I Want to Look Damn Good When the World Sees Me Again

Life is coming back, and Americans are working out to get ready for it.

A shirtless man laying on a yoga mat and lifting weights.
Paco Freire / SOPA / LightRocket / Getty

All pandemic long, I’ve been hunting for a way—please, literally any way—to bludgeon myself into exercising with some kind of regularity. The quarantine life has turned me into an Indian Gollum. My arms, never quite jacked but at least semi-toned, currently have about as much bulk as overcooked linguini. Whatever seedlings of abs I had last March are now buried deep beneath a permafrost of flab.

In the spring, I tried an online fitness class studded with motivational mantras so cheesy, you could put them on a Hallmark card. Nope. Over the summer, I briefly got back into running, but then my creaky knees decided they’d had enough of that. I narrowed my ambitions in the fall and forced myself to do some morning push-ups and planks. Soon enough, I was back to sleeping in.

Everything changed last month. Three days a week, I now stream a 45-minute Peloton class, pedaling away on a wobbly stationary bike until my legs are so tired that I can only waddle to the shower. On a fourth day, I make use of my (much swoler) brother’s dumbbells and do an hour of bicep curls, chest presses, and Russian twists. I’m even forgoing—okay, well, mostly forgoing—the glass of whiskey that has come to mark the end of my commute-less workdays.

All it took to finally motivate me was a bit of vanity. For the first time in a very long time, the pandemic is easing up in the United States. Coronavirus cases have plummeted from their January peak. Vaccinations keep climbing. Like a butterfly hatching from its cocoon, we’re finally on our way toward fluttering out of quarantine and into a world in which we can get together without the constant threat of infection. Packed movie theaters! Packed bars! Packed ... conference rooms?!

Soon enough, that is, we’ll have to figure out how to be around one another again. And I sure as hell want to look good when we do.

I had to know: Are other people acting as self-absorbed as I am? Every year there’s a frenzy to get that svelte summer beach bod, but ahead of this summer, something special might be happening. “People are legit getting ready for the end,” says Taryn Stewart, a personal trainer in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Since the start of February, attendance at her virtual classes has doubled, and many of her in-person clients who used to come see her monthly are now showing up once a week or more. “I can tell this is not just a summer bump,” Stewart told me. “I’ve been training for a long time, and I’ve never seen this amount of pickup.”

Other trainers and gyms told me the same. Matt Wiedemer, the owner of Beat Personal Training, in Cincinnati, says that his gym is busier than it was before the pandemic, even with all the social-distancing measures he’s had to institute. February is usually one of the slowest months for the Brooklyn pilates studio Yo BK, but it has seen an uptick in visitors over the past few months. Now that many states are loosening their restrictions on gyms, the exercise-curious will have even more ways to work on their bod.

Not all places I reached out to are seeing a horde of new clients crying out for six packs: It’s not as if every American is suddenly stepping up their fitness game to look their absolute hottest for a return to normalcy. Many people don’t have the time, resources, or yes, the desire to get jacked during a still-very-bad pandemic. Meanwhile, the most annoying overachievers among us have already spent the past year Peloton-ing their way into the best shape of their life.

Even so, over the past two weeks, I found seven Americans who have embarked on their own fitness journeys to get sinewy summertime bodies. I heard about burpees galore, interval sessions that make quads ache for days, and every single possible ab workout known to humanity. Although the newly minted workout fiends have a range of different pandemic circumstances, they all told me they’re channeling that back-to-school feeling: Everyone wants to look their absolute best getting off the school bus.

Jessica Rosario-Calcaño, a 40-year-old New Yorker who works in fashion, told me she’s feeling the squeeze to catch up on her fitness. During the day, when her kids and husband are out, it’s just her and Alexa—Amazon Alexa—and she misses the thrill of dressing up and hearing compliments at work. In January, her archnemesis Instagrammed a braggy photo of her flawless pandemic physique, so now Rosario-Calcaño goes on 40-minute walks in the morning and does interval workouts from her apartment, hoping she’ll one-up her frenemy by July. “I’m getting ready to be seen again,” she told me. “I know it sounds superficial, but I didn’t realize until the pandemic that it’s important to me.”

Teddy Carbone, a junior at the University of Puget Sound, is running 5Ks to get built for when college no longer means Zooming into class from his childhood bedroom in Los Angeles. He feels like a completely different person from who he was when he left campus last spring, and he wants his body to look that way too. Now he’s daydreaming of looking the best he ever has for the debauchery of a post-pandemic senior year—leisurely meals at Thai restaurants, impromptu trips to the beach, finally learning how to make his own gin. “In an ideal world, for half a second I will have a six pack,” Carbone said.

When Jillene Golez needs a motivational jolt, she imagines herself on vacation in Cabo, Mexico, looking like Khloé Kardashian as she pops out of the water. During quarantine, Golez, a tech worker in Dallas, had a baby and gained a bit of weight from being at home all day, and she’s longing for the confidence she had last March. Five days a week, she Zooms into a group fitness class with a trainer in California, and then crams in a few more Peloton rides throughout the week. “Maybe it’s vain, but I don’t want to give a presentation on my first day back in the office and worry about my jeans not fitting,” Golez told me. “I don’t want to go back to work and hear people whispering, Oh, she really went through the banana-bread-to-feta-pasta phase.”

Despite fearmongering about the “quarantine 15,” putting on some pounds from experimenting in the kitchen during a tough year is absolutely not something most people need to fret over, says Lindo Bacon, a nutritionist at UC Davis. Focusing on weight as an exercise goal can get dangerous—especially in America, where the weight-loss industry has spent generations promulgating an unhealthy attitude toward dieting and exercise, for women in particular. The pandemic has been a brutally different time, Bacon says, and food has been a reasonable coping mechanism when so many of the usual outlets we rely on aren’t an option. Weight naturally fluctuates based on circumstance, so once everyone goes back to their sweatpants-less lives of actually leaving their homes, the added pounds should slowly melt away without predawn workouts.

That didn’t stop many people I spoke with from fixating on their weight. Sometimes, our conversations took a sudden turn from breaking down lifting schedules and reciting mile times to a deeper acknowledgment of the anxiety, depression, and shame that have accompanied this pandemic. The uniquely difficult nature of life in quarantine is that the isolation makes it hard to see how other people are going through the same thing. “The lack of ability to be with each other in 3-D is definitely adding to this feeling that It’s only me; I’m the only one who is struggling,” Christy Harrison, a dietitian and the author of Anti-diet, told me.

The past year hasn’t been great for Ayla, a 33-year-old mother in DeKalb, Illinois. “The pandemic has beaten me up, and I don’t want to look how I feel,” she told me. (The Atlantic agreed to identify Ayla by her first name only so that she could candidly discuss her quarantine struggles.) She’s seen people on social media bragging about their achievements this year, so she now wakes up at 6 a.m. and switches between taking YouTube fitness classes and lifting dumbbells to get in shape for her birthday in May.

When exercise is driven by self-contempt, jealousy, or unattainable goals, it can easily cause more harm than good. Still, the people I spoke with also told me how liberating it can be to merely fuss over their glutes, stomachs, and biceps again, rather than worrying how long their bodies would make it before falling into the grips of a deadly virus. Really, says Michelle Segar, a motivational psychologist at the University of Michigan, the value of bench-pressing your way to boulders for pecs ultimately comes down to what you’re out to achieve. After a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year, getting totally ripped “could reflect a shedding of the whole negative, complicated experience, not just any extra pounds,” she told me. For some people, lunging and squatting their way to a post-pandemic beach bod has become the best strategy to put this nightmare behind them.

One month into my workout routine, my arms are still more angel hair than rigatoni. Some days I relish the sweaty glee of hitting a personal record on the bike, but other days I struggle to stick to my routine. I’ve come to accept that I’ll more realistically be drinking a six pack in July than showing one off. But for me, getting fit is about more than some protein-addled desire to feel better about what I’ve been up to over the past year. I’m so, so sick of wearing the same schlubby T-shirts every day. Zoom, ughhh. My beard is now so patchy that it’s turned my face into a Jackson Pollock painting. Normalcy isn’t quite here yet, but it’s close enough for me to be vain again, and let me tell you, that feels wonderful.