Letter to...

My Heroes: The Old People at the Gym

Once I was like the skinny kid in the Charles Atlas ad, but now I look to you guys for inspiration

Dear Old People at the Gym,

I love you. Seeing you every morning, going about your easy workouts makes me feel good about my own pathetic little exercise routine.

I mean it: When I see you moving in slow motion on the elliptical machine, I don't feel so bad that I'm walking on the treadmill instead of running. I know you guys are older than me. I just turned 50 and most of you must be in your 70s. Except for you, Preppy, who must be in your 80s.

I call you Preppy because you work out in preppy clothes—colorful polo shirts, cargo shorts, dark dress socks and real leather shoes instead of sneakers. Today you wore a pair of long seersucker pants. Only you can pull that off, my man.

You make me feel good about the miserable, mismatched workout outfit I bought from the discount rack at Walmart. And every day you're there, sitting on one of the bench press machines dressed like it's casual Friday at the office. I so want to be you when I grow up.

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And you, Red Madam. I call you Red Madam because you have bright auburn hair. It's always a hot mess, sticking up from your head like a static red flame. You don't seem to care and I love that. You deserve not to care. You walk from workout machine to workout machine with your back straight and a thin towel around your neck like it's a scarf. You look so elegant. Are you French?

Dear, dear old people—you rule this gym. You're always there in the mornings when I arrive after dropping my kids off at school. And you're there when I leave after my wimpy 45-minute workout.

You don't know me. I'm the guy in the back walking on the treadmill. I spend half an hour hating every second of my walk. I crank up my iPod and jam to Led Zep and The Clash and wish for it to be over. I see all of you mingle and laugh and exercise and take drinks from your supercool water bottles, and I think: Good for you. You're enjoying your workout.

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I, however, am not.

It wasn't always like this. When I was young, I was a skinny, self-conscious teen, just like Mac—you know, the skinny kid in the ad for the Charles Atlas free workout book in the back of the comics. Remember? He's the guy who gets sand kicked in his face and loses the girl, then gets the workout book, buffs up and returns to kick the other guy's ass? That was me, except I never buffed up like Mac—I stayed skinny.

I'm not trying to buff up now. I'm so past that. I work out for my heart, to keep a little weight off and keep my muscles toned. In the end, I'm glad I never acquired big muscles because when you get older, they turn to fat if you're not working out. And that constant pain in my lower back? And that aching knee? I also work out for that.

Of course, you guys know about all of this stuff. I know I'm younger than most of you, but I appreciate being a part of our little posse at the gym. We are who we are and don't care what others think about us and our mild workout routines.

Or for that matter, anything. Maybe that's why we drive the way we drive, why we take our time and ask the server at the cafeteria how their day went and flirt with the young cashier at the supermarket. Maybe that's why we like eating dinner at 5 p.m.

Being older is like having a license to do as you please without inhibitions. I may not be there yet, but I'm happy to have my learner's permit.

Tags: fitness