On the corporate cult of fitness

It’s the time of the year when every major retailer: Argos, John Lewis, Amazon – you name it – has decided to tell me that I need to get fitter. I am incredibly tempted to write them a letter to tell them it’s none of their business

A full disclosure here – I spent my entire undergraduate rowing, which basically meant doing exercise eight times a week. My immune system was much healthier than it is now, and I was also a lot calmer. But I was also spending at least four hours a week in the gym, submerged underground with no access to sunlight.

I no longer row, and suddenly I find that my gym attendance has dropped spectacularly: from a second home it has become a strange place of wonder where people submit themselves to self-torture.


First of all, I lack motivation. When I rowed, I was happy to go to the gym, because I had an aim of making my boat go faster. Every second I spent in the space was aimed at being a better rower.

There are two reasons I could go the gym for these days according to Argos, John Lewis, Amazon et al.

1.) to improve my looks

2.) to improve my general wellbeing.

My looks are a suspect motivation for me. Far from the Plato and Aristole, for whom physical beauty has always been a sign of intellectual flourishing,  I have always been more closely linked to the Christian tradition of holding one’s body deeply suspect. Vanitas, vanitatum et omnia vanitas.  Not only that, but I feel that in order for my attendance in the gym to take a direct effect on my looks it would need to be far more than the once a week which is the maximum amount of time that I am willing to improving my appearance and (or) taking care of my health.

I have know the endorphin rush that usually appears after a sweaty gym session, but usually it is compensated by the actual misery of subjecting yourself to the exercise itself. The real problem is that there seem to be so many interesting things to do that do not involve not exercising : indeed, it used to be somewhat of a cultural stereotype that nerds stay at home and do no exercise, but the gorgeous fit people have no time for study.

But these days even self-professed nerds now go to the gym. Why? Because of an obsession of proving others wrong? (See an article on the subject from The Economist  ) I think it’s a question of something far more fundamental…. Our obsession with mortality.

A book titled How not to Die has recently hit the bestseller list – it advertises a combination of healthy eating and exercise as source of a long and healthy life. Clearly our secular tendencies still reach for the idea of immortality – instead of worshiping at Church, the modern human all too often worships their own body at the gym.

Overtly, of course, this is simply an obsession with health . We’ve been repeatedly told that exercise is good for us  (for an example of this have a look at the NHS website ), and in the meantime somehow exercise has become more of an corporate institution than anything else. How can you exercise without Adidas shoes, Nike leggings and a Puma top? How can you exercise without a gym membership?

But instead of persuading me into obedience, these corporate endorsements of exercise goad me into rebellion.

I keep being told that statistically speaking exercise is good for me, but if I look at the range of the lifespans of people surrounding me they don’t really seem to be that much affected by the amount of exercise these people did. In fact, people who have done heavy running seem much more in danger of a heart attack. I know this is a question of Daniel Kahneman’s ‘What you see is all there is” fallacy (Thinking Fast and Slow) and that I hardly know a representative sample of people, but it is definitely true that a lot of injuries do happen while doing sports. Skiing, weight-lifting, even running on a treadmill can prove fatal.

Also, there’s a certain hybris in claiming exercise extends something so utterly random (or dependent on so many different factors- whichever way you prefer to put it) as a lifespan.

Here’s an illustration of this randomness from Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita .

“Man rules himself “ said Bezdomny angrily in an answer to such an obviously absurd question.

“I beg your pardon” retorted the stranger quietly “but to rule one must have a precise plan worked out for some time ahead. Allow me to enquire how man can control his own affairs when he is not only incapable of compiling a paln for some laughably short term, such as, say, a thousand years, but cannot even predict what will happen to him tomorrow?

“In fact…” here the stranger turned to Berlioz “ imagine what would happen if you, for instance, were to start organizing others and yourself and you developed a taste for it – then suddenly you got… a slight heart attack… “ at this the foreigner smiled sweetly as thought the thought of a heart attack gave him pleasure (…) “and that’s the end of you as an organizer!”

So you might spend the best part of your life in a gym you don’t particularly like to be in, only to die because you got hit by a white van when crossing the street…

If you don’t enjoy being at the gym for its own sake,  this thought makes you want to seriously reconsider if the entire enterprise is worthwhile. After all, you only have so much time to spend in this lifetime- how much of it do you want to spend doing an activity that is not enjoyable in its own right? My honest answer is not too much, and then I am tempted to just sit down and read a good book.

But I am not quite satisfied with this answer, because I feel it misses out on something quite fundamental. Exercise is not restricted to the gym. It is not restricted to people who own cycling machines, ergs and elliptical trainers at home. It’s not even restricted to those who own a particular brand of lycra, own sportshoes, or wear a FitBit. This is utter nonsense invented by people who want to earn money from the fact off the two of the most basic human cravings: self-perfection and immortality.

But self-perfection and immortality are not the only reasons why one does exercise.

Although before I did rowing at university, I hated PE with a passion worthy of any true nerd, I was not averse to hiking, skiing, swimming, I even did a salsa-dance course. Any sport really that wasn’t self-obsessed with regard to being a sport was okay. I loved hiking and skiing because I love being in the mountains, and I loved swimming because during the holidays we’d usually go to the seaside. Salsa was fun because of the music that accompanied it. Sport was far more about feeling a unity with my surroundings and enjoying myself than merely making sure that my muscles were still at their peak strength. And as such, I enjoyed it. When I begin obsessing about how many how many calories I’ve lost, I lose the joy I had of sheer movement (on that note: here’s an excellent piece of satire from the New Yorker regarding the FitBit ). And that’s a real shame.

These days I walk to work – this doesn’t get me there particularly fast and isn’t perhaps the most efficient way of using my time. But I like it. I genuinely enjoy walking along and noticing the leaves turning dark in autumn and the fist blossoms in spring. There is much to be said for the pleasures of walking, and some of the best occupations for a person strolling along the street may be found in Virginia Woolf’s essay Street Haunting an essay that has little to do with haunting , but everything to do with the powers of observation.

But I am not here to advertise walking as a form of exercise. That’s not the point. The point I am trying to make throughout this long and meandering essay is that exercise can be enjoyable without the huge corporate trappings that currently surround it. It can be fun just because moving is fun, not because it makes you invincible or physically perfect.

Amazon, Argos, Nike, Reebok, Puma and Adidas and all the rest want us to believe that without a machine to measure our vitals we can’t do any exercise. But we can. We can enjoy moving enjoy the landscape without worrying that we are not losing enough calories, that our heart rate’s not exactly in the correct zone. We can exercise and enjoy the sheer joy of movement to music, of the landscape, of everything around us. We don’t have to compare ourselves to others or even guilt trip them into competing with us…

So why the hell do I still want to measure my heart rate when I go running? More on that next week.



Image credit:Wokandapix/ pixabay.com

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