Beyond bodybuilding: What I learned from working out

Sophia Zhu ’19
Opinions Editor

Finals are an extremely busy time for every Smithie. Have you ever wondered, when looking at those who are wearing workout outfits, why running and making puddles of sweat can be so attractive for these unsettling souls that they decide to exert themselves even after being almost drained up by the enormous academic pressures? For me, the worst P.E. student in my high school and certainly a non-enthusiast of athletics, the chemicals that are supposed to lessen the stress and make one feel happy after workouts have never worked for me. Working out itself is never pleasing to me — just as many others may think, it means pain, exhaustion and even intermittent feeling of desperation. And yet, for this year, I have converted myself into a committed gym-goer.

Some people think that gym-goers aim to have a perfect body someday, which can sometimes be true. However, such a long-term goal is not enough to keep one dedicated to dull and exhausting workout routines. In fact, it’s similar to our attitude toward coursework. The dream of becoming a surgeon in the future, for example, is not enough to motivate you to go through all the drills in chemistry and biology from the basics to the very top — you cannot devote yourself to every single step leading up to that ultimate goal and feel happy and fulfilled during this process. But what I like about working out is the feeling of accomplishment after looking back at all the small steps — each training session, each group of repetitions and each movement itself — and remembering how difficult and insuperable it felt like at the beginning. Every enormous task can be divided into pieces and conquered, only if you never look too far ahead and stay focused on the present.

Today, pressures never end, and new challenges keep coming. Every gym hour is refreshing to me, because, unlike pressures in the real life, exertion in the gym and their effects are often concrete and tangible — even if you can’t sense the change in your body, you can really feel the progress in strength after recovering from exhaustion and muscle soreness, as this is simply how the body works. Although you may not see it as clearly in your “real” life, you do always recover from the setbacks, build up your mental strength, accumulate experiences and embrace the opportunity to start anew.

It is always difficult to adopt a new habit — even the word “habit” itself implies a long-term recurring commitment that a moment of whim cannot bring about. Going to the gym three times a week for a fixed amount of time is a promise I keep for myself and a benchmark for a self-assessment in a hardly linear life experience. Life involves too many sudden changes, and a habit — a place that you can go back to again and again — can become an anchor point that somehow gives me reassurance and comfort. Seeing the improvement in physical strength may just be a bonus that I am glad to savor.

I believe there are some implications in deliberately adding difficulties and discomfort as a price for learning and improvement. While I was working on a weight machine, I thought of a parallel to this repeated contraction and stretching of muscles in my college life. It is when people debated with each other, disagreed with my opinions and even offended me with sharply contrasting beliefs that I overcame the self-righteousness and gained new insights. Now I deem these moments of conflict to be truly conducive to my learning and intellectual growth. It is all too easy to take the freedom of speech to its face value and defy it whenever diverging opinions collide. It can be uneasy, and it can be hurtful, but this is what makes this academic environment valuable.

There are some important lessons that have to be taught outside of the classrooms, which make gyms integral to college, besides for trying to work off all the pasta. So try dividing up the formidable academic projects, building your own new habits and embracing conflicting views, and then you will feel confident when asked: “Why build yourself?”

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