Usually this time of year, gym signups soar to an all-year high and hundreds of latent members suddenly become two-hours-a-day gymgoers. The one in my town had to post guidelines for when people should come because it’s so busy; when asked why the gym had taken on so many members, the man casually intimated that the few still attending in February would have all the space in the world.

We’re trying not to poke too much fun at gym memberships or New Year’s resolutions this year, which certainly play into the January workout phenomenon. Almost everyone in contemporary America is image-conscious to some degree and if it’s not that, it’s something else. But our workout culture is pretty unusual (and increasingly absurd), as this amazing Economist article from 2002 pointed out even then, ht JD:

80s stability classTo anthropologists of the future, however, the gym boom may look as much like a sinister cult as a commercial triumph. Gym-going, after all, has all the basic lineaments of a religion. Its adherents are motivated by feelings of guilt, and the urge to atone for fleshly sins. Many visit their places of worship with a fanatical regularity: a third of LA Fitness members, for instance, go virtually every day. Once there, believers are led by sacerdotal instructors, who either goad them into mass ecstasy during aerobics classes, or preside over the confessional tête-à-tête of personal training. Each devotee has his own rituals, though most rely on the principles of self-mortification and delayed gratification. The extremist cult of body-building, whose Mecca is Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, has become a mass movement.

After escaping from a brush with the horizontal leg press, the question that troubles this slobbish journalist is: why? What inspires the armies of devout body-worshippers? What is the point?

…Explanations based on the potential rewards of swelling biceps and flat tummies assume that, at some level, gym-going is motivated by the rational pursuit of happiness. According to a more pessimistic view, going to the gym is not pleasurable (however indirectly) but pathological. Oliver James, a clinical psychologist, thinks that the fitness cult is part of a wider pattern of self-flagellation, induced by the drawing of comparisons with inappropriate role models. More and more people feel inadequate, he believes, because the standards by which they judge themselves are the visions of perfection purveyed by seemingly benign television programmes such as “Friends”. Meanwhile, too many people fail to derive any solace from comparisons that are flattering to themselves, such as with the fat man in the changing room.

jazzerciseThe result is an “horrendous perfectionism” which, Mr James believes, prevents people from enjoying the fruits of their affluence. Few will take this “horrendous perfectionism” to the same extreme as did Yukio Mishima, a celebrated Japanese novelist who, after building a splendidly buff torso from years of pumping iron, committed hara-kiri rather than grow old and ugly [ed. note: Mishima may have done it for other reasons]. But still, Mr James speculates that for every person who goes to the gym for a legitimate health reason, many more are engaging in low-grade attacks on their bodies, which, in most cases, are already absolutely fine. An extreme form of this can be found among bodybuilders, some of whom suffer from a pathological belief that they are puny. According to researchers in Melbourne, “muscle dysmorphia” (or “bigorexia”), as the delusion is known, often leads sufferers to exercise obsessively and gobble steroids.

…On this analysis, going to the gym will only make things worse, condemning users to an endless and destructive cycle of perfectionism.

A slightly less depressing possibility is that the appeal of the gym cult lies in the structure of religion itself. Perhaps hedonism is losing its lustre, and rich westerners once again crave the shape and strictures, however masochistic, that orthodox religion once supplied. Like Christian salvation, the holy grails of gym-goers may be distant and unattainable, and the paths towards them painful, but the rules and routines that their pursuit involves seem to provide comfort to a new and growing breed of secular puritans.

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‘A cold coming we had of it…the ways deep and the weather sharp…with the voices singing in our ears/saying that this was all folly’, to quote Eliot on the difficulty of religious pilgrimage. The language of a compelling vision that’s “distant and unattainable” is spot-on for the secular religion of gym-going and for religion in general. In orthodox religion, this image or ideal is the promise that we’ll passively receive a gift (forgiveness, glorification, etc); when this ideal is made worldly and (theoretically) attainable through sheer force of will, we get a classic case of neurotic performance-ism. It’s a case of what Eric Voegelin called ‘immantizing the eschaton’, or placing all hope in a future worldly perfection, e.g. the perfect body. The pursuit of an ideal, the need to “atone for fleshly sins”, the motivation of guilt…you can almost hear the author here searching for a vocabulary of Law and self-justification. At the same time, it’s useful to remember that working out is no more wrong than it is right – the end of the Law isn’t abstinence, but freedom