Can We Outrun Our Winter Dread?

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

“Hot Bod” is an exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

The first evening that dropped to an unoppressive 71 degrees, maybe four weeks ago, I set up camp on my front stoop for the first time in months, with my sunset gin to drink and a gay smut memoir to semi-read. Just before dark, a guy seemingly my age, but in business pants, tromped by on a noisy phone call. “This winter,” he said, “the one thing, the one thing I know is: I gotta start working out.” We made eye contact right then in full, fleeting intimacy of stranger recognition. Our eyes said, This sentiment is universally held! And also: Sir, how did you know that this is the problem that animates many of my professional concerns?

My stranger-neighbor seemed to summarize the distressing winter problem of being stuck inside our bodies, while our bodies are stuck inside our houses, with not a single party really thrilled about that. It was his early declaration of winter that really resonated, because it’s the height of gorgeous fall! Still, the despair approaches. Another interminable, cooped-up phase of restlessness and loneliness, all hopped up on frustration, but somehow lethargic? Stuck inside, it’s a face-off with all your possessions, begging for attention: the magazine stack that should really be thinned down, the barely used fitness contraption in the corner that feels both impossible to ignore and impossible to use. It doesn’t sound fun! But it’s possible, as always, to take a new stance against our impending dread and attempt to outrun our winter angst with interventions.

Almost everyone I’ve spoken to, socially and professionally, reports falling short in some way from their vision of their fitness life in the past year: digital subscriptions vehemently avoided; comfort with in-person classes sorrowfully delayed; many pairs of new leggings, never worn. Last year, a chic and exuberant book-editor friend (and self-described “plans queen”) followed her usual instincts and made a rigorous schedule of live workouts with some of her favorite instructors from every fitness boutique she’d ever loved. But the digital classes bored her. “Did I like the physical motion of boxing? Turns out, no, it’s stupid. What I liked was the whole atmosphere; I liked being around strong and motivated people.” While 20 strong, motivated people aren’t in most of our apartments, atmospheres can be replicated. This winter, she will try the classes again, but before each workout, she’ll go full fog-and-mirrors and make her bedroom resemble an immoderate fitness studio: She’s bought a big mirror to stand in front of, and she’s going to use her portable speaker, “no headphones, pray for the neighbors.” She bought candles and rave-ready color-changing light bulbs. “I didn’t do any of this setup before, because I thought that would take time from my workout,” she says. “But, first, I would have been commuting anyway. Second, whatever!”

We’ve learned what we can expect of ourselves, which could give insight to new tricks. One of my friends, who owns an underused stationary bike, had a recent revelation. She told me over the phone, wrangling her chatty toddler in the background, “This winter, there will be no shower without a workout beforehand.” She and I have previously commiserated over the myth of the 30-minute at-home workout. You’ve got to find a sports bra, clear the floor — somehow that’s never less than 15 minutes — then after, you need to shower and then you’re so hungry you have to make a feast; it’s somehow a two-hour endeavor total. For the time-strapped, this is a hard sell. But her new requirement has a two-birds-one-stone irresistible efficiency.

Rejecting premises and hating things has always been a great opportunity to figure out what we need. Another friend, who famously hates working out, texted me a couple times last year for suggestions for digital fitness classes, “so I don’t atrophy.” Did any of them work for her? They absolutely did not: “It was all these people telling me what to do.” Fair point! Plus, “They played Mumford & Sons. I panicked.” This winter, she’s resolved to work out, no instruction. She’s going to make a playlist (she’s a musician, if you haven’t guessed) and just move for the whole thing. She doesn’t know what it will be: wiggling, stretching, dancing, a push-up or two. But there will be no one telling her what to do, no Mumford, or his sons.

Even if we already know what we like, there’s nothing that induces indifference like being stuck with something. I love my classes, I love being told what to do, but I feel a strong premonition that I’m going to be frustrated really soon. To outpace my ennui this year, I impulsively borrowed a rowing machine for a couple months. I don’t know what that will be like, but the novelty alone sounds good enough! I knew that I needed a project, and figuring out how to row seems like just the project for me. I’m hoping its very impermanence will imbue a sense of momentousness that will leave me forever changed. Like studying abroad!

And when the machine goes away, I want to spend the rest of the winter tromping very quickly around parks and nearby woods, like an elk. I really do enjoy my inside workouts, and even rhapsodize about them, but they distinctly don’t go anywhere. Come to think of it, the rowing machine — while it promises to be a distracting escape from my usual aerobics on a screen — is yet another symbol of stuckness. Even though it will be cold and I’ll be grouchy, the escape I need might be more literal: getting out of the house and actually stomping toward something.

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