The morality of going to the gym

The adult life is often made of up little tasks that must be done to live: go to work, prepare and eat meals, do laundry, and various other activities. Perhaps there is another activity that must be added to this list: getting exercise and/or going to the gym.

“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”

The message that perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues is captured in health club slogans like ones used by the Equinox chain over recent years: “Results aren’t always measured in pounds and inches.” “My body. My biography.” “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” The same idea is encoded in the language of personal improvement. A “new you” usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills.

And the pectoral is political. The current president and his predecessor have made ostentatious points of their commitments to fitness routines. Whatever the differences in their ideologies, intellects and work habits, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both let voters know that they carve out time almost daily for cardio or weights or both. And while that devotion could be seen as evidence of distraction (Bush) or vanity (Bush and Obama), each politician safely counted on a sunnier takeaway. In this country, at this time, steadiness of exercise signals sturdiness of temperament, and physical leanness connotes mental toughness…

To be unfit is to be unfit: a villain of the culture, indeed.

An interesting commentary. More broadly, these ideas seemed tied to American ideals of youth and health. We like politicians and athletes and movie stars who are physical specimens. We argue that disciplining the body is indicative of discipline in other areas of life. Being healthy is not just being an appropriate weight or eating right or limiting stress: it should include muscles and toning.

Some questions follow:

1. Do other cultures have similar ideas or are we unusual in this regard?

2. When or where did the emphasis on muscles, beyond just “being fit,” arise?

3. For the average American, how much of this judgment regarding exercise and going to the gym comes from people around them versus comparing themselves to media produced images?

4. How much have professional sports contributed to this? If you look at athletes in the 1950s and 1960s, they did not train as much. Today, being an athlete is a full-time, full-year job in order to stay in shape.

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