The gym helped me cope. Now that I need it more than ever, it’s gone.

It might seem small, but losing our usual coping mechanisms is just another strain during a pandemic

Miss the gym
What happens when you lose your coping mechanism during a pandemic?

Photograph by John Fedele/Getty Images

I cried twice in one day during the first week of the pandemic lockdown. It wasn’t really because of the fear, or the uncertainty, or the endless onslaught of bad news and even worse decision-making. In that moment, it wasn’t really because I was worried about my family or my finances. I twice sobbed, alone in my home office, because I could not go to the gym.

Reading that—how does it make you feel? Does it make you think: Get a grip. You miss the gym? People are dying. Lift what’s left of the milk. Kick a roll of toilet paper. Power walk. Pick from a list of online workouts and Instagram stories, posted by preternaturally fit influencers and coaches and celebrities in their tricked-out home gyms, and let their energy motivate or shame you. Stop being so selfish and vain. 

Or maybe my first paragraph made you feel something different. Maybe you thought: I get it.

For a lot of us, working out isn’t something we say we should do, or plan to do some day. It’s not a bright, shiny thing we pick up and put down. We would never buy a gym membership and then not show up. We would never say, “I need to get back to working out,” because we do not stop. This doesn’t make us superior. On the contrary—some of us are chained to our routines, scared that if we stop any part of them or cut back to gentle yoga on Zoom, we will lose all of our muscle gains and take on more fat, and we simply cannot handle that.

Others of us use fitness in a healthier way. Maybe we use it to manage our mental health, like we do with medication and therapy. Maybe we like being able to lift heavy things. Maybe it just feels good to connect with a community of people who truly care, whose eyes don’t gloss over when we talk getting our first strict pull-up or surviving a punishing set of sprints.

I use fitness to cope, and there is so much to cope with now, but I can’t go to the gym. Run, you say. Running is something I’ve done every week for the last 35 years primarily because I have felt required to—to condition for lacrosse or field hockey or a triathlon or a 5-1/2-hour obstacle race—or because it simply seemed like the clearest course to cardiovascular fitness. I have never felt a runner’s high, only experiencing elation when a run or a race was over. During the last couple of years I have permitted myself to run less frequently, often with a friend so that we could chat, away from our families.

At the start of the pandemic, running didn’t distract me from what was happening in the world. But I went anyway, hyper-aware of every step, crossing the street again and again to get away from other people, scared of how far their droplets might travel.

I was told the 20-pound dumbbells I ordered in March wouldn’t arrive until May. Influencers chirped at me through social media to Go in the front yard and lift rocks! Do dips on patio furniture! Watch a video! I heard: Get ready to feel defeated when the connection is lousy, or the workout calls for equipment you don’t have or can’t afford! The exercises won’t be challenging enough, and the kids are screaming! They need help with their schoolwork! You’re losing muscle by the minute!

The inspirational messages, the ones telling me to eat that doughnut because it’s the end of the world, did not make me feel better. I ate the doughnut, and I felt worse. I had anger and resentment and frustration to burn off, and my usual outlet for that was not available. The blistering-hot yoga class I took every Friday? It helped me take my mind off negative messages. With the studio shuttered, I was required to face some of my worst thoughts—the world is in trouble, your family is in danger, you might get fired, there is no end to this in sight—without my most reliable coping tool at my disposal.

But I didn’t give up. I couldn’t. It would go against every commandment in the gym-rat religion, and I am a congregant, for better or worse. So I signed up for virtual classes at MADabolic, the Training Room, Blaze Fitness, and a random studio in New Jersey. I started using a skateboard as an ab-roller. I ran outside, listening to Jessica Simpson’s memoir as a way to pass the miles. I paid celebrity trainer Shaun T to scream at me to jump higher and squat deeper during BeachBody workouts. I did push-up and handstand challenges. I duct-taped bricks together and lifted that. And, slowly, I began to shift from anger and sadness to some acceptance.

I still cry, and sometimes it’s about the gym, but more often it’s about the things the gym would have distracted me from and helped me cope with. Then, I wash my hands, lace up my sneakers, and get moving again.