Lockdown proves that our obsession with fitness has run out of control

In placing exercise next to godliness, we expect too much of it, writes Lionel Shriver

17 May 2020 - 00:00 By Lionel Shriver
How did we get so fanatical about fitness?
How did we get so fanatical about fitness?
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

Many amateur athletes about the world who'd planned to run various city marathons are contending with grievous disappointment with most sports events cancelled or postponed. These intrepid people have trained for months.

Given that during the Covid-19 lockdown we have to accept limits on the time we can be out exercising, arduously cranking up the endurance all over again will be tough. So I get it: an essay that seems to pooh-pooh the glories of exercise is the last article you want to read right now.

Increasingly over the past 20 years, fitness freakery has taken root not only in the conduct of our day-to-day routines, but also has often intertwined with our sense of self.

Accordingly, during the coronavirus suppression any government restrictions on all-hallowed exercise have proven a flashpoint between authorities and the public. In response to being restricted on the exercise front, the defensiveness of the sporty is off the charts, even if it is only really expressed in private. The notion that exercise could ever be wrong is anathema.

Meanwhile, people are running marathons back and forth across tiny back gardens. Online, we've seen a fierce competition over who can design the most strenuous home workout, and YouTube has sprouted videos instructing how to create a sculpted body using your kitchen counter.

How did we get so fanatical? Maybe this claustrophobic period of life on pause is the ideal juncture at which to step back and examine the spiritually central role jumping up and down has come to occupy in so many of our lives — and to question whether fitness really deserves to be elevated to the greatest good in the universe.

These days both the older and younger generations have in common an obsession with physical exertion. The only difference is a slight variation in motivation.

Younger gym bunnies seem driven by a desire to look attractive (which they're prone to disguise as dedication to good health) and by competition with peers for social status.

As we age we believe that so long as we get enough exercise we'll never grow visibly old, never get sick, and never die

Older folks can be just as vain and competitive. But as we age, we're also likely to keep overdoing it on a stationary bicycle because we believe that so long as we get enough exercise we'll never grow visibly old, never get sick, and — though we don't put it to ourselves quite this foolishly — never die.

The two main characters in my latest novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space (a perfectly unsuitable title for an era in which we're not going anywhere), are paradigms of opposing relationships to fitness.

At 60, Serenata has always stayed in shape by various means — cycling, swimming, running — but would never describe herself as a cyclist or a swimmer or a runner. These pursuits are private. Detesting group activities, she's not a joiner, and not a show-off.

She's mostly competitive with herself. She sees working out as a mechanical matter, akin to maintaining a car, for which no-one expects a medal. Exercise is a regular part of her day, but she doesn't court admiration for it, and she often dreads it, like a normal person.

Sedentary until 64, her husband, Remington, is a convert. First running a marathon, then joining a “tri club” to prepare for an extreme triathlon, he experiences athleticism as a social undertaking. He prioritises training above all other commitments, including to his elderly father.

He regards endurance sport as heroic. His personal trainer coaches him to believe that human beings have no physical limits, and that pain must be ignored. He relies on fitness for purpose, identity and prestige — alas, like many folks these days, which is why I wrote the book.

I fashioned those portraits, so the answer is rigged. Still, it's worth asking: which of these people seems more appealing?


It should go without saying that regular exercise is good for us. At the risk of spelling out the tediously self-evident: sustained activity that works muscles and raises the heart rate improves sleep, helps keep off excess weight, reduces the likelihood of diseases like cancer and hypertension, and lifts the mood, as well as having a broadly positive effect on appearance, and there ain't nothing wrong with looking presentable.

I've been dedicated to daily exercise since my early teens, and for me to discourage others from also garnering its benefits would be hypocritical.

So if we're more active, swell. The problems are otherwise: ever exercising in a spirit of self-righteousness or lofty self-sacrifice, sometimes expecting too much from exercise, over-exercising, and approaching exercise with no sense of proportion. In the last case, there's a particular look you'd surely recognise.

It used to be largely confined to professional athletes, male actors in action films, prisoners and people who didn't have much going on and were not very smart. For pronoun convenience, let's say it's a man, though there are loads of female specimens underfoot as well. Not only does he sport not an ounce of fat, but every muscle is defined and taut.

For a society in which the most exhausting thing you're required to do in a day is lift the lid of a laptop, his pectorals are unnaturally bulbous. You could use one of his calves as a hammer. Without fail, this walking anatomy-book illustration has an air about him indicative of a belief that he's always being looked at.

What fascinates me about such a paragon isn't just his disconcerting prevalence in the social landscape these days, but my response to a figure that ripped. Feel free to discount this reaction as sheer envy, an emotion that often disguises itself to the envier as disapproval. But at least consciously, I'm put off. I'd go so far as to submit that I'm a bit repulsed.

People have been running marathons back and forth across tiny back gardens during lockdown.
People have been running marathons back and forth across tiny back gardens during lockdown.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

All the time he must have spent on those different muscle groups: we can see it, we can see the time. Therefore we can also see at a single glance that maintaining and fine-tuning his physique is the most important thing in this guy's life. This doesn't make me want to talk to him. What would he have to say? “I got up to 200 reps on my deltoid dips today”?

The biggest surprise of my reaction to our demigod is that I do not find him sexy. As my friend Serenata quips about such a creature: “One simply didn't hanker to f*** a man who desired himself.”

It's one thing to keep in half-decent nick in the course of things. It's another to keep exercise eternally at the very top of the to-do list, to privilege going to the gym above all other obligations, and to allow leaping and jumping about to take up so much time and so much mental focus that it becomes all you do, or at least all you care about, and therefore all you are. This has to be a formula for becoming as boring as corrugated cardboard.

It's one thing to keep in half-decent nick in the course of things. It's another to keep exercise eternally at the very top of the to-do list

A particular brand of neurosis has grown so commonplace that many others must have had the same dinner-party experience as I did a while back — in the olden days when we had dinner parties.

One of the guests had recently got into running. Now, I started running a fair distance at 14, and — this isn't to boast, because this is just what happens mathematically when you keep running and get old — I've probably covered the circumference of the Earth nearly three times.

That's how I can assure you that there's absolutely nothing interesting about running. The odd mishap, such as having your intestines explode when you're still 8km from home, makes for a comical anecdote at your own expense, but that's about it.

Nevertheless, this dinner guest managed to cram in a variation of “When I was running the other day” as the introduction to every sentence. Social tip: conversational exercise-dropping backfires.

It's insecure, it's annoying and it's dull. But some folks are in such thrall to their exertions that their ordinarily alert social antennae have been muffled with smelly sports socks.


Next, let's examine this notion that feats of strength and endurance are acts of heroism. The last time I checked, being a hero meant doing something brave, perhaps at some cost to yourself, to help someone else.

In contrast to putting in overtime at the hospital during a pandemic, spending three hours working out is an act not of heroism but of narcissism. Completing a marathon or triathlon is unquestionably very hard, but we can't conflate difficulty with self-sacrifice. These gruelling events require discipline and willpower, valuable qualities to be nurtured, although ideally to apply them to tasks that are genuinely useful.

Apologies to today's disappointed marathoners, but endurance events constitute a perverse form of entertainment, not forfeiture for the sake of others, and in the end what have you got? What has anybody got? However personally gratifying, in social terms they accomplish nothing.

This perfect failure of endurance sport to achieve anything constructive is disguised somewhat by the peculiar practice of entering these events for charity. But we might question how many athletes who enter races for charities are motivated primarily by eagerness to support a worthy cause rather than by expedience: the worthy-cause add-on makes admission to an event more likely, and can waive or mitigate the entrance fee.

Although having volunteered to run a long, tough race (which you want to run anyway) is often used to blackmail friends into pledging X-notes per-mile, there's no logical relationship between exhausting yourself and donating money to alleviate poverty. If what you really care about is charity full stop, you'll give an enormous whack of cash to Save the Children and sleep late on marathon day.

The cult of exercise is merely an extension of the cult of the body, except that we used to care only about being thin and now the bar is set higher

The cult of exercise is merely an extension of the cult of the body, except that we used to care only about being thin and now the bar is set higher. I don't want to get moralistic here, but if the purpose of life is the achievement of an abdominal six-pack, then life itself is sort of stupid. The body makes a piss-poor icon, too, because it will always betray you. In the end, the body will actually kill you. Short of that, it also wears out.

The fact that biological moving parts do not exclusively thrive from use is information that fitness gurus tend to play down — which is why orthopaedists are now having to do knee replacements on patients in their 20s and 30s.

I can testify that my joints and my back are now suffering from the pounding they've taken for decades. As a result of pushing the programme, at 62 I may be physically less well equipped for old age than many more sedentary peers. There's such a thing as too much exercise, and if you buy into that endurance-sport myth that your only physical limitations are in your mind, then you just haven't lived long enough.

Discovering there's a price to pay for beavering about the Earth almost three times makes me consternated and bewildered. Because we're given to believe that working up a sweat is the acme of virtue, it's dismaying to be punished for being good.

In placing exercise next to godliness, we expect too much of it. The danger of imagining that with enough cycling or swimming we can prevent all infirmity and disease is that when we get cancer anyway, it seems as though it's our fault. Should have added another kilometre of laps!

Exercise can make you look better, but it won't necessarily make you beautiful. It can slow the appearance of ageing, but it doesn't bring the depressing process to a halt. And maybe we'd rather die fit than flabby, but dead is dead, and hopefully the measure of our lives won't be how many press-ups we completed. Few of us would fancy the epitaph, “Here lies Bob. He ran in circles.”

All this exercise excess can leave well-adjusted folks feeling guilty, inadequate and sometimes inclined to give up. For our culture now reveres ever more extreme athletic achievement.

So marathons long ago became old hat, to be replaced by still more demanding ultra-marathons, ultra-triathlons, and lunatic obstacle-course races. If that's really how you want to spend your time, no problem.

So long as you still take out the rubbish, pull your economic weight and don't turn into a complete arsehole (good luck with that), you're probably not hurting anybody. But don't expect moral kudos. And be mindful that this is no longer a novel method of killing time. By now? It's trite.

It is vital for us all to commit to a sustainable weekly fitness regime that doesn't take a ridiculous amount of time. But this is a mechanical matter, crucial in the same way that it's important to keep the boiler working. In the long term, too, moderation often pays off. (Many a marathoner stops running altogether after finishing the race.)

Walking is good for you and also — as long as you don't get arrested — pleasant. Most of all, the whole purpose of maintaining physical functionality is to be able to do something else, and — please, please — to talk about something else.

During this often awful lockdown, it has been challenging to contrive workouts for confined spaces, and learning to do “mountain climbers” on the sitting-room carpet may be one of the memories that some of us recollect with a smile when this trying time is over.

But I bet we're more likely to remember rereading Graham Greene, finally getting round to watching The Sopranos, streaming Swan Lake, winning at Scrabble by 137 points, and — in defiance of these grim times — spending surprisingly raucous evenings over a bottle of wine with each other.

• Shriver's new novel, 'The Motion of the Body Through Space', is published by The Borough Press.


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