Recently I returned to the gym after almost twenty years of avoiding it. My primary goals were to slow down the aging process and get away from it all for a little while. I sense that I’m not alone in this regard.
During a particularly low impact session, I wondered why I had strapped myself into this machine. And, other than to get out of the cold, why do Canberrans go to the gym given that the paths and roads are smooth, sporting facilities are plentiful and there are parklands if not wilderness nearby?
Why is the gym at once inviting and troubling? And should I convert my trial membership into a year-long commitment?
There are two major tensions in the modern gym.
The first is between organic ends and mechanical means. Going to the gym is primarily about getting into shape, which involves manipulating one’s muscles, blood, tendons, fat and organs. After only a week at the gym, I feel fitter. The scales, timers, and various measuring devices attest to my marginal gains.
But to what extent should fitness be about getting from point A (less fit) to point B (more fit) as quickly as possible, maybe at the risk of neglecting point Z (wellbeing)? And why do we use the term ‘workout’ as if exercise is necessarily laborious?
A brisk visit to the gym wedged into a daily commute or lunch hour is better than no exercise at all. However, it’s a poor substitute for and might even militate against a more holistic and healthy lifestyle in which we recreate with family and friends without having to worry about clocks and personal bests.
I’m also a little anxious about exercise machines and how they seem to stand to attention, ready to inflict pain. What’s new about 21st century gym-going is the secondary technology – the screens on every bike and treadmill, the ubiquitous wifi and streaming music – all of which serve to dampen or distract from the agony that’s being inflicted.
The second tension is between going to the gym as both an individual and group endeavour.
Exercise strikes me as a private affair. There’s immodest apparel, much sweat, some stench and the embarrassing facial contortions that accompany physical effort.
However, the loneliness of gym work somehow coexists with a web of oddly intimate connections.
It’s as if everyone in the room is urging you to go faster and be stronger. They too want to squeeze into that old piece of clothing, conquer that proverbial or actual mountain, and shed a bit of weight, just before you do.
This sense of being at once detached from, pitted against and entwined with others is especially evident in spin cycling classes. Here we are perched on our bikes, going nowhere, peddling frantically, hearts a thumpin’, thighs on fire, grunting in disunity.
Only the instructor Almighty’s voice can break through the haze.
‘Grab the music! Find the rhythm! It’s filling you now! Push! Push! Push! Forward. Push! Up! Up! Up! Whoot! Whoot!’
Surely only the weak-willed are swayed by such words and ways. I was enraptured.
I was also struck by how homely my gym is. There are dining tables, lounge chairs, play areas, computer terminals, indoor plants and a fireplace. In many ways it’s superior to where I live in that it’s immaculately clean, fresh towels are always at hand and the people seem friendly and caring.
What then is the value of going to the gym? And once one joins, is there a risk of never leaving?
What are your thoughts on gym-going? Are you a junkie or foot dragger? What would it take to get you going or to stop you from going? What’s distinctive about gym-going in Canberra?
Kim Huynh teaches international relations at the ANU. He has a resting heart rate of about 50bpm. He does not know his body mass index, maximum heart rate, lactic threshold, functional threshold power or VO2 max.