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Commentary: When gyms finally reopen, can we get rid of toxic gym culture?

Many of us miss the gym, but let’s not bring back an obsessive culture of aspiring towards an ideal fitness lifestyle. By being kinder to our bodies, we take care of our mental health too.

Commentary: When gyms finally reopen, can we get rid of toxic gym culture?

Signs placed over gym equipment at TFX gym at Funan on Apr 27, 2020. (Photo: TODAY/ Raj Nadarajan)

SINGAPORE: I love going to the gym as much as the next normal person — which is to say, I couldn’t think of a worse punishment. 

But I willingly put myself through the torture. 

It started in my mid-twenties when I hauled myself to the gym regularly. From monthly packages at high-intensity interval training gyms to occasional classes at boutique boxing gyms, I happily left home before dawn to pump myself with enough endorphins before tackling my to-do list at work. 

There was nothing that motivated me like getting sweaty in the company of others who found equal pleasure in suffering together — and the collective guilt of having already forked out an exorbitant amount for a membership.

Never mind that chaining myself to machines in a pungent space with perspiring strangers felt disturbingly dystopian, especially since I’d head straight to another slavish factory to do work on another machine after my hour-long gym session to earn enough money so I could persist with this routine relentlessly each week

Along with the simultaneous proliferation of gyms, yoga studios, indoor cycling studios and other similar fitness centres, I was officially sucked into the cult of fitness. 

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Thanks to COVID-19, the circuit breaker has put a dampener on my gym regime for the near future. 

Singapore aims to allow retail, dining-in and fitness facilities to resume business under plans to lift more restrictions in Phase 2. That could come as early as end-June but it’s hard to see how gyms will resume business as usual after the circuit breaker lifts, since customers share the same equipment in small places. 

Frankly, I’m in no rush to return.

(Photo: Unsplash/rawpixel)


Much has been said about how the pandemic has exposed certain structural issues and problems stewing beneath the facade of our pristine national image, from the lack of digital literacy in lower-income households to poor living conditions for migrant workers.

Similarly, on an individual level, the sudden absence of gyms and fitness studios, coupled with the security of distance and the power of 20/20 hindsight, have got me thinking about the more insidious reasons I was previously addicted to religiously patronising them. 

While I did strive to be healthy, I also bought into the glamorised gym culture that focused on a specific ideal of wellness — one that probably placed more value on looking good than inner well-being. 

Like many gym goers I suspect, I would visit the gym partly because I was committed to “self-optimisation”. I wanted to perfect the ultimate “fitspo” lifestyle and become the proverbial woman who “has it all”.

I would blame peer pressure. After all, I felt accountable to those crossfit classmates who would surely notice if I didn’t turn up every week.

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But a lot of the tension was from within. I’d already sunk a huge sum of money on that annual gym membership, surely I couldn’t let that go to waste? Worse still, I wouldn’t want to send the message that I don’t take my health seriously. 

And it wasn’t enough that I led a healthy lifestyle, I had to look the part. I was excessively self-conscious about displaying flawless form in the gym, in case other seasoned gym goers were watching. 

Outside the gym, I would plan my meals so stringent that counting calories became second nature. When I looked at my medium-rare ribeye, all I could see were the kilometres I had to run off. Whenever I indulged in fast food, I would castigate myself and swear to work doubly hard the next day as penance.

Convinced this obsessive practice was only making me fitter, leaner, toner, and ultimately the much better person I aspired to be, I continued hacking away like a maniacal energizer bunny.

But being away from the gym for several months due to COVID-19 helped me realise the performative aspects of gym culture don’t exist in a vacuum.

Trainer Wang Kai teaches a class that is being livestreamed at a gym, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China, on Feb 14, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

They’re buttressed by our broader culture of hustle porn and hyperproductivity, where our sense of self-worth is attached to our tangible output.

Workism in American society, according to The Atlantic, is “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose”. Along the same vein, presenteeism in the Singaporean workplace regards employees working till 11pm as hardworking models worth emulating.

READ: Commentary: Hello COVID-19 remote working, goodbye cult of presenteeism

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When it comes to physical fitness, this culture of hyperproductivity translates into extreme image consciousness. We think it’s only natural to work out in order to fit into society’s conventional standards of physical beauty.

Unfortunately, when our interests are mainly built on external factors, such as having to show up at a physical gym or rely on the attention and validation of fellow fitness fanatics to feel good, there is little intrinsic motivation to continue once these external factors cease to exist.

It is why, I suspect, many people possess pricey memberships that collect dust after only being used for a few gym sessions — just one reminder that the pressure to perform in a certain way seemingly crucial to your identity can make you squander unnecessary money or even affect your mental wellbeing. 


Since the circuit breaker kicked in, the curious thing is my workout sessions have gotten more sparse and erratic, ranging from twice a day to once a fortnight. 

Yet, I don’t feel an ounce of guilt for “slacking”.

(Photo: Mimi Thian/ Unsplash)

This period of compulsory downtime has stripped us of life’s frills. When everyone is simply trying to cope with perennial anxiety and fatigue over an uncertain future, prioritising being in tip-top shape suddenly seems trivial in comparison.

These days, I do what I can with what I have, based on what feels good for myself. That means turning down all invites to Zoom workout sessions for a start. Otherwise, I’d merely be replacing one performance in the gym for another in my home to a live digital audience. 

I exercise within the parameters of my room, which usually entails having YouTube fitness gurus scream at me to “push through” because “no pain, no gain”. And I allow myself to collapse wheezing after barely 20 minutes or hit pause on a strenuous workout without any shame.

Alternatively, I jog around my neighbourhood when I conjure enough self-discipline to overcome my inertia and cabin fever, taking in the fresh air and limitless personal space that a gym lacks

READ: Commentary: Eating disorders are about emotional pain – not food

And instead of punishing myself for indulging in sinful foods, I look at the possible stressors that compel me to indulge in the first place, then tackle them. 

I understand gym rats who yearn to work out with a like-minded community again. I, too, occasionally miss the enforced discipline of exercising in a gym. 

But we shouldn’t squander the opportunities that COVID-19 has granted us to question longstanding ways of living. 

We can no longer ignore the bigger conversation that needs to happen about how gym culture affects both physical and mental well-being. Let’s start with dismantling the pernicious culture of fitness, where self-image, identity, and productivity feel so enmeshed, the desire to stay fit became a toxic obsession.

If we do return to the gym, we must develop a healthier relationship with our bodies independent from what society or the mirror in the gym tell us.

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Grace Yeoh is a senior journalist at CNA Insider.

Source: CNA/sl