Are Gyms What Capitalism Did to Physical Activity?

©. dotshock/Shutterstock

I love biking, but I can't stand gyms.

I hate gyms.

I hate the weird anonymity, the cheerful slogans on the walls, and the dull decorating. And in particular, I hate the boredom. Running and getting nowhere makes no sense to my brain or body. Every pedal on an exercise bike feels like some sort of eternal punishment. It doesn't matter how many songs or podcasts I listen to, the dullness and pointlessness of the thing claws its way into my brain until I give up. Most of all, I hate what gyms say about humanity.

Gyms may have been around for thousands of years, but they grew common in the mid 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution. Then they really become popular in the 20th century. It was part of the "McDonaldization of society," write a couple sports science and education professors from Sweden researching the history of gyms. Gyms, like fast food restaurants, are made to deliver predictable, time-saving experiences for relatively cheap under close supervision.

"With respect to calculability, for example, fitness activities have resemblances to McDonald’s model for success, where it is easy to calculate the time it takes to perform certain activities," continued the scientists.

Capitalism made us work all day, often standing for hours or sitting in chairs. It urged us to buy cars to get from place to place quickly, further preventing us from moving. Then, when we started atrophying, it sold us back the chance to move in the worst way possible. The fitness industry makes billions of dollars today, and we just keep getting fatter.

"Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men — machine men with machine minds and machine hearts!" said Charlie Chaplin in one of his movies. "You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!"

Granted, we are also women, and I don't think cattle are cattle either, but you get the point. We don't have to live our lives like machines on an assembly line. I used to have a gym membership, but when I discovered city biking, I got rid of it. When I actually need to get somewhere, I don't mind putting in the energy. I biked four hours the other day from my house to downtown and back. I got tired (I'm no athlete), but I made it all the way there, and I felt great afterward.

I like seeing the world around me, feeling the sun on my face and getting that sense of accomplishment when I arrive. It's way easier and more fun than putting in even half an hour at the gym. And there is no tastier pancake than the one you eat after riding four hours in the winter cold. Working out at a gym, on the other hand, gives me no such sense of accomplishment, and every minute is so much harder.

Besides, the scene itself looks like something out of the Matrix. Seeing all these humans packed into a room, working their muscles like workers twisting screws is just depressing. Gyms are factories for physical activity.

Now, I'm not talking to professional athletes, people with disabilities and others who actually enjoy going to the gym. You do you. But I resent the idea that gyms are a reasonable way for the average person to get physical activity. We were designed to move in daily life, not at a Planet Fitness a few hours a week. Gyms encourage people to pack all their physical activity into a small amount of time, an irritating strategy that's only useful in a society where no one has enough time. We don't have the hours to walk home and cook a nice meal, so we sweat at the gym for 20 minutes and grab a burger at McDonald's.

It's as though gyms were invented by some alien who knew everything about human anatomy and nothing about the human spirit. Yes, we need physical activity. But we also need mental activity and purpose. We're not simply machines to be maintained.