How “Game of Thrones” Got Me to the Gym

George R.R. Martin’s lengthy fantasy series inspires Tim Lehman’s new exercise routine.


I often receive skeptical looks when I tell people that Game of Thrones is the reason I go to the gym. It’s not that I saw parallels between myself and the oafish King Robert Baratheon and decided that I needed to start working out — that would be ridiculous — but my discovery of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has done more to get me to exercise than anything since This American Life began releasing podcasts.

It started with the show, which quickly hooked me. Lunch breaks turned into a brief descent into the continent of Westeros, and days off turned into binge sessions. But lunch hours and occasional days off didn’t allow me enough time to adequately keep abreast of the goings-on in King’s Landing, Winterfell and at the Wall. I couldn’t skip washing dishes, studying for the GRE, or watching House Hunters with my girlfriend to watch a medieval epic without feeling like a jerk. What I needed was an excuse, a reason to spend more time watching Game of Thrones.

Enter the gym.

Like a lot of people, I have a fraught history with the gym. I should work out more, and I know it. Every few months I go through a period where I’m excited about working out, and I’m sure that I’m really going to do it this time. Every day for a couple of weeks I run a few miles or ride the stationary bike for an hour. I feel great, both physically and mentally, no longer wracked with the guilt of not exercising. But then, inevitably, I run out of podcasts or get caught up with The New Yorker, and without suitable distractions, suddenly napping or looking at the internet become more appealing ways to spend my time.

With the HBO Go app, I suddenly had a way to watch Game of Thrones at the gym, and with the gym, I finally had an excuse to make time for the show. It was perfect. The only downside was that season one is only ten episodes and I had already watched most of them before my great gym revelation. I spent those three afternoons at the gym with my eyes glued to my iPhone’s tiny screen as I pedaled on the stationary bike. I was burning calories while I watched Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre burn.

When the season ended, I tried starting Boardwalk Empire, but wasn’t drawn in after three episodes and gave up. Re-watching Six Feet Under for the fourth time lost its appeal quickly. I didn’t make it through more than 15 minutes of the pilot of Luck, mostly because it was too quiet to hear over the gym’s Top 40 radio. I was precariously close to giving up on exercise again, and only further adventures in Westeros could prevent my slovenly decline.

I bought A Game of Thrones, able to look past my conflicted feelings about purchasing novels with covers advertising the filmic adaptation. I took the hefty 700-page novel with me to the gym and read 50 pages as I rode on the bike. As I pedaled and read, I barely noticed the minutes tick by. I was surprised when I looked up from the pages to see that the bike flashing “COURSE COMPLETED: BEGIN COOL DOWN.”

For the next two weeks, I kept at A Game of Thrones while at the gym. Around the halfway point of each workout, the sweat began to drip from my forehead onto the pages, big splotches spreading across the paper. I used a bookmark, but I didn’t need to: I could track my progress based on where the warped, sweat-curled pages ended and the fresh pages began. The cover became oily and began to peel apart at the corners. I didn’t mind.

When I finished a chapter with a few minutes to go in my workout, I would stop reading, rather than quit mid-chapter when my workout ended. My mind wandered, picking through what I had just read. I wondered about things like which Ice and Fire character I most exemplified: was I like Arya, taking sword lessons from Syrio Forel? (Maybe the comparison would make more sense if I worked out with a personal trainer.) Perhaps I resembled Ned Stark, grimly determined to do my duty, to honorably burn those calories for future generations. Certainly we both sweated a lot.

As I neared the end of A Game of Thrones, I ordered A Clash of Kings, the second book in the series. It is equally long and promised to keep me working out for another couple of weeks. But something happened when I got the new book: I began to read it outside of the gym. I read it on the bus and at lunch and at home when I could have been doing other things. I began to worry about the rate that I was making my way through such a finite resource. There were only three more books after A Clash of Kings, with the final two yet to be released. Would I be able to sustain my gym habit without A Song of Ice and Fire? Previous evidence suggested no.

Perhaps I should keep in mind Syrio Forel’s last words to Arya as he is about to be cut down by a Lannister knight: “The first sword of Braavos does not run.” Of course, in this case I take those words to mean that I should not to flee from my commitment to exercise, not to literally not run. Like the books, it’s complicated. In any case, I’m currently on page 115 of A Storm of Swords’s 973 pages. I have some time to work it out.

Photo courtesy of gutecarlos

Tim Lehman is a graduate of Macalester College. In his spare time, he attempts to relive the four months he spent studying in Amsterdam by drinking Grolsch and eating sub-standard Minnesota falafel. He may well be missing the point.