Every day, all around the developed world, millions of individuals pay millions of dollars, to exercise. They sign up for pilates classes, spin classes, aerobics classes, personal trainers and weight training sessions in swish gyms, fitness centres and community halls.
These forms of exercise generally take place indoors, with the air circulating through air-conditioning, filtering and heating systems. There are plenty of other people around. You can be one of 50 in a class, or be looking over your shoulder while you use a piece of gym equipment to make sure no one is standing impatiently by, waiting to take your place the moment you finish.
It’s an industry you see. The millions of dollars you spend on gyms and yoga classes pay for expensive infrastructure, marketing campaigns and staff.
One has to ask, is all this expenditure and time commitment by individuals achieving the aim of making millions of people feel truly healthy?
And by “truly healthy” we mean that the soul, the spirit, the mind and the body are refreshed and renewed by this physical activity.
Many people might answer this question in the affirmative. They might tell you that after they finish their gym session, or pilates class, that they indeed feel a million dollars, so to speak.
But it is hard to imagine that working out, in close proximity to others, in a room full of re-circulated air is as enervating experience as should be gained given the physical, not to mention monetary effort, required.
Almost 40 years ago, the English writer, Alan Sillitoe, published what is surely one of the genuinely great short stories of the 20th century, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. The story of a Borstal boy who deliberately “throws” a crosscountry race he was expected to win, as a snub to the authorities who simply wanted to reflect in the glory such a win would bring to their institution.
But this young man loves running. He is alone when he runs and it is that aloneness that is so empowering.
He describes his morning run as a dream. “I go my rounds in a dream, turning at lane or footpath corners without knowing I’m turning, leaping brooks without knowing they’re there, and shouting good morning to the early cow-milker without seeing him.”
It is, says Sillitoe’s youthful narrator, “a treat, being a long-distance runner, out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to do”.
And you are always free when you run. Freer than you ever could be in a gym or a pilates class. Even if you are running through the crowded streets of a big city, or weaving your way through urban neighbourhoods, there is that sense that you are in control of the world. And you let your mind wander, sort through the clutter and detritus that gets lodged there as you go about your daily routine.
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