A few months ago, I started working from home. It's awesome: No commute! No office! No pants! But then my back started aching, and I couldn't figure out what was going on. Was it the chairs in my apartment? The laptop? The lack of pants? So I asked my wife, for whom this was no mystery. "It's because you don't walk anywhere anymore," she said. I used to march a mile to work every day, but at this point I was marching to the kitchen in the morning and not leaving for hours. My back, which once propped up a lazy-but-mobile human male, was just melting away. "I think you need to exercise," she said. And she was right. She had been working from home for years and going to a fitness class three times a week. I had tried gyms before, but could never stick to them. I needed something new. Frankly, I needed to work out like my wife. And so, for a month, I decided to do just that: Each week, I would go to a new fitness class filled with women. To save my back, I would finally put some pants on. Or, at the very least, shorts. Here's how that went down.
Week 1: Meet The WomenAs I walk to Pure Barre, my very first class, I worry: Am I about to be a problem? I imagine some poor woman, perfectly comfortable wearing spandex among her fellow females, who will now stress about some strange man ogling her butt. I resolve: I will tuck myself into the corner and do my best not to look at anyone. You won't even notice me, ladies. Just here for the workout. I arrive, and my instructor, Kate, positions me at the ballet bar — front and center. I am the only guy here, of course. Hi, ladies. Kate runs me through a 30-second orientation, and here's what I retain: The class will work out my under-developed muscle groups, so I should expect my body to vibrate. Also, "tucking" is very important. She does something with her hips and explains it very well, I'm sure, and I try to show her that I understand by mildly humping the air. "You got it!" she says. Class begins, and she's rattling off 10-part instructions on how to position our bodies while I scramble to keep up. At one point, she has us all lie on the floor, and I watch my classmates to follow along — until Kate comes over to gently turn me around, because I'm facing the wrong way. That is, I am facing everyone, and everyone is facing me. I'm sure this doesn't go unnoticed. At least I can't be accused of staring at anyone's butt. I'm surprised how, for a class called "barre," we spend most of our time away from the ballet barre. But I enjoy the micro-movements — holding a position and then moving slightly back and forth. As promised, I vibrate like a cheap massage chair. "Push through the burn," Kate repeatedly insists, which is easy to say when your leg isn't on fire. But I push through the burn, mostly. Afterward, one woman asks me what I thought. "I had no idea what I was getting into," I reply. She thinks this is funny. I think I'd be welcomed back.
Week 2: The Most Brutal Thing I've Ever DoneBefore I go to Brooklyn Bodyburn, I watch a video about the class. In it, a model climbs onto the "megaformer," a juiced-up Pilates contraption with stable platforms on both ends, and a moveable platform in the middle. Then, she arranges herself into a plank and glides back and forth. It looks easy and fun. And it was fun. Briefly. We start simple: a plank, a lunge, some push-ups. I keep up with the off-duty fitness instructor working out next to me, which is very satisfying. But then the positions become more complex — hold my leg this way, my arm here, my hips forward, my shoulders somewhere else. I become aware of how much energy my body has, and how quickly I'm burning through it. There's no time to rest. Soon, basic instructions seem nearly impossible. "Put your arm here" sounds like "arm-wrestle this bear." And while I'm at it, I should also kick down a metal door, while also flipping over a Buick, and... Then, it happens. The thing I know is coming: I run out of gas and collapse. Just, collapse. My body, this useless and inert thing, just flops down onto the megaformer like it's ready for the butcher. I look up at the clock: We're not even 10 minutes into class.
Maybe I just need some water, I think. So I roll over, set my wobbly feet on the ground, and gulp half a bottle. There. That's better. I take a deep breath and get back onto the megaformer. The instructor tells us to lunge and hold for 10 seconds. I get through two and collapse anew. "Three!" the instructor yells. "Four!" I lay prostrate on the megaformer, panting. "Five! Six!" Somehow, I manage to drag my body back into position. "Seven!" I fall again. "Eight!" Do women tell themselves that they can always soldier on — that deep inside of them, there when they need it most, there is a limitless reservoir of energy? Men do. I always did. In movies, when someone flees the bad guy, runs out of steam, and simply awaits his or her fate, I always think, "If my life depended on it, I'd keep going." Now I know that's not true. I would get half a block away, then curl up and die. "Nine!" I have never failed something as fully as I failed this class. "Ten!" The rest of the class is a blur. Although, I do remember the instructor continually coming over and physically moving me into whatever position the rest of the class was achieving. "We talk a lot of shit about ourselves, but we'd never say that about someone else," she announces to us all, though I suspect it's aimed at me. I appreciate the sentiment, but I want to be clear: If someone else fails this class as badly as I've done, I would definitely not talk shit about them. I'd say, "Hey, come join me over here — I'm taking a nap." Because anyone who even attempts this class is heroic. And so, as the class ends and I finally hobble out, that's what I ultimately decide: My success was staying in the building. I kept trying. I failed, but I kept trying. A few days later, Brooklyn Bodyburn sends me a mass email. Subject line: WE WANT YOU TO BE OUR NEWEST ROCKSTAR INSTRUCTOR. Sounds great! In my class, we'll all sit on those torture machines for an hour and eat pie. Sign up now. Classes are selling out.
Week 3: And Now We DanceI don't like cardio. It's boring and repetitive, and my lungs always hate me for it. My wife once talked me into running a mile, and I nearly fainted at the finish line. But at karaoke bars or wedding dance floors, I have an unusually strong stamina. Maybe, I think, I just need one of these dancing fitness classes. I beg my wife to join, and she says yes. Then, the day of my class, she catches the flu and I'm on my own again.
I arrive at the 305 Fitness studio in the West Village, and really wish I had my female companion with me. There's a glowing neon sign screaming "GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS" and a cascade of pink flamingos in the window. I sign in, casually mention that my wife was going to join me but no longer can, and ask if men are ever in this class. "Oh, sure," the woman at the desk says. "There are always one or two men in every class. Though, they usually don't have wives."
She waits a beat. "They have husbands." Of course. The studio has mirrors, enormous lips painted on the wall, and a live DJ. There are maybe 30 women here (and indeed, one other man). Our instructor gives us a mantra to repeat to ourselves during the class: "She needed a hero, so she became one." It occurs to me that some version of this has come up in all three classes I've taken. They offer a narrative — you're stronger than you think you are — that isn't all that different from the one I used to tell myself when watching those movies. The only difference is, the women in these classes are regularly coming out to prove it to themselves. I'd never actually wanted to test my limit. Then, the dance music is cranked up, and we get going. The instructor is all energy — jumping, punching the air, and running side to side. (There's also the occasional hip swivel, which I watch myself attempt in the mirror once, and then never try again.) I'm surprised by how much I enjoy this. It's such a strangely contrived environment — all the trappings of a dance party, minus the party — and yet way more fun than running. I'm bouncing along with the roomful of bobbing ponytails, feeling Beyoncé in my bones. At one point, we're instructed to turn to the person next to us, give them a high five, and scream, "Yes, queen!" I think the woman next to me actually says it to me, but I can't hear her over my own laughing.