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When Working Out Doesn’t Work Out

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Elena Seibert

The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more, with host Avery Trufelman.

This week on The Cut, host Avery Trufelman explores exercise: why we feel we should do it, why she doesn’t love to while others do. In search of answers, she talks to the Cut’s Hot Bod columnist Maggie Lange and famous cartoonist and author of the memoir The Secret to Superhuman Strength Alison Bechdel about their passion for working out and their unconventional approach to fitness.

To hear more about how every fitness journey is different and why we even work out, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.

AVERY: The one thing that I thought would maybe be beneficial about a year locked up in my apartment and not seeing anyone is that I would emerge on the other side of it totally ripped.

I just thought that if I stripped away all other distractions, and it was just me and my body, maybe I would wake up before sunrise and start running. Or I’d do pull-ups like Sarah Connor when she was locked away in isolation in Terminator.

But of course, none of that happened, and I am emerging into summer huffing and puffing every time I need to get up the four flights of stairs in my building. I feel like I’m barely able to twist open a jar. I mean, I did work out a little bit, but I mostly did it out of a begrudging obligation so my muscles wouldn’t completely atrophy like an astronaut. It wasn’t some cathartic release and it wasn’t a source of inspiration. Working out was a guilty chore.

But wouldn’t you say you feel better when you do it than when you don’t? Do you get guilty on days that you feel like you should?

MAGGIE: Exercise?

AVERY: Yeah.

MAGGIE: Oh, no, no, no, no. I do not feel guilty when I don’t exercise. I can’t be exercising all the time. God, there’s stuff to do.

AVERY: That’s Maggie Lange, who writes the column Hot Bod for the Cut. It’s a column about working out.

MAGGIE: I think it can feel embarrassing to write about.


MAGGIE: It can seem like something that you do, but talking about can seem like you are talking about being virtuous, which I think is so stupid because it’s not virtuous at all.

AVERY: But that’s the language that gets tossed around, right? It’s like, Oh, I’m so good, I worked out today. Or even like, I treated myself to Pilates. But I think that this is the language that gets used because working out is hard to characterize. It’s hard to narrativize. With sports, for example, there are winners and losers and epic battles and main characters and Hail Mary passes.

MAGGIE: There’s something about the game having its own tether of rules and finding excitement in the limits of it.

AVERY: With working out, it’s really hard to talk about or write about because the story around it is just kind of this nebulous swirling chaos. It’s like, I did this one move. And then I did this other move. And then another. And now I feel so good! But Maggie is hell-bent on finding ways to talk about working out, because she just finds it all anthropologically fascinating.

MAGGIE: I think exercise is a great lens to be looking at our world. I think what people are doing and why they’re doing it says a lot about aspiration. And about ideals. And about standards. And people’s restlessness. And then people’s desire for community. And people’s competition. There are a lot of exercise classes that seem to be training everyone for a war that’s coming up. And then there are those classes that are like, “Let’s just pretend we’re at a party.”

AVERY: As much as exercise trends are fascinating as broad cultural lenses, exercise is also so personal. Because, as much as workout trends come in and out of style, your body is also constantly replacing itself with a new set of cells every seven to ten years. You age. Your needs and desires and capacities shift. They just do. In fact, you could paint a portrait of your life from the ways you have and haven’t exercised. And that is exactly what cartoonist Alison Bechdel did.

ALISON: Every workout is like a microcosm of your life, and you die at the end.

AVERY: Yeah, sorry. Working out is actually pretty heavy. Pun intended. Alison Bechdel’s newest book is about exercise, but it reads like a philosophical treatise.

ALISON: The deep theme of the book is as we go through life, how do we really develop ourselves to our full capacity as humans?

AVERY: Alison Bechdel is known for her longtime comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her graphic novel Fun Home. Her newest book, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, is a biography of six decades as told through her workouts, starting from the moment Alison consciously decided to start working out.

ALISON: When I became a teenager, I noticed one day [while] I was out sledding with my brothers, I came down the hill and I looked back and when I thought about having to climb that hill, I just felt exhausted, and I realized something very bad had happened to me. Where did my childhood energy go?

AVERY: You were like, what, 15 or something?

ALISON: I was 14, but I was like, I’ve got to get back to that. I have to do something. My mom had this book called The Joy of Feeling Fit, and it was one of these celebrity-workout books that was big at the time, and I took her book and I actually did the program in it. I very much felt my energy come back as I did these routines of exercise every day. It was just all stuff that you did with your body. There was no equipment. But the women, of course, weren’t supposed to do push-ups, only the men. 

AVERY: So that’s kind of the fun meta-story: As Alison grows up, you can watch workout culture, and culture at large, shift and change and grow right alongside her. Exercise culture has come a long way, just in Alison’s lifetime.

ALISON: The calisthenics from my mom’s book actually led me into jogging, and in America in the ’70s, at this time, there’d never been running shoes. Like, special shoes for running?! That was crazy. But I started running, just on my own. In those days, people didn’t know what to make of it. They just thought this girl had gone nuts. Like, What was she doing out running in the fields? Mostly it was considered an oddity. Or this one very annoying boy insisted to me that I was running in order to make myself more sexually alluring, and I had to try and explain that to him — that I was just running because I wanted to run.

AVERY: In her book, Alison Bechdel calls herself “The Vigorous Type.” You know, not necessarily sporty or competitive per se, but really likes to move and break a sweat. And growing up in a pretty rural part of Pennsylvania, running was the way to get vigorous. But the next big phase in Alison Bechdel’s workout life was when she moved to New York in her 20s and started taking karate. Which was, again, way more of a rarity only a few decades ago.

ALISON: This whole movement of feminist martial-arts schools that started happening in the late ’70s, early ’80s — these were schools led by women who had learned martial arts in the ’60s. I was like a second-wave-feminist martial artist. I did this really intensely for a couple of years. It was the focus of my life. I trained for my black belt. I got my black belt.

AVERY: But just a matter of weeks after getting her black belt, Alison had this very disillusioning experience that turned her off from it.

ALISON: I was really stoned and drunk one night. I was pretty wasted and walking to the subway with a friend, and as I went down the steps of the West 4th Street subway station, this guy grabbed my ass. I wheeled around and confronted him. “What are you doing? Fucking asshole,” and I dropped into a front stance, like I practiced in class 20 times a week. And I punched him in the chest.

AVERY: Well. She “punched” him like you practice punching in karate class.

ALISON: Which was not full-strength. You pull your punch a little bit, otherwise you could hurt somebody. So, it was so ridiculous.

AVERY: And so this guy just … clocks her. Right in the face.

ALISON: I had a black eye for weeks, but then he ran off and he was terrified. So, you know, all of my martial-arts training did not equip me for an actual physical confrontation. But I also realized in that moment that I didn’t really like fighting [and] that the only way to really get good at scrapping with people is to do it. And I didn’t want to do it.

AVERY: Alison realized she didn’t want to come at the world swinging. What she wanted was a moment of peace. So she moved from karate classes to yoga classes. But again, workout culture was just kind of different. Like, yes, now this was veering into the ’80s workout boom, but that culture was considered kind of at odds with the values of the lesbian feminist communities that Alison was a part of.

ALISON: If you were going to exercise, you kept it to yourself. In those days, in the early ’80s, I think exercise was pretty much equated with some kind of attempt to lose weight or modify your body in some way. So, it was really kind of frowned on. So I kept it to myself. I didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t something I bragged about.

AVERY: Into her 30s and 40s, Alison got away from workout classes and more into biking and hiking. In her memoir, Alison lovingly draws the autumn leaves framing hiking trails and mountains when the light hits them at golden hour. And Alison juxtaposes images of herself with other artists and writers across history who were also into working out just like this, even though it wasn’t always called “working out.”

ALISON: I am fascinated with how people started hiking. When did people start going out into the mountains for fun? Because they didn’t always do that. It was quite recent. In the late 1700s or early 1800s, people started finally having the leisure to do stuff like that. To climb up a mountain just for fun.

AVERY: In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Alison weaves her story in with the biographies of English romantics William Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

ALISON: They just hung out together hiking, or they would just say “walking,” and talking about poetry at all hours of the day or night.

AVERY: Alison follows the “workouts” of the English romantics alongside the free spirits and intellectual beatniks of the 1960s, all alongside her own explorations.

ALISON: I think Kerouac is sort of a jerk. I’ve always found him very annoying. But I really love the way he wrote about being out in the mountains, hiking with his buddy Gary Snyder, the poet, with whom Kerouac was very clearly in love. They would hike. They would talk about Zen, which they had both been studying for a bit at that point in time. I think it really helps to move through a landscape, especially to just put your feet down on the earth successively, one after another. That just does something to our brains. 

AVERY: In finding new ways to work out and move — finding literal or proverbial mountains to scale — that itself can feel like a sort of Zen practice.

ALISON: Shunryū Suzuki, this Japanese Zen priest who came to the U.S. in the very late ’50s, wrote a wonderful book, the classic spiritual text called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He says that the expert’s mind is filled. It’s full. It’s closed off. But in the beginner’s mind, anything is possible.

AVERY: Beginners have a capacity for openness. For vibrant and fresh attention. A willingness to be flexible and even fail. And a new workout, or a new fitness trend, is a really safe space for something truly new. A playground for failure. A romping room for a beginner’s mind.

ALISON: It’s always been a compelling idea for me. I feel like I’ve spent my whole life trying to get back to this simpler and more direct way of being in the world that children have and that we lose because our conscious minds take hold. But I think you can get back there with enough effort.

AVERY: Let me just say, conceptually, I adore this. I love the idea of using your body as a way to get back into your head. Especially in a year that was very low on inspiration. But practically speaking, no, I did not take up capoeira or start climbing mountains or even doing push-ups. So how do you summon up the will? Or when do you just … let yourself not summon up the will? After the break, working out when life isn’t working.

AVERY: To talk about working out is ultimately to talk about failure. You build muscle by breaking yourself down. The strength is only gained through a series of small failures. This is another way that sports and working out are very different. Working out doesn’t end when you win, it ends when you stop. You do the reps until you can’t anymore. As the essayist Kathy Acker wrote about her foray into bodybuilding: “Bodybuilding is about failure, because bodybuilding, body growth, and shaping, occurs in the face of the material, of the body’s inexorable movement towards its final failure, towards death.”

This was supposed to be a fun, light book about working out. What happened?

ALISON: Man, I just seem incapable of writing fun, light books. That was the idea. But it took me about eight years to get this book in the can. 

AVERY: I mean, by the way, cartooning is an extremely difficult and underappreciated art. It’s like you’re making a movie entirely by yourself and you have to be the set designer, the cinematographer, the costume designer, the screenwriter, and also all the actors. But that’s not the only reason her graphic novel took eight years.

ALISON: Part of the reason this book took me so long to write is because I had this very busy, crazy period of being in the public eye when my book Fun Home got turned into a Broadway musical.

CLIP FROM FUN HOME’S “COME TO THE FUN HOME”: Whoa! Come to the Fun Home! That’s the Bechdel Funeral Home, baby. The Bechdel Fun Home!

AVERY: The musical Fun Home, which was based on Alison’s memoir about growing up in a funeral home and about her father’s coming out, was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and toured around the world. Alison’s niche fame as a cartoonist blew up, and she was suddenly traveling constantly

ALISON: I just kind of got derailed by that to a certain degree. It was certainly fun and exciting. It’s a first-world problem. I don’t need to complain about it, but it really prevented me from having a good routine, a good daily regimen. It prevented me from having any kind of contemplative downtime in which I could do creative work. And part of this whole intensely busy period of my life overlapped with my mother’s death when I suddenly became responsible for all of all that stuff that happens when people die. Plus, I’m grieving my mother.

AVERY: It was in this uniquely difficult and deeply odd time, with such strange exuberant highs and crushing lows, that Alison came into her next great workout phase.

ALISON: It was a crazy period, and what got me through it all was that amazing workout, the seven-minute workout. I got the app on my phone. I think it helped a lot. It was definitely at least seven minutes a day when I was calm.

AVERY: Just that seven-minute regimen of squats and lunges and push-ups. Without nature to explore, without a class, or a studio, but simply the raw sequence of exercises became this grounding practice for Alison.

ALISON: Well, there’s a difference between the body and the self. I think it’s great to be in your body, that is why I do these things. I’m so in my head most of the time. I think it fills many of those needs that religion has conventionally filled for people. It’s connecting to something larger than myself. It’s got its own little rituals. I think in many ways, it is a kind of religion. 

AVERY: But the cool thing is that it’s not a dogmatic religion. The rules aren’t about appeasing some deity or appealing to some tradition. The rituals shift to fit your needs and evolve based on living in a different environment and different seasons and different cultures.

ALISON: I live in Vermont, where we have very marked periods of winter and summer. And you have to change your sport. You have to have bikes for the summer and you have skis for the winter.

AVERY: The rituals change if you’re depressed. If you’re busy. If you’re sober. If you’re in a relationship.

ALISON: For a long time, I was involved with a partner who did not do exercise, was not interested in going outside, and I thought that was fine. I was very happy to do that stuff on my own. But then I got involved with Holly, my current partner, and it’s kind of like I finally got with someone who shares my religion. It gives us this focus outside of ourselves that’s really great, and I think helped stabilize the relationship.

AVERY: Sometimes the specific rituals stay with you for years, and sometimes they come and go.

ALISON: I do sometimes feel like it would have been great if I really stuck with martial arts, if I had really gotten good at that, or if I’d really kept yoga up. I do have those feelings. But you can’t do everything. I’ve also incorporated little bits of all these routines and activities into things that I do on an ongoing basis, just not as intensely.

AVERY: As Alison pondered through her whole life through this book — this book that was supposed to be fun and breezy and was not — she planned it out and thought it out. She sweated it out. She worked it out, in workouts.

ALISON: Over the period of time I was writing the book, I did keep casting around for some new activity that would give me a metaphorical handle on the whole book. Just some new way of moving that would help me think about this whole project. I took some rock-climbing lessons. I took Alexander Technique classes. I took a trapeze class. Remember that episode of Sex and the City where Carrie goes on the trapeze?

CLIP FROM SEX AND THE CITY: An editor at New York Magazine thought I would be the perfect person to write about the ultimate challenge for swingers: the flying trapeze.


AVERY: Was that what inspired you?! Are you a Sex and the City person?

ALISON: Yes! It was just funny to realize that anyone could go do that same thing that she did.

CLIP FROM SEX AND THE CITY: [Squeal] Two hours later I was hooked.

ALISON: Sorry about that. I just really outed myself.

AVERY: I love it.

ALISON: I was trying all these weird, slightly esoteric things. But in the meantime, I was also getting back to running, which I hadn’t done for a long time. I did it as a young person and then really didn’t do it for decades. So, slowly, running started really doing it for me. It was so mentally calming. It totally got me through the Trump years without losing my mind because it was just a way of bringing my anxiety level down. In the end, it wasn’t all these fancy new tricky things I was trying, but running, a very old, tried and true, very simple, very low-gear-requiring activity that kind of saved me and was an interesting coming-back-to-beginner’s mind.

AVERY: So, yes, exercise changes with the needs and conditions of life in a macro and a micro sense. And it’s buffeted by factors beyond my control.  So, roll with me for a little extended simile here.

When I was thinking about why I was having such a hard time working out this year and why so many mornings I just didn’t have the will, it made me think of this story I wrote a long time ago about the origin and history of fire escapes.

For the most part, fire escapes are not really used to actually evacuate buildings anymore. And part of the reason is they just don’t reflect how people behave in an emergency. I think we fantasize — or at least I fantasize — that with a rush of adrenaline I’d be able to do incredible things — leap out a window and scurry down a rickety fire-escape ladder, or grab the wheel of an out-of-control bus, or intuitively know how to shoot a gun. Whatever you have to do. And while that may be true for some very special individuals, that’s just not the truth for many people.

And what architects found was that in an emergency evacuation, most people will try to leave the building the way they came in. They want comfort. They want what they know. They want stable ground. And this is why emergency escapes in new construction are just the normal stairs, encased in a fireproof corridor. And this is why I spent so many mornings in this pandemic hitting snooze a bunch of times rather than going to a Zoom-exercise class.

For me, in a time of crisis, my body didn’t want to be forged anew from polished bronze. It just wanted comfort. And it just wanted to sleep.

MAGGIE: Basically, my standard for moving is that I feel completely in my body and whatever I’m doing is entirely about my body. And there’s probably music and I’m just dancing around. But also if I was to go to the post office, and I bike the mile there and the mile back, and it was a nice bike ride and I was happy about the trees, I’m like, Oh, that’s moving.

AVERY: Talking to both Maggie Lange and Alison Bechdel reminded me that working out is both a cultural lens and a personal journey. Basically, you can’t force it. To a degree, yes, you have to haul yourself out of bed and get yourself to the gym or whatever. But in a macro sense, can I really expect my 30-year-old body living through an honest-to-god pandemic to run track like I did in high school? No. And I wouldn’t want that. Maggie Lange goes a step further in letting exercise meet her where she’s at. She takes it entirely day by day.

MAGGIE: Routine is rejected entirely by my physicality. There are just all these ways of moving that are appealing to me. The idea of knowing how I would exercise the day before I did it — how would I know what mood I’m going to be in tomorrow, and if I want to feel bouncy, or if I want to feel super strong? How does someone know that ahead of time? It feels very nice to not have to commit.

AVERY: And it turns out that Maggie’s nonmonogamous approach to working out is still totally effective.

MAGGIE: There are recommendations for how much you should be moving weekly. I feel like it’s about two hours in total. But a five-minute full breakdown dancing around is part of that. You don’t have to do it in these large chunks. The body doesn’t know about time. It’s just moving around. 

AVERY: Just because culture has come to laud the Consistent. Regular. Workout. That doesn’t mean that’s what exercise should or should not be. It’s all an experiment and a mirror. A strange, ongoing, anthropological, deeply personal study that we call working out. Honestly, I’m just so excited to walk to museums and go out dancing again so I don’t feel like I have to go work out at all.

When Working Out Doesn’t Work Out