Finding Workout Buddies in the #HistGym
I took physical education (PE) by correspondence in high school. This is typically good for a laugh at parties or as my fun fact during ice-breaker sessions. There are two ways I tell this story now. The first is that taking PE by correspondence, studying the rules of tennis and golf from workbooks before “practicing” at a court or driving range, freed up my schedule for more Advanced Placement classes. Thanks to those available credit hours, I was able to take AP classes in European history, art history, and calculus. The second way to tell the story, and the way I now realize is probably much more accurate, is that as a teenage girl in suburban Dallas I’d so internalized the jocks versus nerds divide, I could not allow myself to participate in even intramural sports out of fear that I’d be seen as “not smart.” I held on to my heavy course load and AP exams as an identity, and I took care of my body during evenings, weekends, and summer breaks.
Although I dutifully went to the gym throughout my undergraduate and MA programs, it wasn’t until I finished my first MA that I began to make athletics a part of my life. Outside of the university, the jock/nerd divide suddenly seemed absurd. I was surrounded by smart, competent professionals who trained for triathlons, played rec-league soccer, or took water aerobics classes.
In retrospect, I’m certain that my fellow graduate students and instructors did these things too, but we didn’t talk about them. Like Stephanie Lawton, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and founder of #HistGym, explained, “I never heard about or saw my mentors talking about physical fitness and health much while I was an undergrad. . . . In the world of academia, mind seemed valued over brawn. And I sacrificed my physical self to my intellectual one.” Freed from the pressure to live just a life of the mind, I took up running, to the surprise of anyone who knew me in high school, and found that I loved it. When I entered a PhD program a few years later, athletics did not make me less capable a scholar. If anything, the time spent on solitary long runs helped clarify my thinking and gave me something to do independent from my life as a graduate student.
In this issue, Varsha Venkatasubramanian (Univ. of California, Berkeley) describes using Twitter to connect to fellow historians and how this network helped her fend off feelings of isolation and loneliness during the pandemic. I, too, found community on Twitter—in the #HistGym. Instead of sharing our research, we cheer each other on as we work to set new deadlift PR (personal records), train for 5ks, master new yoga poses, start a walking routine, and generally keep moving.
Lawton started the #HistGym to “promote the idea of physical activity and physical health whatever that might mean for a person.” “We’re not fitness influencers,” she says. Anyone can participate in the #HistGym, whether they’re doing CrossFit or walking their pandemic puppy. The goal is not to force a particular kind of fitness ideal on everyone but to create a space that values scholars’ health, both physical and mental, and that normalizes talking about our lives outside of our work.
I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know about the #HistGym until COVID hit. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to use Twitter to connect with my colleagues around exercise, something that is incredibly meaningful to me but absent from my professional world. It has been a source of joy, and a powerful motivation during a dark and cold winter, to stumble into Lawton’s #HistGym.
I hope you’ll join us. Unlike most gyms, there is no membership fee, and you can quit at any time.
Ashley E. Bowen is editor of Perspectives on History. She tweets @AEBowenPhD.
Tags: From the Editor
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