When drawing a list of cool places for great leisure, there are few obvious options: bar, club, restaurant, zoo, park and a host of exclusive purveyors of guilty pleasures. Usually, the gym is left out.
By its very definition, a gym hardly make the cut. Gym (short for gymnasium) is “a place, typically a private club, providing a range of facilities designed to improve and maintain physical fitness and health.” Little wonder the word conjures a place of gruelling physical activities synonymous with toil, sweat and pain.
Somehow, the idea is yet to be accepted that the gym can be a place for a great timeout. Sometimes in February 2018, I was part of a group that holed up in the upscale Eko Hotel and Suites, Lagos for a media and legal training. For the duration of the programme, we were given the deluxe treatment. No one made use of the gym. Similarly, in 2019, I was part of a group of travel and tourism writers hosted by the NCAC in Abuja. The venue was one of the top-notch hotels with gilt-edged services and superlative facilities, including a spa, swimming pool, well-stocked bar and restaurant. The facilities were optimally utilised. Except for the gym.
Eric Dumoh, a colleague had mentioned casually that he had discovered “they have a good gym here.” Is anyone up for a session? No one was interested.
That said it all: the word gym is hardly a metaphor for relaxation or leisure.
“It is leisure and physical workout,” insists Kunle Ademokun, a physical instructor consulting for fitness clubs on the island. “People are ignorant of the good experience waiting for them inside a gym; on the other hand, there is a growing appreciation of the gym as a form of therapy in recent years,” he asserts.
His words have a ring of truth. Urban centres such as Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Benin City have in the past few years witnessed a proliferation of fitness gyms, clubs and associations. Lagos, for instance, is dotted with such facilities across the state, the ubiquity, an indication of how the gym has been incorporated into the city’s lifestyle.
Most upscale hotels have it––the gym; so also high-end spas. From Surulere to Ikoyi and Victoria Island, the city is teeming with private fitness clubs. The idea of a gym as a great place to let off steams is silently fueling the growth of a new form of a social cocoon.
“The gym is not always about bulking up muscles or burning the pounds,” says Kate Halim, a Lagos-based journalist who has been working out since the past two years at the fitness centre in Rita Lori Hotels in Surulere. Her regimen includes boxing, skipping, running up and down the stair, jogging, weight lifting and bodyweight exercises. Doing regular jumping jacks, high knees, burpees and lunges, she has since acclimatized to the physical exertion that is concomitant with each session. Up to five times a week, she works out in the morning, and in a very busy week, she still clocks three sessions. She has found some pleasure in the pain of her physical toil.
“What took me to the gym was because I was overweight at 110kg; it was a wake-up call for me, I had to take charge of my body and my health,” she says.
The reason varies. It could be the need to get rid of a potbelly or build the biceps or to break a sedentary lifestyle that is becoming dangerous or satisfy a craving for a sculpted body. Eventually, everyone gets to enjoy the gym lifestyle and tries to adapt to the group dynamics that makes the gruelling session in the gym a great therapy and a great timeout. Beyond the ulterior motive of attaining an Atlas body or Instagram-perfect curves, most have come to see their timeout inside the gym as a form of leisure.
James Adubi, who worked for 15 years in a bank before his recent retirement and is presently running a fashion enterprise at Ago Palace Way, is one of those for whom the gym is the coolest hangout.
“For some years, I was depressed after breaking up with my wife of seven years. My life basically was a very boring cycle––from bank to home to club to bed. I needed something to jazz up my life. When one of my friends introduced me to the idea of going to the gym, I was at first reluctant because I knew I was fit and I had a healthy lifestyle. I decided to go along just to humour him. But after one session, I was stuck. The aura and vivacity of the gym did me a lot of good; I got my mojo back. Since then, from April 2008, I have not missed a weekend session.”
We all need to get into the gym, not only fitness freak needs the workout, says Belinda Amunze, 39. “If you are in good shape physically, how about your heart? There is always a need to burn off some calories. All you need is to find a good gym.”
Amunze, owner of a beauty accessories shop on Adeniran Ogunsanya, adds: “My girlfriends are all entrepreneurs. It is difficult for us to leave our business for even one hour. So we meet three times a week for two hours in the morning in the gym here in Surulere. After the cardio, aerobics, bodyweight exercises and swimming, we spend at least 30 minutes to gist and catch up on events we missed.”
Halim gives a broader perspective of this social benefit: “If you are an introvert or someone who hardly mix with others, the gym is a perfect place to have a social life. You meet different people. As you workout together, you tease one another; you encourage the other person, you compete against one another when you are given tasks to do. That helps a lot. You feel alive and happy. By the time you are leaving, you are energised to face your day, if your workout is in the morning.”
The dynamics of the gym life, she asserts, helps one to expand her social experience: “I have made some friends, female and male; we organized timeout at the beach where we met people from other gyms. We mingled, interacted and competed in fitness activities on the beach. It was a good way of making new friends and keeping yourself sane in this very busy society.”
Some have used the gym to find like-minded folks and build social groups. Ben Aniebohmen is an example. He is someone you can describe as a “fat cat”––physically and figuratively. He works as an investment banker, but he owns a filling station by the side. A man of goliath frame, over six feet tall, as broad as a barn with an immense girth and gifted with an infectious bonhomie that made him fun to be with. In his late 40s, he works out regularly in a Surulere gym. His fitness goal was not necessarily to slim down but to keep his social life in shape, according to him. He extols the benefit of getting a gym life, citing as an example, the exciting new group to which he now belongs.
“I think we are all a bunch of miserable rich fellows with well-paid jobs but with no lives of our own,” he says with a long belly laugh. “We all met at the gym in Surulere. Besides the tough fitness activities, we have become a group of like-minded individuals who now have fun together. Some weekends, we’d spend the whole day at the gym having a good time. After the sweat session, we settle down to make merry. We drink responsibly, vodka, gin or rum and we discuss the state of the nation. Sometimes, we play light games of cards, ludo or drafts. The last time, we ordered vegan meals from a restaurant on the Island. A member introduced us to the cuisine and we all found it interesting. This we do once a month and it has improved our lives considerably.”
Like Aniebohmen, Joshua Umeh, an importer of electrical components at Alaba International Market, also uses the gym to widen his friendship pool.
“I counterbalances the stress of hours of hard work with gym sessions. I have no time to attend parties or social events––the gym more than made up for that. Even when I am on vacation, the gym is my own outlet for leisure; it is where I meet like-minded people, some of whom have become my good friends over the years across cities in the UK, US and UAE.”
There is a family angle too. This is well told by Bunmi Akinsanya, a staff of a telecommunication company. “We––myself, my two daughters and husband––go to the gym twice a week. It is not healthy to remain cooped indoors all days; and sometimes, the terrible traffic of Lagos means going far from home is an unpleasant experience. So, when a gym opened in our neighbourhood some three years ago, it was a great opportunity to add some zest to our family life.”
The importance of finding a gym that meets your specific need is emphasized by Halim: “If your need is fitness, your gym instructors matter enough, they must know what they are doing to help you achieve your goal otherwise they will waste your time and money. If they are good, they can tailor your activities to meet your need and you are on your way to a wholesome experience.”
Choose a session that suits your schedule, Aniebohmen advises.
“In this city of Lagos, no matter how stressful your life is, there is a part of your day that you have less to do. You can snap that up for your time in the gym. For examples, we do a midweek evening session. That is when the traffic is crazy; instead of sitting and steaming in the traffic, we relax in the gym till 10 pm and then find our way home to bed. And it helps that the gym is an area that is close to our offices.”