Life & Culture

Daniel Sugarman: Why I'm not like Aly

Our new columnist considers going to the gym, and decides against


In my experience, there are two types of people who exercise; those who genuinely enjoy it and those who see it as a necessary evil.

You don’t necessarily stay in one category permanently. A decade or so ago, I went off to yeshiva in Israel and took up jogging (we all do things we regret in our teens, after all).

Late every night, in Jerusalem’s remotest suburb where the yeshiva was based (green line? What green line?) I would exchange my black suit for a track-suit and run circuits around winding streets built into the Judean hills.

At first it was tortuous, but then, bizarrely, I began to enjoy it. This was partly, I suspect, because the time of night — after 10.30 — meant the streets were pretty empty and, as I was sharing a dorm room with four others, this was my one chance each day to be alone.

Sadly, that enjoyment did not last and, by the time I went off to university a couple of years later, I fell squarely into the latter, exercise-as-necessary-evil category. The subsequent years followed a narrative that I suspect will be familiar to many readers. Broken resolutions, bandwagons hopped on and off, renewed determination followed by bouts of ennui.

My grandmother, may she rest in peace, did not make this easier. I once remember having lunch with her in a restaurant in Golders Green when she told me she was concerned I was putting on weight.

“Bubbeleh, you’ve got quite big”, she said. “I’m worried, because I want you to be able to find somebody nice, so that I can see my great-grandchildren.”

I promised my grandmother that I would consider her words carefully. Ten minutes later, she turned to me and said “do you want another burger?”

I’m in a very different situation these days, however. Last year, I lost a great deal of weight (I am fine, thank God). But whereas before I was unquestionably fat, I am now thin. I know this because when I saw a dietician last week I was told to try not to lose any more weight, which is dieticianese for “you’re pretty skinny”.

At the same time, though, I feel like I should be exercising —because it’s healthy to exercise. But — and I acknowledge that some people may feel like I’m complaining about my diamond shoes being too tight —it turns out that as someone who is now thin, I feel even less incentivised to exercise than I used to. After all, a year ago at least I could say “I need to lose weight, and exercising will help with that.” Now I don’t have that issue to guilt-trip me into getting on a running machine.

Gyms make me nervous. Maybe it’s the overpowering scent of sweat and human despair. Maybe it’s the soulless nature of running or rowing or cycling for miles, yet never actually moving from one spot.

Or maybe it’s the fact that most gyms seem to operate a membership cancellation process inspired by the Eagles’ Hotel California : “You can check out, but you can never leave…”

Doing exercise outside — going for a gentle jog, even — just hasn’t seemed wise. First there were wet leaves carpeting the pavements; a clear slip-hazard. Then when the leaves disappeared, the frost began — even more dangerous.

Exercise can occasionally be nice, you think to yourself. But why take the risk? You know what’s always nice though? Snuggling under a blanket at home with some hot chocolate.

It would be tempting at this point to put in some sort of joke along the lines of how our ancestors took 40 years to make a journey through the wilderness, which could have taken them four days. About how we Jews just aren’t very athletic.

The problem is that it isn’t true. Just consider Jewish athletes like Mark Spitz, whose record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics lasted for 36 years, or Aly Raisman (pictured above), who actually won one of her Olympic gold medals performing part of her gymnastics routine to the tune of Hava Negilah. It is time to put that tired old stereotype out to pasture.

So I imagine that, some time in the next few weeks, with some minor groaning on my part, I’ll be putting on a track-suit again and subjecting myself to some form of cardio. It’s all for a worthwhile cause, after all — my continued good health.

The hot chocolate will just have to wait.

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