Something's been exercising my mind recently, in the absence of any visits to real gyms for nearly a year. What were gyms for?
In this winter season of post-festive overindulgence, the local gyms used to fill up with optimistic recruits determined to generate new svelte bodies for the year ahead. Most of these types, according to reliable reports, lasted little more than a few weeks before being put off by the sheer effort involved. What's wrong with these people and is it really such an effort as they imagine?
Over the years, I've been using my local university gym from the days when I was a competitive runner and squash player to my present need just to keep as fit as I used to think I was. In the 1970s, my gym consisted of a few rooms with weights, circuits and a pool that was so shallow you hit your hand on the bottom with every stroke. Nowadays, its modern, shiny equivalent is full of weight stations and dozens of humming machines, equipped with individual screens offering mind-numbing or stimulating (depending on age) pop videos with scantily clad young people gyrating in your face as you sweat away.
Which brings me to my point. I had noticed that many of the clientele, mostly students in my gym, spent all their time with their eyes on a smart phone. Judging by the effort, or lack of it, being put into aerobic exercise, they might as well have been sitting at a desk, should they have had one. No sweat was to be seen on their brows or any other parts of the body that I could see. No wonder, as a passing glance at the resistance settings usually revealed that the machine had been fixed at a level that I wouldn't have got out of bed for. They'd gone to all the effort, a word I use advisedly, to dress up to look the part and then sat there idly turning the pedals, while chatting to a friend who was a co-conspirator in this farrago. Meanwhile, their nearest neighbour – me in my ancient, sweat-stained t-shirt – laboured away with a heart rate not far short of the maximum recommended for my age.
Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. Thirty years ago, when we both still worked within shouting distance of each other, my wife and I occasionally met up in the local swimming pool for the only physical activity we did together, other than the obvious one of course. I would plunge up and down the fast lane, dodging other like-minded swimmers, while she would stand at the shallow end chatting with her friends, interrupted by an occasional stroke or two in the slow lane. A mile or so later, I would emerge, tired but refreshed for an afternoon of work ahead, while she might have also felt refreshed, though more from the information exchange. She was probably put off by the palaver of drying hair and changing back into work clothes again. I suppose you can't really go back into the office with wet hair and swimsuit but no-one would notice if you turned up with a sweater over your gym gear if you'd just been coasting along to Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber.
Because I don't have any device for listening to music or anything else, and never have, I usually chose one of the exercise machines which gave a full view of the room. I needed something to occupy me through the admittedly repetitive routine of aerobic exercise. After all, who would go to a restaurant and sit facing a blank wall if they had the chance to watch the other diners? Unfortunately, this could throw up a few potential problems: was it better to stare at the screen on your chosen machine, pretending interest in whatever it was showing, or should you look straight ahead at the nearest exerciser, who might be the most attractive person in the room, a technique to be applied carefully?
Occasional incidents arose to break the inevitable tedium of keeping fit. One day a young, well-muscled young man with dyed blonde hair, American as it turned out, sprinted for about 30 seconds on his treadmill, then stepped off, leaving it running at full tilt, walked up and down the aisle to cool off, before remounting and running once more. After a few repetitions, he pulled his singlet up and over his head, leaving his bare torso for all to see. It might have aided his cooling off but I noticed it raised the temperature among several of the young women around me. I was pleased to see that, when he tried to remount the speeding belt, he missed his footing. He was nearly thrown onto the floor but just managed to save himself before his image was well and truly burst. And, dear readers, I can tell you that when I saw (and heard) him in the changing room later, he had the spottiest back you've ever seen.
Gyms are also places for those of us who reckon it's easier to stay as physically fit as possible by keeping at it on a regular basis. I was, after all, a physiologist for many years and, knowing the long-term benefits of balancing food intake with exercise, liked to practise what I preached to others. It was also a place to go, I suppose, just to keep out of the rain and stay warm, while catching up on social media. And, like all human activities, it's where men and women could go to show off their bodies with a view to catching the eye of a potential mate. Luckily, I'm accounted for at present but once lockdown is released, should I ever need to consider it all over again, I might just consider breaking into a sweat.
If you would like to contribute to the Cafe, please email your comments to email@example.com