Sometimes I think I might skip the gym if self-flagellation weren’t so frowned upon. My athletic ambitions collapsed long ago, and the only reasons I’m out the door at 5 am are a.) it’s easier to work out than face the guilt of not working out, b.) my wife won’t make it without me and vice versa, and c.) I need to compensate for drinking the caloric sort of beer on weekends, the type that tastes like more than water.
Mostly though, the inactivity of the other 23 hours deserves punishment. Apparently I’m not alone. One of my morning gymmates hangs weights from his belt and then does infinite pull-ups. Another keeps one leg on a bench as she steps off with the other to the left, to the right, to the left, until her thigh visibly twitches like a generator shorting out. No lazy people work out so early, and the other day, in the class that begins at 5:30, the participants ran the length of the gym on all fours, hands and feet like the attacking gorillas in Planet of the Apes. Then they pushed a giant wheel of a weight on a towel, and their shirts gathered around their shoulders as they wiped the hardwood classmates dripped on.
My gymmates’ definitions of fitness look a lot like medieval torture to me. I watch my morning companions from my elliptical or treadmill and—as I’m one of only people in the place not wearing earbuds—try not to notice their involuntary grunts and squeaks. But I shouldn’t judge. The machines I operate, which are actually relatively mild, feel to me like modern iron maidens, and I sometimes sigh in exasperation. How many miles have I traveled without going anywhere? I tell myself my gym visits are a cost of modern living, something to be borne, like flossing… only for 20-30 minutes at 70% of my maximum heart-rate four to six days a week. Still, I wonder, would Thoreau join a gym?
Once my motives were greater than vanity. I exercised outside, played games, and competed against people who weren’t myself. As a runner, my weekly mileage grew and grew as I prepared for road races at the end of this month or the end of next month or in the spring. In those days, exercise felt like devotion and assured time out in real weather. Some part of some day guaranteed meditation. Seventh mile thoughts untangled confusion from years before. The first breath after stopping made oxygen feel like a new wonder.
Now I watch ESPN on a screen flashing in my face, hoping to hang on long enough to catch the top ten plays for the day, which I will forget altogether when ten new plays replace them the next day. The swinging bats, fast breaks, deft shots, and controlled collisions are what true athletes do. In comparison, I spin a figurative hamster wheel, generating kilowatts powering nothing but early morning angst. I never score.
Two years ago, when my family hosted a Vietnamese exchange student, she seemed shocked to discover how relentlessly some Americans exercise. Maybe she’d expected the anonymous, tightly-framed distended guts and tabletop haunches routinely paraded by news outlets. Maybe she’d believed accounts of Americans bustling so much we only have time for fast-food or microwaved gluttony.
However, it didn’t take her long to see something almost as strange, fast exercisers who bypass the regular exertion of walking, climbing stairs, sweeping the house, or bicycling to work in favor of an hour of neat, tidy, and well-contained penance.
And I’m one of them. My fitness comes in fits. Single hours of frenzy accumulate like bricks of good works, and I calmly add them to the four walls I sit inside.
When I tell my wife I envy people whose work is bodily work, she tells me, “Be careful what you wish for,” and I know she’s right. Yet I wouldn’t mind giving up my daily absolution. I’d love to have no need for absolution in the first place.