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David Bouchier: Pumping Irony

The reopening at last of gyms and fitness centers in New York must be a great relief to those who, unlike me, take their fitness seriously. During the COVID shutdown there was a big demand for home gym equipment including a mysterious item called Kettlebells. “Clients are afraid that all their work will go to waste” said one gym owner. The quest for fitness is often described as “work” rather than fun or pleasure, and indeed it seems strangely self-punishing because there is no end to it.

I remember being fit once, almost exactly sixty two years ago. It only lasted a few weeks and happened after we had finished basic army training, during which we were made to run or march around carrying heavy weights, climb over impossible obstacles, and do unreasonable numbers of push-ups. At the end of this hellish experience I was stronger and fitter than I had ever been before or have been since. I wish I had taken a picture. Immediately afterwards I reverted to my normal state of unfitness and stayed there.

From time to time I have felt guilty about this and, a few years ago, summoned up the courage to join a local gym. This was a mistake. They tried to sell me a lifetime membership, but that would have been a bad deal at my age so I took a free trial membership. It was a friendly place. A lot of the clients showed no signs of actually exercising. They treated the gym as a social club, gathering around a table in the lounge to chat and eat donuts.

Beyond the lounge, the gym itself was a more intimidating place — a big room crammed with heavy weights and elaborate machines with names like “abdominal crunch” and “chest compressor” reminiscent of medieval torture instruments. Fortunately a member of the staff steered me away from these and put me on a treadmill where I walked, just the way I walk every day outside. After about half a donut’s worth of walking, I left. That was the end of my trial membership at the gym, and I have never looked back.

The last time I achieved fitness in 1958 it was thanks to a particularly nasty sergeant from the army physical training corps. We had no equipment apart from him, and no subscription was necessary. The modern machinery of fitness seems excessive, although the flashing lights and electronic monitors must make it more entertaining. But I’m sure that mowing a large lawn with a hand mower, or raking leaves, or shovelling snow, is as good an exercise as you can get in any gym. After all, how strong and fit do we need to be? If years of exercise enable you to build up powerful muscles and impressive stamina, what are you going to do with them? People who do hard physical work are already fit, but most of us are sedentary or even supine workers, especially if we are working from home. No muscles are required.

What must keep people coming back to the gym, apart from the companionship and the donuts, is the heady sense of superiority you get as you walk out the door into the world of feeble, non-exercising mortals. For a moment, you feel strong, and powerful, like Superman, or Superwoman. As illusions go this must be one of the best, and well worth the cost of the subscription.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.