I’m Healthier Since I Cancelled My Gym Membership

James Wong, travel writer, on how going to the gym was not necessarily making him healthier
Published: 9 May 2024

For a long time, I was a slave to the gym. I did four or five sessions a week, so it wasn’t excessive, but it still felt like I was always there. Factoring in travel, washing and the workout itself—which adds up to about seven hours a week—the gym process took up a huge chunk of my leisure schedule. And that’s before we even get into diet. 

Conscious to supplement (and not undo) all my hard work, I was on and off on a strict plan. Protein shakes and chicken salads without the dressing were my staples, and I was terrified of carbs. Of course, carbs are hard to avoid, especially if you’re social. After celebrations involving birthday cake, or pizza at a festival, I would punish myself. The following day would require a double session, and I’d go on a liquid “detox” for a couple of days. Soup, lemon water, cold-pressed juice... anything that’d run through me as quickly as possible without lingering over my stomach. 

Obsessing with my body was miserable, but I never admitted it. Everybody else around me was doing the same, and we revelled in the camaraderie. If someone in the office brought back a Burger King lunch, they were ridiculed. But we were salivating long after our raw veg bowl was done, the aroma of their onion rings killing us inside. 

When I moved into a career in travel, my health routine became less rigid, and my obsession with weight and tone calmed down. I mixed hotel gym workouts with running outside and signed up for things like surfing or scuba. I wanted to taste the world’s bounty, so I ate more freely too. My six-pack disappeared quickly, as it did any time I paused the vigorous abs crunches and ate regular foods, but guess what? I didn’t balloon in size. I remained the same weight and my energy levels were still pretty high. Being active every day was burning plenty of calories without me realising it. 

A century ago, 10 per cent of us led sedentary lives, but now that figure in developed cities is more like 90 per cent. On top of that, we’re ordering our groceries online, and taking rideshares door to door. 

The thing that is making us unhealthy is less our carbs and ketchup, but all the sitting. Surely exerting energy naturally or socially is more fun and sustainable than staring at a treadmill screen or a mat-side mirror? Gyms are boring. That’s why half of people who sign up for them in January end up quitting. 

I recently went to Zurich, Switzerland, and the Lindt Home of Chocolate Museum is the country’s number one attraction. Chocoholic or not, I had to visit and do it properly. If this were during my gym-addict days, the trip would have been excruciating. I wouldn’t have done the truffle-making class, gone to every tasting station, or bought pralines to take home. Now I was able to immerse myself fully. I asked someone at the museum how the employees stay fit working among so much temptation, and the response was simple. “The Swiss walk everywhere”. Indeed, that day alone, I had completed 24,000 steps. That more than justified the confectionary samples.

I used to think it was ironic Red Bull sponsored all the big sporting events, like racing and diving. But I now understand why they do it, aside from promoting the energy aspect of the drink.

Wong and the realisation that there's more to the gym-bro life

Look at people in the blue zones. Most of them have never set foot in the gym, nor do they count their calories. Those Okinawans, Sardinians, and Ikarians are living the longest on a workout routine simply called life. They’re moving naturally, and eating whatever they want, granted it’s mostly delicious whole foods and red wine. In a big city, where cooking from scratch is less common, we can still enjoy the things we want to, in moderation. Eighty-four per cent of Singaporeans allot time for exercise at least once a week. If you make sure that’s combined with ample natural daily activity, like walking (or better, running) you’re covered for those treats. Hey, you might even find yourself dancing. 

I used to think it was ironic Red Bull sponsored all the big sporting events, like racing and diving. But I now understand why they do it, aside from promoting the energy aspect of the drink. They’re not saying consume sugar all day every day. They’re saying, for the big exhilarating occasions, come on over and wet your lips. Maximise the earth’s opportunities to make real memories, and stop wasting time and money confined in four walls of apparatus and the box of dietary restrictions they’re synonymous with. 

Speaking of money, I don’t think people realise how much it all adds up to in a lifetime, assuming you don’t have a gym at home. Say you spend SGD200 a month at Virgin Active: that’s SGD2,400 a year on the club, plus whatever you purchase at MBS’ activewear chain stores. Protein shakes are expensive, too. Instead, how about picking up a racket and joining a tennis group for a low-cost, high-return sweat every week? And if you absolutely must have that fancy Andy Murray Castore gear, showcase it out on the courts, not the gym floor, you’ll get more admiring eyeballs. 

It’s been years since my last direct debit to a gym, and I think I’m just as healthy if not more than I was before. I carried out repetitive motions five times a week, binged at parties, and then deprived myself till the next one. My goal then was not to feel good but to look good. Though I don’t have a six-pack any more, I have miles more energy than when I did (or is that the Red Bull?). I owe it to appreciating the great outdoors, where I walk at least 10,000 steps a day, or take long picnics with friends (strawberry cake and dancing to K-Pop’s always a good time). Not thinking about the ensuing detox has been great for my mental health too. If we want to live as long as those blue zoners, we should take a leaf out of their not-so-secret habits. Movement without dumbbells and treadmills, and spending our hard-earned dollars on things that put a real spring in our step no matter what age we make it to. 

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