The first time I set foot in a gym I was greeted by a haze of chalk dust. Behind it, a chorus of grunts reminded me that this was a place with a language and culture that I didn’t understand.
It was a lone lifter, deadlifting 315. Nowadays that doesn’t seem like as much, but at the time I was impressed. And intimidated. I couldn’t imagine ever moving something that heavy—the weight may as well have been a mountain.
It didn’t help that, 20 minutes later, I narrowly avoided dropping a barbell on my face during my first-ever bench press. As heads turned in my direction, the redness in my cheeks had nothing to do with exercise.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact gym session that sparked my addiction to fitness, but it certainly wasn’t that one. That day, I walked out of the gym demoralized. It would be a long time before I came back for day two. But I did come back eventually.
And kept coming back. There are a million studies that talk about the benefits of exercise, and I 100% believe them—being fit has been an unparalleled experience. I could never have anticipated the confidence—the comfort in your own skin—that comes from fitness.
Nothing on earth is quite the same as the feeling of walking out of the gym on a sunny spring day.
The journey from foolish to fitness is a long one, but a series of moments from my experience capture what success feels like. That chalk-inhaling, barbell-dropping scrawny kid is the first one.
The second one came months later. Sweat dripped from my forehead and I could feel a bruise on my forearm from the hard gym floor. Ten seconds left in the side plank, but my shoulders were shot from the circuit workout I had found in some corner of the internet.
I collapsed and wobbled my way out of the gym. I tried to open the door and realized, disbelievingly, that my arms were too weak. I budged it open with my butt and went home to shower.
Another few months go by, but now I’m hooked. I don’t have a gym membership anymore, so I get a pull-up bar for the door. My numbers have gone up, and I’ve almost hit 20. I’ve discovered that I like rap music. Lose Yourself is playing during my first-ever handstand push-up. I kick out of it and jump for joy. I run into an old friend, who jokingly asks if I’m on steroids.
The middle of a New York winter. The world is frozen over, but the outdoor track has thawed just enough that it might be safe to run. I layer up and get moving.
Workout of the day is repeat 100 meter sprints, walking rest. It might be 15 degrees. There’s one other person, an older man walking laps. When I lie down after my last set, breathing hard, he approaches and says “keep working. It’s the only way to get there.” I never knew his name, but in that moment he said exactly what I needed to hear.
I’m experimenting with farmer’s walks, my new favorite exercise. The gym dumbbells only go up to 100 lbs, but someone is using them so I chalk up and start walking with 90s. The strongest guy in the gym comes over and asks about what I’m doing. I can feel my chest swell up with pride as we spend a few minutes talking about grip strength.
Outside of the gym, I notice someone noticing me for the first time at a party. I don’t think it’s ever happened before, but it’s also possible my shyness prevented me from seeing it. With newfound confidence I only slightly feel, I ask her to dance. To my surprise and delight, she says yes.
It doesn’t take long for the confidence to go to my head, and somewhere along the line I pick up the nickname “Shirtless Ben.” I fail my first attempt at a 405 deadlift and my ego gets kept in check.
It’s Saturday morning, around 10:30. The gym is almost empty—the only sound the clunk of a single elliptical being used upstairs. I step up to the bar, chalk dust settling on my clothes. I glance at the mirror briefly, then put in my headphones. Lose Yourself is playing. I crouch down, close my eyes, and grip the bar.
At first it barely moves and I think the lift is failed, but I dig deeper and it starts to rise. My eyes are pointed at the mirror, but I can’t see anything. My face must be turning red as the weight goes up. I lock it out. 455. PR.
One day, I see a guy in pretty good shape use the battling ropes at my new gym. I’d never used them before, so I go up to ask about what he’s doing. Apparently they get your arms darn tired. I think I see his eyes light up a little, and we spend a few minutes talking about grip strength.
I get on a plane to go home to New York and the flight attendant asks me for a workout. I meet with an old boss and he takes a second to recognize me. I go shopping for clothes—my butt and thighs have gotten big enough that I need to buy new jeans. Someone on the street asks if I’m a t-shirt model and, when I say no, says “do you want to be?”
I’m still sometimes quiet, but no longer shy. When I go to the beach, I’ve stopped worrying about how I look shirtless and just have fun in the sand. When I have ideas at work, I actually share them. When I put myself out there, people notice.
When Mondays feel eternal, I know a barbell is waiting for me.
That’s what fitness feels like.
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.