HSE Gym and Important Life Lessons

We can learn anywhere, anytime, even in our discomforts. HSE University Gym, taught me what I didn't learn inside the classroom.

HSE Gym and Important Life Lessons

Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash

When the study office sent an email saying that I failed physical education or physical culture, I was shocked. Failed? I passed the exam with a good grade. I was sure. I wrote back, asking for clarification. That particular day, I was not myself. I had hours of lectures and two assignments that I had to submit that day. So, receiving that email threw me off guard.

I was later informed that I didn't pass the physical training at the gym, and that is mandatory. Clearly, I was not happy about that. I didn't want to go to the gym. I haven't been to the gym before, and without any justification rather than emotional assumption, I've concluded very nicely that I don't like the gym.

I asked myself why would HSE University make physical training mandatory. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I got the email address of the professor in charge of physical education and wrote to him. Sadly, I must attend eight classes with two hours each. 

Eventually, I prepared my mind and went. I didn't expect it to be fun. The truth is that I am not having fun at HSE University. There are challenging subjects and less challenging ones. There is already a question of what comes next after graduation.

I could not understand how attending PE classes would benefit my country. How will my track be of benefit to Nigeria? These have more influenced my decisions as a student, and when I feel overwhelmingly disillusioned or instantaneously unmotivated, I only need to listen to a TV station in Nigeria. Just listening to analyze how things are going in Nigeria—the good, the bad, and the ugly—my sense of focus will return to me. I am not an esteemed gatekeeper on the altar of revered and unapologetic jingoists. In Nigeria, I was just Igbo; although I have friends from other tribes and ethnicities, to me, as a Nigerian in Nigeria, it was Igbo first. Maybe faith first, as it transcends all boundaries, and Christianity seems appealing and refreshing to me. So, if I wasn’t Christian, then I am Igbo. My sense of Nigerianness, like a scented candle in a cozy and warm evening, standing in a golden candlestick, was ignited because I left home. And leaving home gave me the distance to look back as a diaspora.

The numerous looking backs, whether through watching Nigerian television,  reading WhatsApp messages in my church group, watching some of the politically motivated skits by talented Nigerian comedians, or reading academic texts as a student of political science and world politics, kept me going. Sometimes, angrily. But it was not just anger. It was a different anger. An anger that is wrapped around hope, cautiously, delicately, and passionately anger that believes that something can be done, should be done, and must be done. anger that becomes dissatisfied when an answer to a question in class is answered primarily to fit the academic narratives and not the general sense of the world. anger that wanted more and more and more. That kind of anger propelled me that day to attend the gym class. I didn’t like it. But I have to.

The first day at the gym, I was not admitted by the gym instructors because of a minor issue, which was resolved before I returned to the gym the next day to start my training. Most of the time I spent at the gym was well cultivated, not just for body exercise but also for mental exercise. Everything matters.

The littlest of things matter. From weightlifting to ankle exercises to neck rotation, The day I completed the training, I knew beyond my wishful doubts that it was absolutely consequential to articulate my thoughts, organize them together, put them down in writing, and share them with my friends. Some of these points are not novel; they have echoed throughout the ages. I was glad that my personal training enabled me to give flesh to them and make them come alive in me. These are some of the points.


After four days at the gym, I discovered that my silly fear had disappeared. The truth is that I cannot pinpoint why I was afraid or uncomfortable about going to the gym. But by going there again and again, that fear left. It seems to me that one thing that being young does is make one find comfort in comfortable things and feel threatened by uncomfortable things. Those fears can besiege a person and have the person walled perpetually. I had come to agree that it is not wrong to be afraid. It is indeed natural. Being afraid is a sign that you care. You care about your comfort, your safety, and your environment. You care about the unexpected disruption that taking a particular action might cause. You care that it may not turn out well. Who does not care? I think every genuine human being does. Even the people who are considered powerful and fearful have untold fears that are masked. It was natural and human to care about your wellbeing and welfare. The threat to that care, whether known or unknown, is what fear is all about. It is okay to be afraid. Acknowledge that you’re afraid. Acknowledge that you're being afraid because you’re human. Acknowledge that being human involves some discomfort at some points. Then, tell yourself that even though you're afraid, you will still do this. You will do it well. You might seek advice and counsel. But I guarantee you that as long as you’re human, even if you’re born inside the Kremlin or you’re from a little unknown village, you’ll have discomfort at some point. The fear isn’t that relevant. The determiner is what you do with it. If you used to freak out, it is time to stop freaking out.


This is another important lesson that I learned at the gym. If perfection is about the definition given by fitness enthusiasts, then all the pictures and videos on YouTube and Facebook about people at the gym that seem sophisticated are all perfect. Those men, to me, look out of shape and abnormal: chest bigger, muscle bigger, head smaller, and the back of their legs look as though they carry ten tubers of yam. What kind of life is that? It does not appeal to me. It surprises me to see people who love it. The idea of having my shape disfigured because of my studentship worries me. As I entered the gym that day, carrying my fear as a badge of honor, I changed my dress and wore sportswear. I took my water bottle and my towel and entered the fitness room. Something changed instantly. I fell in love with the room. It was different from all the HSE classrooms. No chair. No desk. No projector. No whiteboard. Just the equipment, a water tank, and a mirror. Then, to my amazement and surprise, I saw some ladies in the gym. The gym instructor I met that day was a bearded man with a body bigger to be considered slim but slimmer to be described as fat. He was kind. We communicated using Google Translate because his English is not good enough and my Russian is bad. Then, the training started. I was expecting the man to ask me to start weightlifting, but he didn’t do that. After he asked whether I had trained before and I responded negatively, he asked me to start stretching my body. That was all he told me. Just that step. I did it over and over again. Maybe he realized that I was afraid. So, he started with the simplest task. Weeks later, I started contemplating that thing. And it began to make sense to me. Life is in layers. We perfected it, starting with the basics. A PhD student was once a kindergartener. It was reassuring to me. To step somewhere, and that lesson has transformed my study skills. Instead of waiting a day before the class to start reading the designated seminar text, I start on time. I started on time, not aiming to finish all at once, but a chunk first and another later, and that has had a tremendous impact on me, balancing my academic learning as a student with other professional learning outside school and avoiding personal burnout, unlike my freshman year when HSE University frustrated me. Life is a step at a time, and before you know it, you’ve walked kilometers.


During that first day, I met other students. But I was drawn towards a particular student. We started talking, and from the discussion, I forgot that I never wanted to be at the gym. That student, through his own training, made me practice with those other pieces of equipment. The gym instructors were so observant that they never allowed me to use heavy equipment. After a week, I started training at will. I don’t need the motivation or the drive again. I started enjoying it. But that student and the gym instructors were very fundamental in enabling me to overcome my fear of the gym.

It may sound funny that a guy is afraid of the gym, but most of us have things that threaten our safety. To me at that moment, it was the gym. When I completed my training and the professor wrote that I had successfully passed the course, you couldn’t imagine the sense of pride I felt. It was like overcoming. It was indeed an overcoming. I didn’t see it as passing the course again. I saw it as a place at HSE University where I learned an important life lesson. That lesson has been cultivated in my study skills and in my online class where I teach students, and it was effective. I know that in many years to come, I may not remember that incident again, but that lesson will stay with me forever.

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Daniel Onyekachukwu Akabueze