers cancel their memberships by the end of January, and just 22 percent last through October. But while gym business models largely depend on quitters who pay their fees without ever working up a sweat (if all 8.7 million Planet Fitness members exercised simultaneously, no one would get a turn on the elliptical), some do succeed in their fitness goals. And according to experts, physical fitness is more a game of mental fortitude and planning than a contest measured by deadlifts and squats.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results,” says Steve Kamb, founder of the website Nerd Fitness and author of the book Level Up Your Life: How to Unlock Adventure and Happiness by Becoming the Hero of Your Own Story. Raised on Super Nintendo and Lord of the Rings, Kamb spun his wheels in the gym for six years as a scrawny adolescent before transforming into a geek-friendly fitness guru. “You want to make your goal as specific as possible, and something where you can definitively say, ‘Yes, I did this’ or ‘No, I didn’t.’ So a bad goal is ‘I want to lose weight’ or ‘I want to go to exercise more.’ A good goal is, ‘I want to lose x amount of pounds by this date’ or ‘I would like to go to the gym three times per week.’ ”

Long-term gains, experts say, look more like a slow and methodical game of chess, one in which fledgling gym rats seek to continually outsmart their own inner critics. Kamb prescribes building a routine “over many, many months, rather than all or nothing. These are changes that you’re making permanently, not the roller coaster yo-yo that many people go on.”

According to Kamb, success hinges on setting up systems and safety nets. Start by taking things slow and building up new habits one step at a time — walk a few minutes each day, or order vegetables in place of french fries. He also lauds the benefits of having an “accountabilibuddy”: When motivation inevitably begins to plummet in February, give a wad of cash to a friend and instruct them to donate to a political cause you despise every time you miss a workout.

Still, one problem with New Year’s gym resolutions — and all big, life-changing goals, for that matter — is the tendency to declare victory before the battle even begins. The appeal of signing up for the gym on January 1, and posting about it on social media for the world to see, speaks to our desire to reinvent ourselves at a moment’s notice. Real progress, however, is often incremental.

Keeping abstract, long-term goals to yourself is a good idea, says Peter Gollwitzer, an NYU psychology professor and a leading authority on goal attainment and motivation, “because telling others about them may already give you a feeling of having moved forward, which in turn reduces your motivation to actually act.”

If motivation is a finite resource, the best use of it may not be to rush headlong toward the dumbbells, but to sit down and plan out a course of action — which can be as simple as packing a gym bag the night before or prepaying for personal training sessions. The difference between my ten-year merry-go-round of gym memberships and a workout regimen that actually sticks is more than just willpower.

Though David Napolitano started his membership at Planet Fitness in September — hoping to drop a few pant sizes before a wedding — in some ways January marks a fresh start for him, too. December was a “cheat month,” Napolitano jokes, but now he’s ready to travel from his apartment in Bed-Stuy to Ridgewood three times a week to get back on track. He’s devised a schedule with a trainer, works out with two close friends, and hopes to one day muscle through a set of pull-ups without any help. But perhaps most important, Napolitano used that month off to let go of the all-or-nothing perfectionism that can be poison to a new gym-goer.

“I’m usually a little down in the dumps when December rolls around, for various reasons, so I just kind of did what I felt would make me happy, and going to the gym didn’t happen to be it,” he explains. “Now, with the days getting shorter and everything, [exercising] actually helps me with my depression a little bit — both the endorphins of it, but also feeling like I’m accomplishing something.”

The other day, Napolitano accidentally put on the wrong pair of pants while getting dressed for work — a smaller waist size that he hadn’t been able to wiggle into for years. To his surprise, they fit.

“It was a tangible result from what I had been doing,” he says. Whether that small victory can propel Napolitano past February, or just lead to another “cheat month,” remains to be seen.