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Hip Checks to Hugs: Research Shows the Upside to Getting Physical at the Gym (Okay, and the downsides too)

Posted Sep 14 2012 1:25am

“Touch me!” Unless you’re Mariah Carey, a cast member of Saturday Night Live or a cheeky hologram in a sci-fi series (looking at you, Rimmer!) chances are you haven’t uttered those words in a long time. I’m guessing it’s more likely you’ve said “Don’t touch me!” recently. In fact, our standard for being not-touched is often one of the first things we communicate about ourselves. “Oh I’m not a hugger!” “Sorry, I’d shake your hand but I have a cold!” “You’re in my bubble.” “Don’t only Eurpoean wannabes kiss cheeks? Unless your name is Sven Svenly Svenson, back off!” There are as many ways to not-touch someone as there are ways to touch them. (Law of the universe, right there. You’re welcome, Einstein.) But the truth is we all need to be touched. We all instinctively know this but at the same time we’re so worried about giving or receiving the wrong kind of touch that we figure better hands-off safe than sorry.

I love people who break this rule.

Hugger Joe was my friend in college. We first met when he hugged me at a party. “Oh I’m not really a hug…” I started but was cut off as he crushed the wind out of me. “When’s the last time someone hugged you?” he didn’t even wait for me to answer. All night long I kept seeing his bright blue hair bob through the crowd as he bear-hugged anyone within arms reach. It could have been creepy but I think it wasn’t because he didn’t discriminate. Fat, thin, gay, straight, male, female, human, muppet: he hugged us all. And we needed it. By the time we graduated many hugs later, I had officially become a hugger too, albeit not as aggressively as Joe.

Joe might have been a little crazy but it turns out he was on to something. Virginia Satir’s research into touch therapy concluded that “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” That’s a lot of hugs! But it’s worth it: A 2003 study found that not only does hugging, hand-holding and other positive touch make your heart feel happy but it also protects your heart. People in the study who were physically affectionate had lower blood pressure, less reported stress and fewer markers of heart disease. And studies going back for decades have shown that hospital patients who are touched by their nurses heal faster, communicate better and leave the hospital sooner. The trick, of course, is how to get your daily quotient of physical affection without being a total creeper.

Touching people doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me but I try to be aware of people who might need a high five, a shoulder to cry on or even a secret handshake. Tonight I had the opportunity to visit a gym friend who recently had surgery. On a whim, I brought my pedicure kit with me. She couldn’t reach her toes so I figured I’d help her out. “Eww no! I have the grossest feet!” she said. “I don’t care,” I answered. (And truly I don’t – I’m not one of those people who gets weirded out by feet.) “They’re so dirty!” she tried again. “Sit down,” I smiled. I finally convinced her and after massaging her feet for a bit, in honor of her 60th birthday I painted her toes bright cobalt blue with a holographic glitter topcoat. Because nothing says grandma like glitter. I even talked another friend into letting me paint her toenails too after she admitted she had only recently bought her first bottle of nail polish in her entire life.

I think they liked their new toes. But I think I liked it more. Not in a I-have-a-pervy-foot-fetish way but in the way that it just feels good to be able to touch someone in a gentle, caring way. I smiled all the way home where Jelly Bean then insisted I paint her fingers and toes ten different sparkly colors. (For good measure my tootsies are now emerald green. )

Children are natural touch-ers. All day long I’m being touched by somebody: hugs in the morning, kisses at bedtime, leg clinging, shirt pulling and, just like a puppy, one son who always tries to bury his head in my crotch. (Sorry kid, that trip’s a one-way ticket.) It gets to the point where by the time my husband comes home all I want is to be left alone, poor man. But tonight as I sat next to Jelly Bean’s bed and she “did” my hair by putting 17 clippies in it, I realized how lucky I am. Anytime I need a hug now, I don’t have to wait for an overly effusive stoner to happen upon me, I have a whole bunch of ready arms to hold me. Moms of grown children often tell me these little gestures are what they miss the most.

Unfortunately fitness falls dead center in the middle of this touch me-don’t touch me paradox. On one hand, it’s rule #19b of the gym code – you’re going to get touched. Whether it’s a trainer correcting your form, a yoga teacher deepening your pose, a teammate giving you knuckles or a Gym Buddy who always sneaks up on you on the treadmill and smacks your butt (you know who you are!), the gym can be a great place to connect with other people – literally. Of  course there’s the bad kind too: The out-of-my-way hip check at the weight rack, the creepy this-is-how-you-hold-the-racket tutorial, and everyone’s favorite, the hug where both parties are so sweaty it’s like Jell-O wrestling without the benefit of being drunk enough not to care.

This came up at the gym the other day (of course it did). It turns out that touching is, well, really personal. My pet peeve is when people put their hands on my hips or low back to move me out of their way (just touch my shoulder! Or say excuse me! I promise I’ll move!). Another woman said she hates it when people poke her in the ribs – to the point where she actually has nightmares about people trying to tickle her and she punches them in the face. A guy chimed in that he hates it when people grab his neck which kinda stopped the conversation as the rest of us were pondering a situation where that would happen at the gym. (Chest press? I’ll spot you, bro! No way will I let you crush your larynx with that bar! I’ll just put my hand right here to protect you… ?!)

Are you a touchy person? Who do you go to when you just need a hug? Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to being touched in the gym? How do you feel about feet?



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