Gym Junkies and Exercise Fiends

So why aren't you at El Pomar right now?

by Abbey Lew


The moment you enter through the clean glass gym doors, scan your gold card and shed your new Lululemon jacket, you have entered Colorado College’s exercise cult. As you scan the room for an unoccupied treadmill, you think to yourself, Damn, everyone here is so fit.

A liberal arts school in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, CC can be defined by its active student body. There is this implicit expectation that all who go here must possess some outdoorsy or athletic quality. There is a perception that the majority of students are fit, energetic and active. But this assumption that we’re all athletic and go to the gym is reflective of a larger social problem.

The gym industry has boomed in the past two decades. There are three times as many health clubs in the United States of America than there were 20 years ago, and 13 percent of Americans are members of a gym. The booming industry is correlated with the rise in obesity rates. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, obesity rates have more than doubled in adults and children since the 1970s. Presently, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults and more than one-third of children ages six to 19 are considered overweight or obese. The increased mentality is that a svelte body is more attractive than a fatter body. Thus, the industry is taking advantage of body anxiety and selling the “remedy for fatness.”

The modern workout craze originated from the aerobics fad in the 1970s and 80s, and exercise fads have since come and gone. But what remains the same is the endless anxiety over physical appearance and weight loss. 

Presently, it seems as if CC has created an exercise cult, where going to the gym is required to maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. Those who do not regularly attend the gym are discouraged by this pressure to be active and may feel a sense of disconnect with CC’s homogenous gym-goers. Our CC community, reflective of society, has unconsciously divided into the athletic and non-athletic. 

Many of us, including myself, exercise to relieve stress, stay in shape and get the endorphins going. So by no means am I saying that exercise is detrimental, but I sometimes question the underlying motives behind our gym attendance. Are we going to achieve our idea of the perfect body? Do we exercise simply because everyone else seems to be? Why is society so obsessed with this exercise culture? 

Some people disagree with the notion that we go to the gym with the conscious/subconscious goal of achieving the ideal body. To clarify, not everyone goes to the gym with this intention. Yet, everyone attends with the known fact that exercise does lead to a health-ier mind and body. 

In my eighth block class, Sociology of the Body and Health, we are observing how our bodies are representative of social constructs and cultural changes. From a sociological perspective, our bodies are more than just our physical appearances. They are social symbols that deliver messages we want others to see. In the article “In The Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification,” Victoria L. Pitts writes, “Through countless body projects and ongoing performances, the body continually displays its status. It bears messages and marks of differentiation, expressing the hierarchies of gender, race, class, ethnicity, age, health, and sexuality.”

Our bodies represent how society has become so obsessed with “the perfect body,” that almost everything we do is influenced by this need to achieve it. Clinical psychologist Oliver James believes that the fitness cult has resulted from the more widespread problem of self-flagellation, where individuals feel inadequate because they compare themselves to visions of perfection. “Healthy and beautiful” has been redefined as skinny and muscular, when in fact health extends beyond a slim or muscular appearance. 

According to Pitts, “Most often our everyday body practices of fashion consumption, food consumption, athleticism, and spa culture are coded with dominant models of gender identity. Gym workouts not only promote healthy bodies, but also often follow beauty ideals. Even while they reflect personal accomplishment and self-satisfaction, popular body projects—not only for women but for men, too—are often informed by dominant discourses of gender and sexuality. They groom the body in heteronormative fashion and promote heterosexual gender roles.”

A gym can be compared to religion in the sense that its members are motivated by guilt and the pressure to redeem sinful acts. People visit and worship regularly. Gymnasium comes from the Greek word gumnos, meaning naked, and was originally a place where young men prepared for war. From the get-go, gyms have always been a part of achieving an ideal physical state. New research from Upshot Chicago shows that dedicated gym-goers behave like cult members who seek to belong to a group. Upshot CEO Brian Kristofek states, “We found that the lifestyle habits people are adopting are based on the very principles that draw people to join cults. In a very positive way they are seeking a mutual sense of belonging, healthy ritualistic activities and most importantly ideological commonality.”

The problem with society’s gym culture is that most members are already fit; according to Mintel International, a British market research firm, more people visit gyms to tone up rather than to lose weight. An article from the Economist titled “The Cult of the Gym: The New Puritans” claims, “As one personal trainer confides, fat people are generally too self-conscious to subject themselves to comparison with the flawless forms of most gym users.” In the words of Downsize Fitness Founder Francis Wisniewski, “Gyms are made for fit people to stay fit, not for fat people to get fit.”

Gyms have come to be a place where one can shows off one’s already healthy figure and expensive gym clothes. It’s also a way to examine other people’s bodies in relation to one’s own, which is either confidence-boosting or degrading. Either way, it’s damaging to someone. Although we hate to admit it, the body is the first thing we notice about a person. Are gyms simply where we can go to show off our bodies? 

As children, society inculcates us with the notion of “the perfect body.” Thin, strong, toned, tan, fat-free, unblemished. This is the unrealistic ideal we all strive to obtain. Unfortunately, we are constantly unsatisfied. Almost everyone is insecure with at least one aspect of their bodies. CC enforces this pressure of physical conformity by partaking in this exercise culture.

I am not suggesting we give up exercising, in fact, everyone can benefit from more activity. Yet we as a community must become more conscious of the reason we are pushing ourselves physically and mentally. We must deviate from the idea that we are exercising to look a certain way and do it for the sake of empowerment. As a society, we must dismantle the idea of the “perfect body” and relieve the pressures to conform our bodies. But that, of course, is much easier said than done. Reevaluating our motives for working out and fixing our exclusionary mentality in the CC gym is a good place to start.

As with everything, we must find balance. We can let the want to be healthy motivate us, but it must not control us. We go to feel better about our bodies, yet in the long run we are supporting a culture that values bodily perfection and ultimately disempowers our self-perceptions.