Maybe This is What Progress Looks Like

This morning was always going to be a frustrating workout. I hadn’t been to the gym in a couple of weeks, and my exercise schedule for the month or so before that has been… let’s say, sporadic. Minimal. Near-zero. Patchy gym attendance is unfortunately the rule, rather than the exception, for me, so I’m familiar with how the first session back goes. I did debate just pleading tiredness and going back to sleep when the alarm went off, but Partner was already getting ready and I didn’t want to leave him to go on his own again. So, reluctantly, I crawled out of bed and into some gym clothes.

As predicted, I struggled through the workout, lifting exactly the same weights as the last time I was there. Less, in some cases. I love weightlifting because it makes me feel strong like no other exercise can… except when I’m getting stuck benching 30 kg and trying to work out how to get out from under this bar that weighs half as much as I do. Then I mostly just feel like an idiot.

Me, partway through bench pressing 32.5 kg.
Me, not getting stuck under a bar! Not this time anyway.

I started going to the gym two and a half years ago, and if I compare my weights from back then to the weights I’m using now there is depressingly little difference. A closer look would show that at times I’ve managed more – I was squatting 70 kg for a brief, beautiful moment this summer – I’ve always slipped back down to the same sort of weights due to periods of not regularly exercising. At the moment I’m squatting 50 kg. The same as I was squatting in August of 2019.

Section from the notebook where I record gym sessions, showing that in August 2016 I was squatting exactly the same amount as I'm squatting now.
I kind of wish I hadn’t looked this up actually, but I’m just too committed to sharing accurate information with you lot. You’re welcome.

Although going to the gym is often suggested as a strategy for dealing with anxiety or low mood, if I’m already in a negative head space it can make things worse instead of better. I look at my lack of progress and I berate myself. If only I had a little discipline, I could be so much stronger now. If I wasn’t so lazy I’d be able to actually get better rather than just working at not getting worse. What’s the point in even being here now if I’m not going to put the time in to actually make progress?

Which, I guess, is one way of looking at it. But… maybe not the most useful way.

After all, even if I’m not lifting more weight than I used to, that doesn’t mean my body isn’t benefitting from the training. I’m still working the muscles, still raising my heart rate, still improving my form. Plus, I can’t do anything about all those days I chose not to exercise, but today I made a different choice, and that’s worth something. If I can say yes to working out more often than I say no, even if I’m not seeing a difference in the numbers going into my gym notebook, that is worth something.

The gym isn’t the only place I’m trying to adopt this attitude, it also applies to my writing. I could decide that the fact I’ve been working on the same story on and off for almost a decade without finishing it means I’ve wasted all this time. Or, I could celebrate the fact that I haven’t given up on the story. I could look at all the little bits of work I’ve done and remember that even if none of that writing ended up being part of a finished draft it’s all practice, and it’s all helping me to become a better writer.

We’re always encouraged to keep moving forwards, to keep getting better, to keep looking for progress in our lives. I think it’s important to do that, but also important to remember that progress doesn’t always look the way you expect it to. Sometimes progress is not going backwards. Sometimes progress is starting again after a setback. And sometimes, progress is learning to be okay with not making the progress you thought you would.

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