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Going to the Gym During the Pandemic

January 17, 2021 | by Emuna Braverman

It's the small gestures that make such a difference.

While waiting for our house to be ready, we’ve been using the local gym – clad in appropriately modest attire and masks of course (allaying all readers’ concerns). Although exercising with a mask can be challenging (my husband suggests we’ll be prepared for high altitude running, not that I’m ever anticipating that need), we are grateful for the opportunity. And even though we don’t plan to continue once we are situated with our in-home equipment, we are struck by some elements of the experience that have nothing to do with the quality of the treadmill or the careful hygiene procedures.

Every day when we enter the gym they take our temperature (there are many people with COVID who don’t have fevers and I feel that it’s a little like making everyone take off their shoes at the airport but that’s a side point). Some of the employees do it very perfunctorily and mutter “fine” or something like that. Others take a totally different approach. With a big smile, they say “hello” and “you’re good to go”.

A similar scenario plays out when leaving. You have to checkout so they can watch the numbers – they’re only open at 25% capacity. When leaving, some of the employees just completely ignore us. There is nothing they need to do or say so that’s really fine. But others (the same ones who greet us so brightly) notice our going, smile again, and wish us a good day.

I don’t know their names or anything about their lives. I don’t expect to ever see them again once we actually move – but they change my whole experience at the gym. I go on the treadmill in a better mood (which is no small deal since I usually rely on the exercise itself to change my mood!) and I walk out into the parking lot in a better mood – not just buoyed by a good workout, but by the good wishes.

In our polarized and estranged world, these small actions can make all the difference.

It’s been said before but I think it can’t be said too often – what a difference a smile makes, a friendly greeting, a human connection – this is always true but even more so in our unconnected, isolated times.

It seems so small, so effortless – yet not all the employees do it. And not all of us do either.

I notice other small gestures that make a difference as well – those fellow exercise enthusiasts who hold the door open for me upon leaving or entering versus those who don’t, those who say good morning (at least that’s what it sounds like underneath the mask) versus those who don’t…you get the picture.

It’s the simple things that make us feel noticed, that make us feel part of a community (however loosely defined), that acknowledge our common humanity.

You may think I’m going a little overboard here – it’s only a smile or a greeting for heaven’s sake! But it really isn’t. And in appreciating them, I’m forced to turn the magnifying glass a little inward. I’m forced to confront myself and ask if I’m smiling and saying hello or just turning away. Do I look at strangers as irrelevant to my life or as fellow travelers? In our polarized and estranged world, these small actions can make all the difference.

It’s so hard to read emotions behind the mask. It’s part of what makes communication so difficult these days. But you can see a smile. You can tell by the way a person’s whole face lights up, by the way the muscles move, by the way their eyes light up. You can just tell.

So I’m appreciating everyone who smiles at me these days (and all days) – whether at the gym or in the grocery store, at the doctor’s office or the pharmacy (that’s the extent of my outings) and I’m doing my best to smile back. It won’t change everything but I think it’s a good start.


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