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Opinion Omicron could finally kick our unhealthy New Year’s gym obsession

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Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is associate professor of history at the New School and author of the forthcoming “Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession.”

There’s an iron law that governs shiny health clubs and grubby weight rooms alike: Early January is the busy season.

I’ve worked at — and worked out at — gyms for decades, and the pattern never changes. When I was a group fitness instructor, managers made sure we all devoted extra attention to the inexperienced New Year’s resolution crowd. As a receptionist, I offered encouragement and sometimes advice to step on the treadmill before starting it. We never neglected the regulars, though; they were the ones who would still be there when the rush inevitably dissipated by Valentine’s Day, if not earlier.

It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of this dubious seasonal ritual, but almost as soon as exercise became a way to offset the effects of newly available caloric food and sedentary office work borne of industrialization, it became a Jan. 1 staple to try to improve oneself through exercise. But with the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus hitting the United States just as the big gym rush usually would, this might be the moment our unnatural annual obsession thankfully meets its demise.

When I went to the gym the first Monday of this year, just two of us had signed up for a usually popular cardio dance class. I’ve been back every day since, and only about a quarter of the StairMasters and squat racks have ever been in use. Preliminary data suggests the members at my gym aren’t the only ones taking a pause.

It’s still early to draw conclusions about this January’s fitness behavior, but it doesn’t take charts and graphs to grasp what’s going on: On top of a nearly two-year pandemic slog that has left many burned out, omicron is making them even more skittish about heavy breathing in crowded brick-and-mortar gyms.

This one-two punch is difficult news for the industry, which has shrunk by almost a quarter since March 2020 — but it might hint at a positive turn in our fraught health culture: people exercising on their own terms, as opposed to those dictated by the marketing calendar of the multibillion-dollar commercial fitness and diet industries.

That would be a big deal, given how long we’ve lived with and how much we’ve invested in this seasonal cycle. “Make a New Year’s Resolution and START NOW!” implored a 1968 ad for a Fort Worth health spa featuring a slim woman wearing a leotard — and high heels. “Set Realistic Fitness Goals,” advised the Cincinnati Enquirer in December 1982 in between an ad for fast food and several recipes for rich holiday meals.

Those empty ellipticals at my gym might point to a shift already well underway. Gyms are struggling mightily, but anyone who tried to order kettlebells, resistance bands or a bicycle during the pandemic knows that the appetite for exercise did not disappear but, like so much of life in the pandemic, only transformed. And it’s not just the rich riding Pelotons, either. Free programs such as Yoga With Adriene and low-tech activities such as running and hiking also exploded in the past two years. In-person communal exercise is even tentatively coming back.

Well before omicron, the pandemic was reorganizing our relationship to exercise. I’ve had people tell me about starting online accountability groups around training for springtime races, or maintaining their workouts through the holidays, rather than afterward. Others talk about how health scares, from a broken bone to the recognition of a coronavirus comorbidity, have pushed them into exercise routines they have stuck with more than ever before.

In D.C., one woman whose habits the pandemic dislodged decided that she would celebrate her 50th birthday by being “done with diet culture forever” and instead exercising to feel “good and strong.” Five months later, she is still at it. It’s a long way from the New Year’s exerciser quoted in a 1986 Florida newspaper who found motivation in her fear of January “jiggle.”

Feeling inspired to exercise is often challenging. It’s even harder when you’ve been repeatedly failed and shamed by the tired “new year, new you” promises. So amid all the ways covid-19 and its latest wave have hurt our health, maybe this one way it can help: a fresh approach to exercise, on a timeline of our own making.

I’ll be back at the gym tomorrow, and if I’m dancing alone for now, that’s all right by me.