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The Pseudo-Religion of the Fitness-Industrial Complex

Workout culture, cloaked in inspiration while profiting from body shame and self-loathing, is the worst kind of individualism.

I’ve recently begun joining my wife occasionally for workout hours. Occasional for me, anyway; her company runs them nearly every day. The workouts themselves—the current set is called “80 Day Obsession”—are bog-standard examples of the genre, and they probably deliver on their promise, if that promise is understood narrowly enough. Working a variety of muscles in a variety of ways does in fact lead to enhanced muscle development. But it didn’t take me long to become skeptical of everything else. And as anyone who’s ever followed one of these classes knows, there’s plenty of “everything else.”

It is not the class itself or the instructor that I find objectionable—and I’m happy to report that both male and female instructors irk me equally—but the entire phenomenon and style of the workout program. I bristle, for example, at its seamless and Orwellian slide from literal descriptions of exercises to mushy pseudo-metaphysics and cut-rate inspirational cant; its plain talk of doing the work and eschewing gimmicks while heckling anybody who misses a rep or a day in an exquisitely gimmicky program; its uniquely American marriage of the crassly commercial and the cheaply transcendental, one part used car salesman and one part Christian Scientist.

More substantively, workout culture is individualistic in the most corrosive and shame-inducing sense, pretending that the individual exists in a vacuum, and that socio-political problems like obesity, sedentary jobs, automobile dependency, and subsidized junk food, either do not exist or are merely wholesome opportunities to exercise self-restraint. Workout culture admits no possibility of societal sickness or policy solutions to the problems of being unhealthy or overweight. It is a sort of glossed-over eugenic ideology, a cult of self-improvement in a broader society which is deeply and perhaps terminally inconducive to self-improvement. The gym rat is social Darwinism made flesh.

Every workout regimen, often a scammy mix of videos and chemical simulacra of food, bills itself as the holy grail, the One True Faith for the acquisition of a beach body. To question whether a beach body should in fact be our primary earthly obsession would, of course, be rather gauche. Nothing will turn you into a body-positive feminist like a dip into this gross commercialization of body shame. Consider, for example, the contempt hurled at Planet Fitness, a self-styled “Judgement Free” fitness chain with the temerity to acknowledge that it is possible to get physical activity and enjoy a slice of pizza. The problem, which no gym or fitness instructor can remedy, and in which few seem to have any interest, is that modern society provides few opportunities for real physical activity. They must be sought out, and that is the real work of physical self-improvement. The more integrated into actual living (gardening, fishing, hiking) the better. Working out, an abstract kind of self-punishment at cross-purposes from almost every other modern sedentary activity, quite simply fails very often to deliver.

In reality, these collections of diets, exercises, and nutrition regimens are in fact a vital stop on the familiar hamster wheel of determination, temporary improvement, inevitable relapse, shame, and overindulgence. There is a broader point here: what we might call the fitness-industrial complex—gyms, workout machines, expensive, proprietary video instructions, 2-week or 80-day ultimate body gimmicks, and their many corollaries in the even more pernicious dieting industry—positions itself as a promoter of good health: a defender against the Big Mac. But they in fact exist in a perfect and profitable symbiosis with fast food and Big Ag and the farm bill and what quixotic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson called, in a moment of genuine insight, our “sickness care system.” Diets and gyms are not tools with which to fight diet-driven obesity or sedentary living habits. They are, rather, merely the opposite wall in the con that makes up so much of American life.

There would be, in fact, no diets without Big Macs. That there is so little curiosity within workout culture in regard to diet, fitness, and lifestyle before circa 1950 should be a red flag. Nobody is less invested in broad norms and habits of health and fitness than the fitness-industrial complex. It demands a plague of ill health the way Walmart demands cheap labor. It profits off of self-loathing. The fact that struggling against a taxpayer-funded, government-backed flood of cheap calories is treated as valiantly taking up one’s cross should trigger that unforgivable sin in the eyes of the fitness instructor: to proudly quit and walk away. “You can throw in the towel, or you can use it to wipe your sweat,” the instructor intones, like a robot programmed to mimic Norman Vincent Peale and Tony Robbins. Put me down for throwing two in, please.

In a society which has lost a sense of civic togetherness and mutual support—that is, the communitarianism of “intermediating institutions” between the lone individual and the all-powerful state—self-improvement itself becomes a sort of self-loathing. Individual responsibility becomes an exercise in bashing one’s head against the wall. Genuine good health—like faith, family, and so much else that actually matters—is done in community. Many of our particular problems lie far downstream from a broader and more general breakdown. “Excuses” might actually be opportunities to probe what has really gone wrong with us.

But for all the drama of our current moment, much is familiar too. Even that wannabe preacher barking out exercises like an altar call and validating the popular notion that Crossfit is a religion, is sort of reassuring. He or she is a reminder that the old secularized Puritanism that flavors so much American dysfunction is still going strong; and perhaps we’d better stick with the devil we know.

“Sir,” I can hear in my head, “this is a gym.” I suppose I’m surprised I ever show up, too.



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