Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.
The social dimension of health clubs is well recognised. Nobody pretends they join one just to become fit: for that, street-running and working out at home easily suffice. Instead, they function as our time's equivalent of the nineteenth-century gentlemen's clubs, primary sites for meeting like-minded people. But now the differentiating specialisations of the Garrick, the Athenaeum or the Reform have been replaced in the health industry by a commonality of preoccupations which together might stand as our era's epitaph: the post-modern trinity of youth, beauty and money.
The basic premise of health clubs - energetic physical exercise by the nearly-naked - determines the first two. It is something of an irony that such clubs are attended only by those whose bodies are reasonably fit and good-looking to start with: the constant appraisal by hypercritical peers - encouraged by the unforgiving mirrors placed everywhere - is enough to enforce this aesthetic with all but the most self-confident or oblivious of bodily offenders.
The third element of the health club's defining triad arises from unsubtly elitist pricing. In a rebuff to naive economic theories of demand, upmarket health clubs prosper and gain more members as their annual fee rises: in doing so, an implicitly better - that is, richer - class of person is selected, and the perceived quality and attractiveness of the membership increases. It is the mitigated, incremental version of not wanting to join any club that would have you as a member.
But health clubs are not all crass superficiality and snobbish materialism; there is a strong moral dimension too. It stems from the very nature of the physical work-out. Because there is no alternative to enduring the full grind and hell of exercise to achieve its end-results, you cannot cheat. Working out offers the all-too literal embodiment of getting only what you pay for, with the added twist that money alone cannot buy you fitness - even in a health club: you have to earn it through your personal, sweaty endeavours. Most extremely, the gym's apothegm is 'no pain, no gain': not only must you work for your achievements, you must pay with suffering. The reward of the resultant sense of smug self-satisfaction is almost greater than that of fitness.
One consequence of meting out this punishment is that you become intensely alive to the fact and technology of your body. As you push harder against the flesh and its limits, your attention focuses on the battle between body and mind. In this apparent dualism, the extraordinary nature of will manifests itself: you are forcing yourself to do something you both want and do not want to do. But once the exercise has finished, and you begin in the tranquillity of your endorphins to reap its benefits, it is the negation of that dualism you are most aware of. Just as those who are grossly fat seem to move their bodies as if they were huge imposed barrels of being that must be rolled awkwardly along, so those who are trim and fit have paradoxically no sense of the physicality of their bodies at all. Instead, they become pure mind, their erstwhile limbs weightless and perfect mediators of the will. Ultimately the health club's work-out proves to be not so much physical as metaphysical.
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