My Journey from the Gym to the Gym

Bill Caudill overcomes his old fears of the gym … at the gym.

I know this article isn’t about anything in the news. It’s merely a tale of personal growth by a single guy. But hopefully it will be helpful to other guys. Was my journey from Point A back to Point A? Well, not exactly …

During my preteen years I was small for my age. Small boys are frequently targeted by bullies. Several instances were physically violent and traumatic enough to cause my mind to erase the memories. However, my sister (who is seven years older) remembered these incidents and tearfully told my wife about them two years ago.

The memories were gone, but I was left with a residual fear of boys who were bigger and stronger. For example, when I was nine years old, I met the son of one of my dad’s business partners for the first time. He was a stocky athletic kid, but he had a gentle disposition. Despite his friendliness, I felt nervous around him and wanted to get away from him as soon as I could. Decades later I was still wondering why I had reacted the way I did. I found out when my wife told me what my sister had said.

Even though I had no interest in sports as a young boy, I became ashamed of not being physically strong and having a muscular physique.

Traditional mandatory PE began for me when I was in the fourth grade (without the gym) and continued through junior high. It was the beginning of a time of complete misery for me, as it was for all other nonathletic boys. All boys were forced to participate in team games, but no instruction in the sports was ever provided. There was no education in “Physical Education.” All I ever learned in PE was to fear (and resent) coaches and athlete classmates. Most significantly, I did not get any exercise! All of my PE coaches viewed nonathletic boys with either indifference or contempt.

The first gym of my title came in junior high. Every school day I dreaded the period when I had PE. I feared being humiliated and bullied. The misery mercifully came to an end when I was in the eighth grade. When I was in high school, band exempted me from PE. I heard that the PE classes at my high school were even more hellish.
I continued to suffer from low body self-esteem. I would never even wear a short-sleeve shirt because I was embarrassed by my scrawny forearms. Thanks to the kind principal of the school, I was not required to take PE during the spring of my eighth-grade year; but the misery and alienation were not over. A new phase would soon begin. My parents sent me to a clinical psychologist because my grades had fallen and I was being bullied at school. The bullying was verbal now.

The psychologist sent me to a judo instructor, a white guy who was a former university football player. This jerk believed that only athletes and men in certain blue-collar jobs were “real men.” (But he sure did obsess over my decisively nonathletic dad, who happened to be extremely successful in his chosen field. Perhaps the judo instructor was jealous.)

I always felt like an outsider in his dojo. I also felt patronized when he promoted me to brown belt, a promotion I clearly did not deserve. (I didn’t even know the names of most of the techniques!) He didn’t even require me to undergo an evaluation of some sort. During the spring of my junior year, I had had enough of this charade and decided to quit.


When I was 32 years old, I purchased a beginner’s set of weights; but I didn’t stick with it. I have been baffled as to why I didn’t join a health club at that point in my life decades ago. Perhaps I assumed health clubs were the exclusive domain of jocks.

I was diagnosed with late onset type II diabetes at the age of 53. I finally decided to join a health club at the age of 57. The health club employed physical trainers; so, I decided to hire one to train me in bodybuilding.

Working with personal trainers has actually been psychologically therapeutic. Since I have worked hard and have done as each of my trainers has instructed me, each has made me feel he appreciates my efforts. One of them once told me he bragged about me to the other trainers, and another said I was his favorite client. All my trainers have athletic backgrounds, but none of them subscribe to machismo. All of them have liked me, and I have felt a sense of belonging. Since I have a high metabolic rate and have been suffering from a chronic sleep disorder, my rate of progress has been very slow. In fact, I am struggling.

I should point out a particular experience I had with my first trainer. He would occasionally vary the workout routine by introducing me to a sport. On one such occasion he asked me if I had ever learned how to shoot a basketball. I had always assumed that it was simply a matter of thrusting the ball through the air towards the hoop. I was amazed to learn that it was a physical skill involving particular finger and wrist movements. A skill that can be learned through practice. I was shown that I could have learned this skill when I was a boy without much difficulty. But it was never taught in any of my PE classes! I realized on that occasion that all of us nonathletic guys had been shortchanged by the fraud that was mandatory PE. I’ve heard of remedial math and reading, but never remedial Physical Education before.

At the age of 62 I have begun to feel more comfortable with my body for the first time in my life. A deep need in my life is finally being met. I love the feel of clenching my muscles that I had not previously developed. Although I’m still far from my goal, I’m more self-confident than I’ve ever been. Guys who bullied me when I was a kid would be surprised how aggressive I can be. They wouldn’t mess with me today.

This is the way to promote physical fitness for sedentary boys! None of my physical trainers have looked down on me for being a nonathlete. In fact, they have respected me. I feel like I belong at my health club! The point is that a decent health club is the perfect place for a nonathletic guy who suffered in PE.

I’m still not a sports fan; and I continue to detest machismo. And my former judo instructor can go soak his head.


Read more in Men Over 50 and Lifestyle on The Good Life.

Image credit: Beverly & Pack/Flickr

About Bill Caudill

Bill, 62, is retired and lives in Texas with his wife of 33 years. He is the proud father of two young ladies and is currently working on a novella that he hopes to complete this year.


  1. Thanks for the compliment, Rick!

    There is a reason why judo wasn’t any easier for you to learn. Two years ago I had an extended online exchange with a martial arts expert who told me that judo is not meant for boys who are slightly built. He said a martial art more appropriate for them would be tae kwon do. He also told me that my former judo instructor had his share of detractors in the martial arts community.

    At this point I will only say there is a movement to reform mandatory P.E. The innovative program PE4Life is excellent; but as one of the leading proponents of that program (Coach Tim McCord in Titusville, PA) told me in an e-mail, the old P.E. is still with us. Sports columnists such as Rick Reilly are opposed to P.E. reform. They only care about sports, not kids.

    I’m glad you found a niche in which you were somewhat competent, but I remain adamantly opposed to forcing kids to play sports in mandatory P.E. classes. (When you think about it, “forced to play” is a contradiction.) A sport is a physical contest that requires one or more skills (that must be taught and developed through practice, by the way), not an exercise program. I’ve never understood why the sports crowd want to impose their preferences upon those who aren’t interested in them. They certainly don’t have the best interests of nonathletic kids at heart.

    I like the Seinfeld quotation, by the way. 🙂

  2. Good post, Bill. The judo class must’ve been some sort of obligatory rite of passage for those of us in a certain age range who were not as physically adept as our boyhood peers and subject to bullying and humiliation as a result. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find judo any easier to learn than any of the other physical activities that had routinely stumped me.

    I think you make a great point about the lack of education in Physical Education. I remember so well the terror of being faced with one task after another I’d never done, never seen anyone do, and couldn’t imagine knowing how to do. The worst of the lot was gymnastics: “Everyone get in line to bounce off this mini-trampoline and do a handstand over this wall of wooden boxes and land on your feet on the other side. And make it quick!” I was sure I was gonna kill myself every time. It’s a miracle I didn’t.

    I’m always reminded of this routine from Jerry Seinfeld:

    Any day that you had gym, it was a weird school day, you know what I mean, because it started off kind of normal. You have English, Geometry, Social Studies and then suddenly you’re like in Lord of The Flies for 40 minutes. Y’know, you’re hangin’ from a rope. You have hardly any clothes on. Teachers are yellin’ at ya, “Where’s your jock strap?” and kids are throwin’ dodge balls at you. You’re tryin’ to survive …

    Somehow I survived and made it to high school. By then, I was finally able to figure out a couple of things (running and kicking a ball) I was able to do at least as well as the average boy my age so I could focus on sports (track and soccer) that allowed me to operate within my limitations. I still had to train harder and longer than most boys just to be average, but at least I found a niche where I could feel somewhat competent.

  3. Thank you very much for your response, G. I deeply appreciate it. I’ve done some research on the issue of how the old P.E. has adversely affected nonathletic guys. Traditional sports-only P.E. has actually discouraged young nonathletic men from becoming physically active, just as you have just related concerning your own life. I had heard of health clubs since the early 1980s, but didn’t join one until I was 57 years old!

    I’m a strong believer in exercise to maintain good health. For example, those who have a prediabetic condition can avoid coming down with the disease if they exercise regularly. I must point out that top levels of physical fitness can be achieved WITHOUT participating in any sport. Not to mention the fact that some sports entail risks to one’s health.

    I’m sick and tired of those who seek to impose sports upon all boys. There’s absolutely no need and no justification for doing that. As far as I’m concerned, the “physical education” establishment forfeited any “right” to impose team sports upon nonathletic boys in mandatory P.E. classes generations ago. I have no problem with retaining the old P.E. for the boys who want to participate in sports. I have more consideration for the school sports crowd than they’ve ever shown towards nonathletic boys.

    I’m sick and tired of machismo, such as that of my former judo instructor many years ago when I was a teenager. (The jerk even denigrated the Soviet physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov since he wasn’t a jock!) I’m sick and tired of athletic prowess being used as a phony standard of masculinity for the purpose of denigrating nonathletic guys. There are slightly built men who have not had any interest in competitive team sports, but have shown great moral courage even to the point of risking their own lives. They are not “sissies” or wimps!

    I have nothing but contempt for the sort of P.E. teacher whom you’ve referenced in your post. They never should have been given authority over kids who had no choice but to take their useless class. Over the years I’ve heard tales of bullying (including outright physical assault) in mandatory P.E. that would cause stones to weep, but these tales have been largely disregarded. If I sound bitter, so be it.

  4. it’s nice to know i’m not alone… it took me almost 20 years to go back to exercise after high school and it’s been the best thing for me in terms of calming me, helping me focus, and keeping my mental and physical health under control…
    the sadism and ignorance of PE teachers who never actually teach that sport can be fun, that competition with others is one side of things but engaging healthily and mindfully with your body and challenging it is a beautiful pleasure, those PE teachers have failed miserably in their jobs….

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