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This Is Why I Enjoy Going to the Gym (It’s Not for the Reason You’d Expect)

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I am climbing aboard the stationary bike at the gym one recent morning when I hear a burst of an aria soar through the air. A resonant male baritone emerges from the cacophonic hum of treadmill pounding, sporadic chatter, and piped-in background beat music. I don’t have to look up to know who’s singing.

Saul, a retired doctor who loves opera, walks on the treadmill while singing in Italian with a favorite diva, who serenades him via noise-cancelling headphones.

“I can’t help it,” says the ebullient octogenarian when I tell him later that I enjoyed his impromptu concert. “The spirit moved me.”

I get it, though admittedly not everyone appreciates an operatic assault on their nerves when they are trying to listen to their own music, read a book, watch the news, or just daydream during their morning workout.

One woman, jogging on a treadmill a few feet away, shook her head in frustration and plaintively asked Saul to, “Please quiet down!” But his headphones prevented him from hearing her. He stopped after a few minutes anyway.

Well past 80, Saul retains a thick mane of white hair and a sharp mind, but his legs and arms are thin and weakening and his gait is more of a shuffle than the purposeful stride I am certain he had not too long ago.

None can escape the inexorable effects of age, and while there are 20- and 30-somethings, young parents, and middle-agers, many at my Jewish Community Center gym in North Bethesda are fighting a steeper decline curve. I was moved one day when I noticed a cryptic message on a bulletin board outside the weight room.

“Racquetball player, 80-plus, seeking partner. Skills diminishing.”

Saul is not the oldest member of the gym by a long shot. That distinction goes to a small, fit, handsome man who is on the way to his 101st birthday. A Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia, this man rows, lift weights, and walks on the treadmill. He is a quiet inspiration not just to the rest of the silver-haired exercisers but to the teenagers, young parents, and others, like me, who are on the brink of middle age.

In the 10 years since I joined, in addition to the regular workouts, Jacuzzi soaks when my muscles needed them, swims in the Olympic-size pool, and detoxifying shvitzes, I have benefited in myriad unexpected ways.

People who have sweated beside me have dispensed college application advice, financial consulting, a contact for a house swap when I wanted to take my family abroad for a month, excellent book recommendations, a fabulous mocha mousse recipe, and parenting advice from several experienced sources.

There are many reasons to join a gym: lose weight, get fit, or find a place to wear neon spandex tank tops, to name a few. But when the thrill is gone and the spandex sags, what keeps a person coming back? Let’s face it, vanity and healthful living just aren’t that persuasive when up against a warm, cozy bed at the crack of dawn or after putting in long hours at work.

My own personal gym experience leads me to believe that most people who maintain the gym ritual for years on end do so for the intangible benefits: camaraderie, the comfort of a familiar routine, or, like the old song on “Cheers” goes, somewhere “where everybody knows your name.”

The smelly truth is, the gym is that rare gathering place where people of all ages show up on a regular basis. That sense of belonging is a rare commodity in our work-crazed, spread-out lives.

Sometimes my gym operates like a neighborhood listserv, only the format is real life. The people at my gym come in all shapes and sizes and of ages ranging from teen to elderly. It is neither ageist nor a place where only the perfectly fit come to preen together, but a rare oasis where several generations connect on neutral territory.

I enjoy bantering and sharing with other parents my age, but I feel especially fortunate to have had the opportunity to befriend a few members who are older. I moved to Washington as an adult so the only local family I have are my husband and children and my sister.

My spirits lift when I espy my friend Joyce reading her Kindle at the elliptical because I know she will soon fill me on her recent travels with her husband or share a book or restaurant recommendation, recipe, parenting, or mother-in-law advice.

She’s a grandmother several times over and my youngest is 13. The joking banter between her and her husband, who always comes to the gym with her, and her close relationship with her children and grandchildren, show me that the fun really will go on after I send my eldest to college next fall.

At the end of my workout, I pass by Saul in the weights room and he offers me a go at his earphones. For a few minutes I am transported by cascades of pure musical joy, my ears deaf to the buzz of talk, my eyes closed to the fluorescent lights and moving bodies, my barbells resting idly at my feet.

“The rest of the opera is a bit of a bore, but this aria is magnificent,” he says, taking back his Bose’s and shuffling off with a smile and a salute.

“What’s the name of that opera again?” I ask.

He repeats it and promises to write it down and bring it for me next time.

“The dullest pencil is better than the sharpest memory,” he reassures me with one from his seemingly inexhaustible supply of apt aphorisms. “Don’t let the perfect spoil the good,” is one of my favorites. Saul taught it to me.


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