Every time I park the car and every time I leave, I check where the seagulls are. They are always there “on patrol”. There are two or three spots they chose and when they are on the ground, that’s where you find them and they all face the same direction. They can also be on the light poles. Sometimes they are precisely distributed: either one or two per pole branch. Each pole has four branches. Seagull math.

Parking lot seagulls – March 10, 2019 – Marilia Coutinho

Ever since I got my membership at Planet Fitness at 59th SW street in Oklahoma City I have been taking pictures of them. One day they were just gone. I looked around the parking lot but they were nowhere to be found. It was a cold winter day so I assumed that was the reason. Still, it bothered me. They were gone for four days. When they finally returned, I felt better.

They are always there. I can count on them. Just like everything inside the gym is always the same. In the past three years, some new employees were hired and others left. For someone in the ASD spectrum like me, this is slightly disturbing but still very manageable: of the 5 or 6 employees on site at any moment, the turnover is of one every several months. It’s okay.

They know me and I know them. We talk about things. Usually, not serious things but sometimes I bring up something of substance like how I appreciate the tolerant environment, how strength gyms are very different and how grateful I am for the peace and normalcy that they provide. I did try to offer more and help them to reach out to the local Hispanic community through a health organization. It didn’t work because of the organization. The Planet Fitness manager just smiled at me and told me he was used to this.

One day I locked my own padlock key inside the locker. It was embarrassing. Emily (not her real name) picked up the band cutter and cut it open. Since then, I use their padlocks and they keep the key so that I don’t do that again. In two occasions there were no padlocks available and I just walked down the dollar store and bought two. The front desk folks were surprised at first but I told them it was only fair: I was the one big padlock user. It’s no big deal to contribute to the community.

There are some people who are always there at about the same time I am (around 11AM-12PM). We always smile and say hello and good-bye. I don’t know their names or their stories. I do feel that our presence is mutually appreciated. We are constants in each other’s lives. We are welcoming faces, possibly the only smile we will see that day.

I treasure those treadmills. I really love them. Oklahoma City has pretty hostile weather for at least half of the year and I can’t walk on the park as I would like. If I don’t walk, there’s a point where I can’t think straight anymore. I have to walk. I’ve been collecting articles about the evolution of walking among humans and I promise to come back with more about this. I expect this trait to follow other motor task “propensity” behaviors that are genetically determined. Some people are more propense than others to move and move more or move in different ways. The detrimental effects of exercise deprivation are also finally being identified.

There are two rows of treadmills and it is funny to observe that people try to keep as much of a distance from each other as they can. As soon as I start walking, I engage in several little scripts in my mind. I think I act them out. I think I probably say things, change my facial expression and even, sometimes, cry. I engage in imaginary debates (and I win them). There’s a lot going on in my mind while I walk. Things get figured out when I walk. Maybe that’s weird. Maybe that’s why I try to keep a distance from other people: I’m embarrassed for my weirdness. In three years, though, nobody ever treated me differently or even looked at me in some strange way as I got off of the treadmill.

I also take pictures of myself on the same mirror, for years. I stopped taking pictures when I got too sick and gained over 40lbs in a few months (25lbs in two months). The pictures are feedback to me about myself. I should never have stopped.

Image may contain: 3 people, people standing and indoor
Locker room pictures at OKC PF – Marilia Coutinho (2016-2019)

The guided movement machines are a blessing for an old beaten up athlete like myself. The old idea that a barbell, a rack and some plates are enough for every need is still correct. Sure: I could get a full workout with my very well-equipped home gym. But the guided movement machines offer me unique opportunities to work through certain chronic injuries and prevent them from flaring up.

I decided to start this series on my Planet Fitness, wherever it may take me, for several reasons. I’ve been meaning to talk about habit, routine, rituals and different needs for constancy for a while. It is meaningful in several aspects of health, both physical and mental. It is also a foundation of merit-based success.

The reason I started it today, though, is that I was confronted with the same hate speech against Planet Fitness that became a fad back in the mid-2000s. The “strength” community (let’s call it that for now) reacted with violence to a couple of things. There was some tension then concerning Planet Fitness’ framing of what it called “gymtimidation”. The neologism was coined by PF as part of their “judgment-free zone” concept. The concept itself is innovative: eliminate the pecking order behavior that, until then, all gyms (commercial, chain or super underground strength dungeons) had and you solved the problem of under service to latent demand. Sound and bold entrepreneurship. All those sub-groups who are unwilling to hire the gym service because it doesn’t suit them well, because it segregates them from part of the service package they bought, because it causes discomfort or because they just can’t make efficient use of the service would finally be serviced. It worked.

The problem was the initial approach: PF was aggressive in their marketing strategy back then and the strength community elected them as their “public enemy number one”. Planet Fitness had the “lunk alarm” that an employee could sound every time some annoying member violated the rules of conduct that included, among other things, not deliberately dropping weights on the floor, not deliberately making too much noise and not being hostile to other members. I never heard it.

In those days, PF made a few confrontational marketing videos stereotyping individuals from this “gymtimidation world” (which is exactly the strength community) as ridiculous, aggressive, clearly on-steroids, unwelcoming people. There is no nice way to say it: it was a mistake and they shouldn’t have done it. Since then, their approach has changed radically. I haven’t talked to any PF CEO, but I suspect they realized that the people they were reacting against represented a minuscule portion of the market and targeting them was a waste of time, marketing money and communication effort. The focus now is on their serious commitment to anti-bullying activism and social inclusion. The “judgment-free” concept turned from a negative definition (against something) to a positive one (supportive of something).

This is called corporate learning. It happens all the time.

The strength community hasn’t matured at all, though: they are still fighting PF.

The question is: why are they still engaged in this fight if PF couldn’t care less about them?

Because the “ethos” in PF’s project is the exact opposite of the ethos of the strength culture.

What is this culture?

As a disclaimer, it’s important to clarify that the strength community is not homogeneous. Even in the pasteurized online environment, country of origin is a strong determinant on behavior: UK athletes tend to be more liberal and open-minded than American ones. Since the beef with PF is restricted to the USA (at least for now), let’s focus on the “strength community” in the USA.

What I mean by strength community is predominantly the powerlifting underground-gym (or “strength gym”) loving group. Olympic weightlifters ignore this entirely and have their own training centers. Crossfitters formed a culture of their own. Strongmen and bodybuilders may or may not be part of the “strength gym” scene but the narrative is controlled by powerlifters. All powerlifters? No: just the vocal ones (and that is why they characterize the community: we don’t know what anyone else thinks).

Some things characterize this community as observed in their behavior in strength gyms and online:

  1. It is predominantly politically and morally conservative.
  2. There is a clear pecking order and individuals are expected to respect it or suffer hostility (aka bullying). Bullying is a taboo subject and when brought into any discussion, the predominant view is “teach your kids to fight back”, “the law of the strongest”, “bullying is natural”.
  3. Its members value the opportunity to judge. Even in their sport, they are not satisfied with competitive judging: they re-judge everything by video and they defend this practice as part of their identity. They are also highly judgmental of outsiders, whom they see as their inferiors.
  4. Engaging in ridiculing the ordinary gym member, crossfitters and even bodybuilders is also an important part of their community standards.
  5. It is predominantly anti-intellectual. Some of its loudest members oppose even the use of relative strength coefficients.
  6. It values toughness, aggressiveness, endurance to pain but in an abstract manner. It is common to read or hear something, frequently quite reasonable such as warming up or other forms or prehab or rehab work as “pussyfication”.
  7. The range and variety of life goals it recognizes as valid is limited. Anything outside this set of goals is considered inferior and/or objectionable.
  8. It considers rudeness, exclusion, and intimidation a right of the dominant members of any of the community’s sub-groups: not talking to the new guy until his numbers rise, kicking him out of his rack with no further explanation, etc. For all intents and purposes, it values and defends bullying.
  9. It has strict body shape and size standards. It is not unusual to hear that men under 200lbs are not real men.
  10. It is loud: loud music, loud grunting and any sound recognized as an expression of aggressiveness are valued.
  11. It is attracted to borderline intolerant imagery and strength gyms are frequently decorated with aggressive graffiti.
  12. Many of its members report a difficult childhood marked by bullying and they interpret their “painful work” to make their bodies strong and intimidating as the best response to that experience. Many also report feeling belittled and diminished in their professional life.

The reasons for so much hostility are unclear. One possibility is that many powerlifting dominated “strength gyms” are open to the general population. Unlike CrossFit boxes where people practice CrossFit, or Olympic weightlifting training centers where people practice Olympic weightlifting, many “strength gyms” are regular gyms plus more specific equipment. There are very few powerlifting-only training centers. That may create an identity crisis. Also, many powerlifters try to train powerlifting in regular gyms and that never goes well. The ambiguous nature of the powerlifting territory might be the cause keeping the hostile ethos intact for so many decades.

The continued “war against Planet Fitness” from the strength community even ten years after PF doesn’t engage it in any way would be difficult to understand if these uncodified rules weren’t considered. The problem with PF is not their original criticism of the intimidatory environment in other gyms. The problem with PF are the values.

The anti-bullying rules adopted by PF are considered more than an insult: they are a declaration of war on the strength community.

Today I present a hypothesis about violence in contrast with my experience of peace and survival in chaos. The seagull patrol. The quiet birds, always in position, just watching. Beyond the birds’ territory, the door into silence, pale colors, and predictability.

I walk. I’m still not sure towards what, but I walk away from hate and intolerance, from bigotry and groupthink. I walk from loud low-frequency sound causing pain in my bones and my skull. I walk into silence, shade and cold air.