A new narrative about “beautiful people”: A Psychologist receives unexpected mental health benefits from the gym

I am writing this in January of 2023 and this is the time of year that everyone makes a commitment to go to the gym.  Countless health journalists write about the benefits of exercise as they document their battles with sweat and music.

I thought I would write about a different positive aspect of going to the gym.  While many of us acknowledge that there are mental health benefits of exercise itself, I believe that there is  another beneficial psychological aspect that I have gleaned from working out at the gym.To best explain, I have to tell you a little bit more about me and my nerdy history.

While I have relatively decent self esteem today, that hasn’t always been the case.  In fact, I have been a real ‘nerd’ since I was very young.  While other kids were listening to rock music, I preferred classical.  I received top grades.  I never partied and I followed all of the rules until I hit college.  I  suffered through some teasing and bullying in junior high and high school.  Like a lot of kids who have been bullied, I developed a defensive identity that went something like this: ‘I am better than my bullies because I am smarter and kinder than they are’.  I have met a lot of people who utilize this defensive technique:  To cope with being victimized, they judge their perpetrators as inferior. I must admit I also utilized this defense.

As a result, I started seeing the ‘popular kids’ and the ‘beautiful kids’ as less intelligent than I.  If they judged me, I judged them right back.  Other things I told myself about them were that they were shallow and unkind.  As I matured, I quit thinking in such a black and white way.  But the groups I was part of also espoused some of these stereotypes.   Mocking muscle men would have been something that was acceptable among my peers.   In other words, I didn’t get challenged very much because my friends and colleagues had similar backgrounds to me.

Fast forward to middle aged me.  Logically, I know these stereotypes cannot be valid but I have never really associated with people who would actively challenge them.  Then I found the gym.  I have been on a constant training schedule since July of last year.  I find myself surrounded by athletic men who sport muscles on top of other muscles.  Some of my teenage thoughts have re-entered my brain such as : ‘they must be shallow and unkind’.  When I see them looking in the mirror, I assumed they were vain (rather than that they were checking their form).  As a development exercise, I started forcing myself to say ‘hi’ to some of the larger men.  Teenage me would have been afraid of them, but middle aged me pushed through it.  I found my automatic thoughts started changing!  Oddly, they often say ‘hi’ back and now a lot of them greet me when I enter and smile at me!  I hope we eventually become ‘gym friends’. In sum, the gym has been good for me for health reasons and also for stress.  But the freedom I have gotten from breaking out of past narratives has been one of the most important benefits I have gleaned.  Thank you beautiful people for teaching this nerd a lesson.