William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and my dad (1922-2012) loved walking, although they never managed to get out together. According to Thomas De Quincey’s reminiscence, “Wordsworth must have traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles”; according to mine, my dad must have come a close second. I don’t know about Wordsworth’s walking gear, but whether trudging through snow or crossing sun-bleached meadows, my old man’s dress code was constant: a raincoat, heavy shoes and a shirt and tie.
Neither of them grasped the concepts of fitness plans or full-body workouts, but they were fitter than the wasp-waisted gym bunnies who sweat like miners but couldn’t shovel coal for toffee. Wordsworth and Dad – separated by a century – applied common sense, got out and about and, to borrow a phrase, just did it.
Today, by contrast, we’ve subcontracted out chunks of our thinking brains to medical and fitness professionals. Thus, in the grip of a moral panic about obesity, the medical profession sees exercise as a medicine and has appropriated it, dictating and prescribing what is best for us.
Exercise is also dispensed by personal trainers in the controlled environments of gyms, where vigilant trainers save us from straining a thigh when mounting a stationary bike.
Social commentator Prof John McKnight of Chicago’s Northwestern University warned in the 1970s that professional service could turn into disabling help if we weren’t careful. Well, we weren’t careful.
In Cynthia Heimel's Sex Tips for Girls (1983) she wrote: "Contrary to popular cable TV-induced opinion, aerobics have absolutely nothing to do with squeezing your body into hideous shiny Spandex, grinning like a deranged orang-utan, and doing cretinous dance steps to debauched disco music."
Thirty years later . . . yes they have, Cynthia. Aerobics used to mean running about outside, but now it means prancing in front of bellowing, knee-pumping instructors who stride the blurred interface between health and beauty, moulding pliant clients into hard-bodied slabs of muscle, in frantic approximation of a dream supplied by a fitness video.
Insinuated into the cultural landscape, the gym has evolved from the days of being a dusty haunt of bodybuilders – the late JG Ballard described bodybuilding as asexual masturbation in which the entire musculature simulates a piece of erectile tissue – to having wider appeal.
But why do people go to gyms?
Some are carrying out doctor’s orders with variable degrees of enthusiasm.
Others are there to acquire fitness, but it’s worthwhile only if it can be measured in terms of a sculpted ab here, a bulging bicep there; a fitness that conforms to an idea of health and beauty that is handed down by a fitness industry that doesn’t want a consumer to get out and row a boat somewhere, but to step into a permanently moored machine and row nowhere.
To say that gyms are all about exercise is like saying that iPads are all about communication. How refreshing it would be for more health professionals to recommend their overweight patients to put on stout shoes, a warm coat and go walking.
Failing that, for those who are wedded to gleaming chrome, sheens of perspiration, unseemly grunting, and the swilling of sugar-enriched sports drinks, it’s perhaps worth pointing out a few of the infectious hazards that may need to be negotiated prior to some après-sweat down the pub.
"Infections at the Gym", published in the journal Clinical Microbiology Newsletter (37; No. 11: 1 June 2015), has a collection of photographs confirming the author Dr Alice Weissfeld's contention that most infections at the gym affect the skin. For example, hot-tub rash is caused by Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which produces "a bumpy red rash", and pus-filled blisters may develop around hair follicles.
Not being a medical man, the confirmatory snap of an afflicted patient’s tummy looks less like hot-tub rash to me, and more like an aerial photograph of a dried-prune convention.
Weissfeld suggests that this rash “can be prevented by showering with soap and cleaning your swimsuit immediately after getting out of the water”. Another way to prevent it is by staying out of the hot tub.
And if you’re padding around in wet areas, be sure to wear flip-flops since plantar warts, caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), can be acquired at the gym by walking barefoot around bathrooms and showers. And it’s reassuring to note Weissfeld’s reminder that the strains of HPV that cause plantar warts “are not the same as the strains that cause genital warts”. Although the warts usually disappear without treatment, your doctor can typically remove them using liquid nitrogen, for example.
While many people go to the gym to shed some sweat, it’s worth remembering that sweat is a popular breeding ground for bacteria, which also colonise used towels, weights, bicycle saddles and, well . . . you get the idea.
Useful tips include the advice to wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water and/or to use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that is at least 60 per cent alcohol; keep cuts and scrapes clean and covered until healed; and avoid contact with other people’s sweat, blood, wounds and bandages. And to use your own towel to wipe equipment before and after you use it.
A further piece of advice that might usefully be proffered is to eat sensibly; get some fresh air; realise that fitness can be acquired outside the gym; and accept that responsibility for our own health is not to be found at the health centre but in the space between our ears.