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  • Nathanael Littauer, CSCS

"What are you running from?"

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to meet and talk with a lot of different people in the gym. Whether it was the general gym goers, or the hardcore intense lifters, I always enjoy these conversations because you learn more and more about the individual and what makes people tick.

But over the years, and also as an admission of my own, I've noticed there seems to be a trend in the fitness industry that perhaps may be an alarming thing. There seems to be a dark shadow looming around the corner with the gym obsessed or the just the average powerlifter, weightlifter, or CrossFitter. The coaches out there probably know which one I'm talking about. The one who shows up everyday, often early, and doesn't ever seem to want to take rest days. They do extra work, and hang around the gym long before and long after their training is done.


I've talked about my own mental health issues in the past, but as I learned to deal with and understand what was going on in my head, it exposed something I see as a potentially alarming trend. And one of those things is what 2020 may have exposed for many of the lifters who really struggled with the closure of gyms. Most of these hardcore-average-joes or weekend warriors may not be chasing some goal, but running from something inside that seems to only be blocked out by gym walls.


A young lifter, who heard me listening to a very sad and slow song while squatting (as part of my experiment of using music as a psychological trigger) came up after and asked,

"Who hurt you?"

To Which I replied,

"Me."

Now, I said this haphazardly, but it was something I started to realize about the average lifter. They are often running from something rather to something. Perhaps it is depression. Perhaps (especially for the younger ones) it is a bad home life. Perhaps it's loneliness. And perhaps it's the existential crisis and the reality that not being in the gym means they have to acknowledge who they are as a person, and to know oneself becomes the scariest task of all.


But why? Why do these people come to the gym and slave away? Why do they not want to go home? Perhaps this quote from Viktor Frankl (whom I quote a lot and will continue to do so) explains something about the psyche that points to what is truly going on"


"The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Now we can understand Schopenhauer when he said that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between two extremes of boredom. In actual fact, boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress. And these problems are growing increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase to the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time."


What Frankl states insinuates that perhaps we are trying to find ways of eliminating boredom in our world of ease, and we seek the gym for the fact that it replaces the deep drive within to put forth effort and to struggle. And we (including myself in this because I cannot have guilt excluded from me here) seek to avoid facing the reality of who we are, and therefore must fill our time.


Now, there is some dignity in wanting to put forth physical work, and it may be a good idea for those with poor home lives, or who struggle with certain life circumstances to be at the gym (especially youth). But at some point, we need to understand that the body has its limits, and the most dangerous thing we can do is to get hurt. Getting hurt due to a lack of recovery runs the risk of having the existential vacuum turned on us all at once, instead of handling it in small doses.


We see this with the increase in depression rates due to lockdowns brought on by COVID in 2020, which in a meta-analysis of varying research, saw depression rates at nearly 25% in the population. But why? Perhaps it is the lack of community brought on by isolating oneself to stop the spread of disease, and perhaps it is due to the major lack of boredom brought about in the process? Perhaps it is both, and maybe it points to something we need to be concerned with.


When we look at training, we need to look at how we take rest days. We need to have rest days, because the body needs to recover. We need to have days were we are not in the gym. On those days, however, we need to have a strategy for two things:

1) Eliminating boredom and keeping ourselves active (or active recovery)

2) Handling any inner turmoil that not being in the gym brings

These are easier said than done, because it is infinitely easier to not have a plan, but it is necessary in order keep our sanity and to face life head on. It may mean making plans to go hiking or just get outside. It may mean keeping a journal nearby if staying in and writing out your thoughts when those weird ones arise. And it may mean purposefully scheduling that Netflix binge.


All of this is encapsulated in our training. Especially for those "addicts" who are at the gym non-stop, we need to find a way to help your body heal and find a way to know the demons you're using the gym to run from. There is obviously a lot of effort and intention needed to solve this problem, but the first step in fixing any problem is acknowledging one exists in the first place.

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