by Alison Van Doren, PT, DPT
Here’s the story of how I got (more) comfortable in a gym:
You might think that a physical therapist would be inherently enthusiastic about exercise. To the contrary, I spent most of my life trying to pretend that I didn’t have a body. From childhood, I was told that my body was “attacking itself” - the explanation doctors gave for symptoms which were considered autoimmune. From middle school, I had back pain that I assumed was just a “normal” part of life. I had struggles with food and body image. I didn’t believe I was or could be “good" at sports, so I spent most of PE in the outfield and avoided participating as much as possible.
For those of us who are queer, trans, female-assigned, or neurodivergent, gyms are often not friendly places. The vibe is intimidating, the sensory experience is overwhelming. How can we be embodied in such alienating environments? Are these safe places for our selves, our bodies.
The gym was a place I went a few times with friends, playing with a couple less intimidating machines. My preferred types of physical activity were swimming, dancing, bike riding, and yoga - activities where you’re mostly hidden, it’s dark, or people have their eyes closed. Really, things I could do with friends that felt joyful. I started practicing Muay Thai and found that, for me, martial arts was fighting myself as much as fighting other people. I fought with the voices in me that said I couldn’t do it, that I should be embarrassed, that I should quit.
As I neared the end of PT school, I realized that I needed to get familiar with a gym. If a client came to me with a bench press injury, I needed to know what the movement was, what muscle groups were involved, what the form should look like, and where it could go wrong. So I tagged along with a classmate a couple times, then I took the plunge. My buddy in the year below me lifted weights every morning. I committed to join him four days a week at 6am, before my clinical day started. I’m not a morning person, and I’d never been interested in weight lifting - who was I?
I slowly got familiar with the machines, got the forms down, and started lifting heavier weights. I dissociated less; I felt less embarrassed, and became grateful for what my body could do. I felt stronger and more capable of helping patients in my hospital-based clinical get out of bed safely. I never could have done this without my buddy’s support.
Someday I hope to see myself and my body as integrated life partners. I’m not there yet, but I’m closer than I have been. I know it’s often painful and alarming to be present in these things called bodies. Our society has so many harmful tropes about bodies - what they should be, what they should do, how they should look, that there’s such a thing as “normal.”
For those of us who don’t come to it naturally: it’s okay to take space in gyms, to experiment and find something closer to comfort. It takes support. I am so grateful for the people who have supported me, and every day I do my best to pass that on to my friends, my loved ones, and my clients.