Thoughts on leaving the gym

Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Ruth and I have had a complicated relationship with the gym. There have been times when we went religiously at 7a.m. nearly every day, and then enjoyed that smugness of those who complete healthy and meaningful tasks before others get to work, or even wake up.

Recently, we have slipped into being those people who go less often, to people who think they will go to the gym, to those who try to believe that having a gym membership makes you fitter. I have finally cancelled our direct debit and with it our financial loyalty to the gym. The commitment was already gone, the flame dead. It was time for the money to follow where the heart was already.

You can tell yourself that something is a priority, but if you can’t make the time then it obviously isn’t important enough. Where you spend your time, that’s where your priorities are. Better not to lie to ourselves, and also save the money.

I had intended to write about gyms while I was myself a member of a gym, as an insider. Now I find myself writing as an apostate, a deserter. These are some of the parting thoughts that have been bounding around inside my head while doing pull ups and deadlifts.

I have described other modern buildings as “temples” or “churches”. I do not want to appear as if I see any large building and simply label it “temple” for the purposes of some esoteric interpretation.

What is meant here by “temple” is more like “an enclosed system of meaning embodied in a physical space”. The gym is a kind of modern temple in the way that it creates and projects a vision for the life of its members. Physical well-being is deemed the greatest good. Success is measured in weight lost or gained, in the largest mass that can be moved, in sculpting a body to achieve some ideal proportions.

The space is necessarily geared toward physical effort as a means to a better life. The essential goals of strength/fitness/mobility/physique etc represent, if one may go so far, a kind of salvation. It provides a clear set of meanings that come to order the rest of one’s life, so that it becomes the primary way of imbuing life with meaning.

That may be another way of characterising a “temple”: a place to which we go in order to find a structure of meaning, to uncover purposes and goals with which we can align our own personal lives.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that these are unworthy goals or that there is something inherently bad about gyms. As I write that the gym is a temple I can feel that some readers will recoil at the religious association. It is not meant negatively, simply as an image for understanding the meanings created by the gym.

While improvement and veneration of the physical human form are purposes obviously inscribed into the place of the gym, there is another implicit object of worship: gravity. Or more specifically, the forces of resistance and opposition.

I have sometimes found the imagery of gym to be a little depressing. No matter how far you run on a treadmill, you remain on the same spot. However great or small an amount you lift, it will always return to the ground. Gravity acts certainly and inevitability.

For a time I thought of these images of futility, a metaphor of how you might work really hard and yet get nowhere. But the purpose is not to reach a goal. The purpose is that in striving for a goal we ourselves are changed.

Aside from that, there are a few aspects of the gym I dislike. It can feel incubated, separated. It’s something of a battery-farmed form of fitness. Again, I’m thinking about how treadmills remind me of hamster wheels and other grim images of modern life. But then I’m probably more sensitive to these analogies than most. Hence why I now spend my time writing about the gym and not in it. The music, too, I find relentlessly commercial.

Though we have cancelled our gym memberships, the desire for healthy living goes on. There are, of course, other ways to exercise and maintain wellness without going to the temple of gravity.

There is still something to be learned from the gym, that is, the discipline of improvement. It is only by embracing resistance that we grow, in strength, in work life, in relationships, in creative output. Opposition becomes the opportunity to change. Repetitions and incrementally higher resistance is the combination for substantial, if slow, progress.

The principle is the same where ever you might look for it. At the moment, I write often and I try every so often to take on a new challenge or to set a higher standard. I may be very similar to the writer I was yesterday, but I’ll be vastly different from the one I was last year, even a few months ago.

At any rate, I did gain in the gym, more so in metaphor than in muscle mass.