Lessons Learned at the Old Man Gym

Grotto illustration of two blue dumbbells stacked on one another.

I go to an Old Man Gym. The average age is around 60, and were it not for me at 28, that average could be higher. I go to a gym where heavy grunting could signal a heart attack. A gym where t-shirts are from charity 5k’s in 1993. A gym where glasses are lost and found atop one’s head. A gym where men fart on the elliptical without apology.

I go to an Old Man Gym, and it’s great.

At the Old Man Gym, there are no eyes watching me pick up a 20 pound dumbbell and struggle to hit a set of 10. There has never been a smirk or snicker as I get the hang of burpees. No one has ever passive-aggressively raced me on a treadmill. Because men this old don’t care. These are the sort of men who stand stark naked at the locker room sink and trim their nose hair. They have aged out of vanity—and I am trying to learn from them.

Growing up, the masculine ideal went from a reasonably athletic Hugh Jackman in the first X-Men movie to the mass of talking muscles that recently appeared in Logan. This sort of physique was never in the cards for me. As a kid, kickball captains shared darting glances over who would be stuck with me. I was scrawny and asthmatic and never an athlete. As my peers gleefully took up the title of Gym Rat, I dove in to Law & Order: SVU. I pushed exercise away as something other people did — buffer people, better people. Why try my hand at weights if only to fail?

Then I hit 25, realized that eating bad food makes you gain weight, and spent a week in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit’s waiting room while my father recovered from open heart surgery. I knew I had to try. 

I had just started a new job at a university and went to the large fitness center open to students and staff. The weight room was full of 19-year-old dudes in tank tops showing off for each other. The track was full of young women racing towards spring break weight. My pot-bellied self had all his fears of gyms confirmed within a week.

Which is why the Old Man Gym was such a blessing to discover. Reserved for staff and faculty, the space is nestled away where only the most dogged of retirees can find it. There’s limited equipment, and it smells like capers — but to me it’s home.

Surrounded by all the grey, I realized I’m not there to pick up a date and peacock about. I’m there to sweat and lift heavy objects because death awaits and best to give it the good fight!

There’s an old Italian man at the Old Man Gym named Mario. He’s pushing 80, and his locker is next to mine. He’s got pure white hair and tucks his undershirt into his underpants. He couldn’t be nicer. He asks about my work, asks about my family, teaches me a few words in Italian. Mario pedals at his own pace on the stationary bike while shaking his head at cable news. He’s there every day.

At the Old Man Gym, I have learned that exercise is about the long haul. That it’s okay when you look in the mirror and don’t see a body that’s ripped or shredded or jacked. It’s okay because you’re trying hard, you’re getting better, and the real goal is to be like Mario — still trucking in your seventies, kind to those around you, and thankful not to give a damn.

Grotto illustration of the Old Man Gym, including the overall aroma of capers, a TV where angry news yelling takes place, a motivational poster from 1992, a corner for inappropriate stretching, a bodybuilding arena, a white New Balance runway, a cardboard box full of lost glasses and discarded band-aids, and a nose hair trimming spa.

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