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Gym culture

I spend a fair bit of my week at the gym, roughly equivalent to my college contact hours. Like a particular music scene or age group, gyms have their own values and etiquette. My experience is of classes (rather personal training or working out solo) at the Brunswick City Baths: Body Attack, Body Pump, RPM, freestyle aerobics, freestyle step and Pilates.

Proximity to the fan; whether you can see in the mirror; which side of the room you’re on; the texture of the floor; the tension of a bike: some of these things might sound petty, but when you’re pushing your body, even the little things can matter. So let’s dive in. 

Gym Etiquette

Far more developed than just wiping the sweat off your bike after RPM or when you put your weights away in Body Pump, is the question of choosing your ‘spot’. Some people have a designated ‘spot’ or ‘bike’, an unspoken reservation that everyone knows, (except the new people, of course.) It’s considered quite impolite to take someone’s place. This week I was late to one class and my normal spot was still there when I arrived. It turns out, the class had had a discussion and decided to leave it for me because they were sure I’d be on my way!

The flip side of that is that if you are the person for whom that spot is normally reserved and someone is in it, you don’t point out that it’s your spot. Ever. I saw someone do this once – everyone bitched about her for weeks afterward. Instead, you just make sure you’re there earlier the next week to mark it as your place (by a towel or a water bottle).

Getting to know people

In Pilates this week, we had some partner work where you had to hold the other person’s bare feet. That’s quite personal but so are lots of activities in class – sweating, grunting, sticking your bum out, running toward or alongside others. And we do all these things in closer physical space than is normally polite. That’s sort of awkward but it can also be fun and kind of bonding.

Of course, we do it all in pretty tight clothing. Everyone can see every bump, lump and jiggle. And they’re all looking, however surreptitiously. I know, because they’re often willing to comment too, and not just on the positives. When Red Twin turned up, a number of people pointed out to me that she was significantly skinnier than me.

Even though you’re in close quarters with people and doing things that are quite intimate, the opportunities to talk and get to know people are limited. Going out for coffee afterwards isn’t an attractive option when you’re red in the face and covered with sweat so most conversations are small talk snatched 5 mins before the class.

The casual nature of those conversations makes it hard to know people’s names and even if you do get that far, last names are very rare. That makes becoming Facebook friends (or stalking!) much harder which in turn makes taking friendships away from the gym space harder as well. So you make up names for people in your head: tutu lady; girl with the awesome ‘high knees’; the social butterfly, etc.

Weight vs. Fitness

Our society equates eating and exercise: calories in, calories out. At the end of each class, one of my RPM instructors tells us to look at the calorie count on the bike display to see how many calories we’re allowed to have for lunch. Others talk about coming to the gym to work off the weekend’s indulgences. When Red Twin started coming, those same people who pointed out that she was skinnier than me also commented that she must work so much harder than me in class. It’s like a new measure of holiness, one that speaks of self-discipline and dedication.

But there’s another philosophy as well, one that sees working out as about fitness, holistic living, strength and energy. It’s a health based approach rather than an appearance based approach and one that recognizes that a skinny (or muscly) body doesn’t necessarily equate with a healthy mind. I think this approach is more motivating and encouraging over the long term but there’s something of a tension between these two philosophies at the gym. You can often see it by how the instructors talk about the class: is it fun or serious?

Ethical Issues

There’s a girl at my gym who has that really awful anorexic look about her – toothpick arms, bow legs, very little muscle, super skinny. Another friend voiced to me what I’d been wondering for ages: Should someone say something to her? If not one of us, does the instructor have an ethical obligation to tell her not to work out? Of course, you never know, she might already been dealing with it – exercise often is part of recovery for those with eating disorders. And I certainly don’t want to intrude or be a busybody. But she’s also a fellow human being and I hope that someone, sometime in her life has said something to her.

Those are my observations thus far. Do you do gym classes? What have you noticed?

Categories: Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. Oooh, this is really helpful! I’m always one of those “new people”, as I only attend classes when my other exercise options won’t work, and always at whatever localish gym has the best time for me that day. I imagine the regulars must hate it (but then again, if they hate it that much they could always go to a members-only gym instead), and I recognise that I am completely clueless about the etiquette. I didn’t even know “spots” was a normal thing. So, thank you!

    The thing that’s tricky is that all the other people look the same – it’s actually hard to tell who is regular and who’s as confused as I am… and who is peeved they’ve just lost their usual spot. Do people just get over annoying newcomers?

    On the ethics thing,
    I went to a class once with a painfully skinny girl (it was body pump) whose knees seemed like the widest part of her whole leg… but then the instructor got up to teach and she was almost as skinny! I felt a bit uncomfortable about that as well, especially in terms of what they’re modelling (but who knows? maybe it’s a health condition and they really can’t help it?)…

  2. I wouldn’t worry about the spots Amanda. I think people are patient with new / irregular visitors. It’s part of the etiquette!

    And I hear you on the scary-skinny instructors..

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