"Being ‘fit’ has extended its cultural significance way beyond muscle mass and cardio", writes Maia LivneJonathan Borba / Unsplash

Gym culture is in full bloom. By 2021, over 15% of the UK population held a gym membership, without counting all the invisible gym-goers working out in public gyms, booking personal training sessions, or forming their own deconstructed gyms at home. Unsurprisingly, the largest demographic of gym-members are 18-34 years old. Young adults are the most exposed to gym fever, through campus culture and especially through social media, as our phones flashing pictures of our six-packed friends, and TikTok tutorials narrate the newly-minted myths of gym bros and ‘that girls’. This may not necessarily seem like a bad thing – exercise is healthy for both body and mind – but upon a closer look it seems like gyms have managed to undermine at least the latter virtue. Being ‘fit’ has extended its cultural significance way beyond muscle mass and cardio, seeming essential these days for a high sexual and social stock value. A ‘fit’ person is fit for society, able to fit into the right clothes, fit to endure physical pain, and to overcome challenges. As we associate usually inherited socio-economic status with hard work, so do we associate the usually genetically-determined physical form with gym meritocracy. So when and why did we start paying for the pleasure of running around like a caged hamster for three to five hours a week?

“Gym friends make you feel less community committed and more socially observed”

Exercise has long been seen as part of a healthy life, even back in ancient Greece. Going to the gym and especially bodybuilding, however, were long considered extreme activities for people who were not professional sportsmen (this a bit after ancient Greece). The modern person may be in possession of a sparkly gym card, but they probably move a lot less organically than their predecessors. Cars, planes, buses, and trains all await to transport us, and many physically demanding domestic activities have long been handed over to our electronic assistants. This is not at all an inherently negative process, yet undeniably one of its outcomes is that movement has slowly evaporated from everyday life and materialised back into concentrated, dense sessions of physical activity, whose intensity may be more harmful. As we treat our planet, so do we treat our bodies – extracting the utmost from the now and outweighing the protection of the future. Walking for three hours would probably be better for your knees than running 5k, but who has the time to walk for three hours? As shown by all the 5-minute Victoria’s-secret-abs-guaranteed tutorials on YouTube, movement has fallen into the capitalist craze of productivity.

Capitalism’s clasp on sports has also dismantled its social aspect, transmuting its comradery into competition. Yes, competition was often a part of sports in the past, yet many sports – football, basketball, or dance balls – were also built on collaboration and socialisation. Gym friends, in contrast, make you feel less community-committed and more socially observed. Who attends the gym more? Who looks red and sweaty? The gym community sees it all. The peer pressure pushes you to keep working out, else, God forbid, you might have to try and cancel your membership (admitting to the gym secretary you are a failure). Lonely, competitive, productive, and costly – the gym may encapsulate the capitalist cultural experience. This may be the reason why in 1973 the Soviet Union’s Sports Committee condemned bodybuilding, claiming it promoted “egotistic love and ‘bourgeois’ dandified culture of the body”. They may have been optimistic, as said “egoistic love” seems to have developed into an industry of self-loathing, as we obsessively try to forge different bodies.

“The gym may encapsulate the capitalist cultural experience”

No, you might say, we do it alone because we do this for ourselves. Capitalism makes us thrive; we don’t need any atrophied communist muscles. And that might be the worst lie of the fitness industry – that it is all “for yourself”. This lie is essential for the double-edged nature of a phenomenon where we are both consumer and product – purchasing workouts and green shakes in order to be the hottest version of ourselves, ready for display in the human market. As customers we think we have unlocked the key to happiness; wellness has never been more packed and prepared for use: put your body on off for eight hours of sleep-charge, pour eight glasses of water into your body for clarity and revivification, and since you probably spend your time stuck at a desk, try to let your body move excessively for three to five hours a week and burn your accumulated non-productive calories and restlessness.


Mountain View

Navigating the growing toxicity of gym culture

The wellness shopping trip leaves us less well and more well-presented. In the first season of Black Mirror, the second episode linked reality-fame chasing with enslavement to the treadmill. In a sense, we are all attempting to work out right now to have the body of a supermodel or a film star. As everyone needs to be a boss-innovator, everyone also needs to be a perfected sex symbol. Working out evokes intimate sensations of dopamine and sweat, of the naked body forming under the clothes. In the late fifties, Lotte Berk, the founder one of the earliest modern studios, coined her catch-phrase “If you can’t tuck, you can’t fuck”. Today, people seem to have embraced this mantra so deeply they content themselves with tucking well. In a world defined by a youth sex drought – we are met with a fitness flood. This is probably connected: exercise releases the desired dopamine and makes us seem sexually desirable, which is of course way more important than actually being sexually active. Lonely anonymous sex idols running on our treadmills, we have lost much of the fun, socialisation, and creativity movement has to offer. This spring cleaning might just be the best time to bid your gym card adieu.