About Us

Contact Us


2001 Archives

First Chapters
World Travel
September Issue
October Issue
November Issue
December Issue
February 02 Issue
April 02 Issue

The Gym Rats
Roger Kirkham
It makes you wonder at the way we've embraced the Nazi cult of
physical perfection so unquestioningly.

Basic crunch: Works the rectus abdominis, the wide flat muscle that runs from your breastbone to the top of your pelvis. Lie on the floor with your feet hip-width apart. Cradle your head in your hands without lacing your fingers together and with your elbows rounded slightly inward. Tilt your chin a small way towards your chest and pull your abdominal muscles in. Exhale through your mouth as you curl your head, neck, and shoulders up off the floor. Hold at the top of the movement for a moment, then inhale as you slowly lower down.

A few months ago, due to a variety of circumstances mostly beyond my control, I joined a local gym or "fitness and lifestyle centre" as it claims to be. So what? you might say, fitness and personal health have been mainstream since the late 1980s.
You’re right, but then you don’t know me.

For a start, it seems most people who join gyms have a weight problem, or at the very least would like to be a few pounds lighter than they are. Gyms are well aware of this and have a whole variety of equipment, schedules, advisors and exhortatory propaganda explaining how a sensible (read "boring and inadequate") diet coupled with "regular exercise" melts your blubber away. That’s fine and probably true, but the heaviest I’ve ever been is 135lbs. Could I trouble you to read that sentence again?

My current weight is a bag of sugar or two under 125 lbs, and for most of the 1990s, until the middle aged spread started, I was under 120 lbs on the rare occasions I bothered to weigh myself. At five foot ten your correspondent is no dwarf; and at 37 years old he’s no infant either. Like most of you I have a slight weight problem, but it runs in the opposite direction. I’ve never been on a diet in my life.

The other pertinent fact is that I hate physical exercise, always have done, and always… well more of that later. Basically I’m weak, round-shouldered, uncoordinated, and get debilitating asthma if I do any physical activity except swimming. Why? Because you swim in a dust-free environment and being torpedo shaped and light is an advantage. As a boy some success lead to the county swimming squad but failure arrived in the form of Steve Reid, a likeable, reliable and very committed lad who was always faster; sometimes by as much as a second. Fate decided we went to the same high school, and naturally were in the same "House." For the next five years I was the reserve for the 25, 50 and 100 metre breast-stroke at every county level gala, the occasional inter-school galas, and of course the annual house gala as well. Steve was never absent or ill at the "right time" and I never swam in front of a crowd after my 12th birthday. I came close in the third form; Steve broke some minor rule and got a detention with an automatic ban on representing the school for a week. The news made me nervous and excited about the gala on Thursday evening against a local private school. I needn’t have bothered; Steve went directly to the Headmaster, begged for an alternative punishment and the Master (former PE teacher, school patriot, and sadist) was only too happy to oblige. Its doubtful that Steve’s performance was enhanced by three welts across his gluteus maximus, but he learnt his lesson. Me too: I learned that serious athletes are nuts.
Fast forward to university – the asthma drugs have improved, my flatmate is into body-building and climbing, and I’m dragged along to both. The climbing is intense, frightening, and enjoyable in disturbed sort of way (we’re into Hemingway and nihilism at the time). The bodybuilding – done in the corner of a drafty Nissan hut is boring and embarrassing and futile. There’s also a narcissistic element, a gay element, lots of dusty full length mirrors and some rather dangerous yet dull drugs. I still go swimming occasionally, mostly on holiday in the Med. Fast forward again and I’m living and working in Geneva. Skiing is the local obsession and I love it – the landscape, thrills and excitement of alpine climbing with a much reduced danger factor. A bad skiing accident breaks your leg; a bad climbing accident kills you – just hope its not from slow strangulation by a rope or slow hypothermia with two broken legs and a lung punctured by your crushed ribs. By the age of 25 I’m in Paris; a chess player, a film watcher, a book reader, amateur poet, a car fixer, – out of shape but who cares, especially as my physique screams THIN! THIN! THIN! to all but the blind.

So you can imagine the sceptic that slouched into the gym last autumn, the first time in at least 15 years. An irritatingly charming and persuasive friend accompanies me, cheerfully ignoring the contempt on my face and single phrase replies. We begin by doing stretches – a series of more or less ludicrous positions you adopt to prepare muscles for their work. They look stupid, are a bit uncomfortable and take time to do (minimum of 20 seconds each, at least ten stretches in total), but they work. I’ve suffered no sore feelings or twinges after any recent exercise session, no matter how tough. If any of you have memories of exercise and being stuff for days afterwards, learn some stretches. They are easy to do, need zero equipment, and they really work. Then there’s the gym itself – there’s all sorts of snazzy looking machinery lined up in rows, well oiled and maintained. Most of it quiet, which certainly wasn’t true years ago when sweaty grunts provided the bass line to the equipment’s metallic treble of squeaks and bangs. There’s also piped music, a range of music and T.V. channels to plug your headphones into, and a bank of T.V.s on the wall. Even the air-conditioning helps, as I’d always associated gyms with the smell of socks. Science has yet to eliminate the smell but good AC blows most of it outside into the car-park.

We begin with ten minutes on the treadmill, a sort of mini moving walkway you find at airports. I start slowly and gradually increase the speed; its not a very pleasant feeling; I have visions of being shot backwards if I trip, but the feeling wears off quickly. After ten minutes I do a final two minutes at a dizzy 12 Kmh. Coming off there’s a feeling of sea-sickness, common to first-time users; I’ve since discovered that disappears too. Then its straight onto the cross trainer, a sort of stand fitted with pedals, rather like a big exercise bike, but linked to handles that move backwards and forwards. The nerd in me enjoys the various settings on the digital control panel, and there’s a moment of sly fun discovering my friend’s weight as she taps it into the adjacent machine. The cross trainer attempts to simulate walking up an uneven hill, with the resistance of the pedals representing various gradients. Frankly its not very realistic; but it certainly increases your heart-rate and makes your back sweat. Its now that the TVs become useful, because this is quite hard exercise, its very repetitive, and as any wage slave knows very repetitive equals mindlessly boring. Which is my main criticism of the rowing machine, the last piece of cardio-vascular equipment we try. This is hard work, its boring, and it makes you sweat, but its undeniably physical exercise. Pity its so unpleasant and dull.

Then its onto the weights, or weight machines. These are various intimidating pieces of equipment that exercise a specific part of the body, or more precisely muscle group. Mainly they work on the chest and arms, but a few will tone your legs as well. Weight machines tend to be used to build up muscles, which is allegedly what I’m here for. I do five machines in all, and do ten repetitions on each, followed by a minutes rest followed by another ten, and a final ten. The final ten "reps" (as gym rats call them) are the worst; a strange mixture of pain and desperation as the arms shake, the teeth clench and your body starts to jack-knife in all sorts of useless ways trying to get some additional force from somewhere to the arms or legs. We finish with 100 crunches, a particularly nasty exercise that tones the stomach muscles, or "six-pack" in the moronic gym jargon. Crunches hurt (no, they "burn" insists my friend) when you’ve done a few. Then its more stretches followed by an Everest-like climb upstairs to the changing room. There’s definitely an altered state of consciousness experienced here; the world seems distorted and remote, like looking through thick glass into an aquarium. Perhaps some might experience it as an addictive "high" but for me it seems closer to a period of sensory depravation and extreme stupidity and either way, it doesn’t last for more than five minutes. If that’s the vaunted power of endorphins, its little wonder that people have been busy inventing hallucinogenic drugs for millennia.

With a few trivial changes to the details, that’s how I spent one and half hours every other day for three months. After all, I was assured, it takes a while to get into the swing of things. And why not? I’d nothing else planned and it’ll be fun to have been fit for a while, another waste of time and money justified as "experience."

What actually happened? To begin with, for a month or so, very little. My technique improved, the gym and its equipment lost its intimidating atmosphere. By about half way through the second month, I’d lost seven pounds of much needed weight, and my forearms had grown a couple of minute bumps, about this ‡ big. By the end of the second month my resting pulse was down to a frightening 55 beats per minute (yours is probably somewhere between 60 and 70). The lower your pulse, the fitter you are; apparently some professional athletes are down in the low 40s. And then there was the sweating. You see, being thin, I’m rarely if ever warm, let alone hot. OK so walking down Las Vegas Boulevard in July produces a drop of perspiration or two, as does shopping in Florence in June, or waiting for a bus in Athens in August. Now I found myself sweating in London in February. Sitting down I sweat. Doing my teeth I sweat. My feet and palms, normally as dry as a lizards, become soft and clammy. Again this is supposed to be a good sign; the fitter you are the more readily and profusely you sweat. George Orwell’s description of Parsons, the insufferable party man in 1984 sums it up well;
"An overpowering smell of sweat, a sort of unconscious testimony to the strenuousness of his life, followed him about wherever he went, and even remained behind him after he had gone."

Parsons is of course a fictional character in a satirical novel. What are the gym rats really like? Well, overall they fall into several groups. For a start, there are probably slightly more women than men, although its surprised me how many men there were. Overall it was almost half and half, although many men seemed to do the weights, while women tended to congregate on the treadmills, the exercise bikes and other forms of cardio-vascular equipment. Only one place seemed to be exclusively female; the areobics class was 100% female according to my sources, probably because it features dancing, lycra, and abysmal music. But that was the exception.
The majority of gym regulars looked fit, slim, toned and glowed with health. Which ladies, is not often the same as sexy, here’s no less an authority than James Bond on the subject (in Ian Fleming’s "From Russia with Love;")
'A purist would have disapproved of her behind. Its muscles were so hardened with exercise that it had lost the smooth downward feminine sweep, and now, round at the back and flat and hard at the sides, it jutted like a man's.'

Some gym rats were older than others, some were slightly fatter, but overall these regulars with their sinewy necks and chiselled rears formed the core group, at ease with their bodies, themselves, the staff and the equipment. I couldn’t detect much of the social mix, although "my" gym, while being comparatively cheap by London standards was still around £40 per month to use so we can safely assume they were all working and earning reasonable wages.
The second group was a bunch of rather scary men who used the weights, especially the dumb-bells ("free-weights" in the jargon) a lot. These guys were deadly serious, although like any group of enthusiasts happy to advise and help a novice. I heard some of them were body builders, some were bouncers in night clubs and bars. These men were tough, but strangely narcissistic and a hint of insecurity often crossed their faces as they frowned at themselves in the long mirrors. I recognised them from my student days; the equipment may have changed a little, but their culture hasn’t.

The third group were the brave. Not to insult them, but these were the fatties. Yet they’d identified the problem and were doing something about it. It must take a great deal of courage to exercise surrounded by the regulars with their compact bodies and neat fashionable outfits. I especially felt for the fat middle aged women shaped like barrels; working out was clearly unpleasant if not painful to them, along with the embarrassment of exposure. I just hope they stick at it and manage to get something out of it.

The final group were the addicts. These people went to the gym every single day, and spent hours there. Tough and sinewy, sweating profusely yet never really breathless, this group had some life issues to ignore or were simply addicted to exercise. Most of the instructors belonged to this group, although one or two were failed professional sports people, and the others were sporty types who took advantage of the equipment every working day.

I kept up my membership for a little over three months, I went at least three times every week without fail, and often four or five times. The exercise never became easy, since you increase the resistance of the various machines and equipment as you get fitter. The most extraordinary thing was just how hard it was to make progress. For the first time I began to actually respect body-builders; it must take years and years of intense uncomfortable training to produce huge muscles, no wonder that many will take any drug going to speed up a process that has a geological time scale.

As for the actual usable benefits: well according to an Internet questionnaire, I’ll live to be 80.9 years old (note the point nine) and running for a bus a few weeks ago felt effortless; you could almost hear my legs scornful "Was that it!?" after a short sprint had me opposite the driver and breathing normally. But was it worth so many hours of drudgery and discomfort? I’ve never really had a problem with my physique; I’ve never been athletic, and never wanted to be since my 10th birthday. Which is why I remain deeply sceptical of the whole gym ethos. Its founded on principals of rugged individuality yet in practice its rigorously conformist. People on exercise machines look like robots or factory workers on the most brutal production line. If the ancient Greeks invented the gymnasium, 2500 years later it was the National Socialists who mostly keenly embraced it as part of the superman creed. American critic Susan Sontag's famous essay "Fascinating Fascism" addresses the topic:
"Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetic; that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in physique magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy."

The men and women in the magazines and posters scattered around the gym illustrate it perfectly; grimly handsome models seem interchangeable with Becker's sculptures or Riefenstahl’s flawless black and white images of Aryan athletes. It makes you wonder at the way we've embraced the Nazi cult of physical perfection so unquestioningly. Health and well-being and looks cease to become an interest or a blessing and are instead shunted off to the individual, another obligation but packaged attractively in a wrapper called "lifestyle." The gym ethos is also grimly elitist, a fact played on by a recent Nike women campaign. In the gym a series of fake memorial plaques and posters "commemorate" all those who fell by the wayside in January (the traditional time when gyms are full of new members). An example reads:
To all those who disappeared in January.
Who didn’t know how to use the equipment (but who hogged it anyway) who never braved the free weights. Who thought the mirrors were for hair checks and whose favourite piece of equipment was the sauna. Have a relaxing year in front of the TV. See you next January.

I suppose we can also use our Nike Women’s jackboots to kick sand in the weakling’s face.
The subtext is clear; we the chosen few do know how to use the equipment, and aren’t scared of the free-weights. We’re fit and strong and determined and have "The Triumph of the Will" in buckets. Well, the gym rats can keep it. If you want to get high, use drugs. If you want to lose weight, eat less. If the gym rats want to keep fit, fine but please don’t pretend its more than a hobby like collecting Beanie Babies, oil painting, or fixing old cars. And please stop inflicting your self righteousness on the rest of us.

© Roger Kirkham May 2002


< Back to Index
< Reply to this Article

© Hackwriters 2002