Monday, June 17, 2024

The tragic cult of fitness

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Due to my rather efficacious dabbling in semaglutides last summer, I’m currently on the mailing list of several online pharmacies, and the other day I received an email making me aware of the existence of ‘fit notes’ – ‘formerly known as sick notes’ – following ‘an appropriate online consultation with one of our GPs’. The consultation alone would cost me £14.95 and should I receive validation as an invalid, a ‘fit note’ would then be offered to me for £19.95, so that’s the best part of £35 quid in order to pull a sickie.

I know someone who appears to go up a dress size every time she buys a new pair of trainers

I won’t be taking them up on it, as for me work is the antidote rather than the malady, but it did make me think of how the word ‘fit’ has gone from a pleasant and unpretentious word – meaning both apt and attractive – to a buzzword which can be used to sell the worried well (and the skiving well, as in the purchase of ‘fit notes’) things that aren’t necessarily going to make them any fitter.

The Fitbit started it; just think, there was a time when we didn’t need ‘activity trackers’ to help us recall if we’d been sitting on our bum all morning or had dragged ourselves out for a bit of exercise instead. Fitbit was founded in San Francisco in 2007, was acquired by Google in 2021 and is now worth over $2 billion; to say it’s successful is like saying Ed Davey is quite keen on having a title. These trackers are generally worn on the arm and can be used to monitor sleep, weight, stress and to track reproductive cycles – but the jury is out on how much use they actually are. A 2016 study, which lasted two years, found that activity trackers have no discernible effect on weight loss. Nevertheless, people queue up to pay nearly two hundred quid a throw for a plastic wristband – and it’s not just a Fitbit thing. How about an electronic device that teaches you how to breathe for £160? And don’t forget pedometers – helping you put one foot in front of the other since 1980.

You can also get activity trackers for children and dogs, which makes a lot more sense as the reason we all wanted to be adult human beings in the first place was so we could do what we wanted without being scolded and harassed ceaselessly by those who believe they know better than us; it’s hilarious that people who think of themselves as independent, autonomous human beings can end up in thrall to a bracelet. But perhaps we underestimate how strong the psychological kink of wanting to be a robot is in some people; all those Kraftwerk records didn’t buy themselves. For those who grew up less attractive that their peers, there’s often appeal in the idea of not being judged by hot-blooded biological standards; a sex-doll never has a headache. People happily have barcodes tattooed on themselves and I recently read of a shocking incident in which a man described as part of the ‘nullo community’ desired so strongly to become a eunuch that he allegedly commented cheerily as he was separated from his member ‘Well, that’s one off the bucket list!’ This is obviously an extreme example, but there is in many people a desire to be a ‘thing’ rather than being all too human, as things are harder to hurt than people. ‘Broadcast me, scrambled clean/Free me from this flesh/We’ll waltz a wonderland affair/Leave all emotion dying there/I want to be a machine’ squawked Ultravox way back in 1977; Gary Numan even wanted his friends to be electric, as I recall.

I’d say that this was generally a male thing, as men are more attracted to technology – but for women, who are less kinkily inclined in the sex-robot department, ‘fitness’ may be attractive because of the way it looks, which can lead to equally silly behaviour. There’s something just as sad as the male impulse to over-prize machinery going on here; the desire to deceive oneself, as the rise of social media – which mainly influences young women – has made the importance of being seen to do things more vital than the reality of actually doing them. This, combined with mindless ‘you go girl’ feminism-lite, has led to the rise of ‘body positivism’ and ‘fat activism’; not ‘activism’ as in standing on picket lines in the pouring rain helping the wretched of the earth to get a living wage, as we used to understand it, but sitting on the aforementioned bum all day swearing at naysayers on the internet while a gaggle of similarly chunky girlfriends call you a ‘kween’.

It may be the associated lack of formal fitting which has driven the rise of ‘athleisure’ wear, alongside the ever-spiralling obesity figures and the practise of ‘working from home’. There was a time in my life – what I think of as my ‘Jabba the Hutt Years’ – when I found the words ‘elasticated waistband’ the most seductive in the English language. But I certainly wouldn’t have spent anything more than the bare minimum on such slack coverings, whereas writing in the Mail last week, Frankie Graddon gushed:

The hottest look of the season is sports kit. No, I’m not going all ‘new year, new gym membership’ on you – in fact, quite the opposite. For athleisure has gone haute and it’s far too swanky to sweat in. The only physical exertion needed to pull off this trend is lifting a flat white to your lips… the aim is to appear as if you’ve been pounding the Peloton, even when the most exercise you’ve done is walk to the corner shop.

There’s actually a brand called Sporty & Rich, while over at Net-a-Porter you can grab a two-pack of socks by Toteme for a mere £80. The most expensive trainers in the world would set you back around £19,000, but Onitsuka Tiger will sort you out for around £200 a pop. Like the word ‘fitness’, the word ‘trainer’ leads to all kinds of delusion. When I was growing up in Bristol, we called gym shoes ‘daps’ – Americans used to call them ‘sneakers’; both seem appropriate, with their suggestions of a throwaway, casual attitude to dressing. It was when we started to refer to rubber footwear as ‘trainers’ that I believe the self-deceiving rot set in, as the verb ‘train’ means ‘to discipline or teach’. Just by lacing up a pair of overpriced daps, we can kid ourselves that we’re going to be ‘in training’ for some unspecified and gruelling physical test, as opposed to putting them on prior to sitting around for the rest of the day scrolling covetously through Instagram. I know someone who appears to go up a dress size every time she buys a new pair of trainers, seeming to believe that buying sports shoes means that she is actually doing a sport and can thus amp up the cake intake with no unwelcome side effects. Of course I’m not blameless here – every morning I pull on yoga pants. I write in them, shop in them and socialise in them; one thing I don’t do in them is yoga. But then, I don’t announce or photograph the fact that I’m wearing them, either – and I certainly don’t believe that they’ll somehow make me fitter, like those clowns who walk around the supermarkets in their dry robes, posing as cross-Channel swimmers.

Jung famously said: ‘You are what you do – not what you say you’ll do.’ In the world of fitness – the less quasi-religious, more show-pony version of wellness – the opposite is often true. As we grow old, it’s nice to have written proof of our glory days to look back on, be they birthday cards from dead parents, love letters or good reviews. That a row of figures on a piece of plastic seems of paramount importance to so many is yet more proof of our increasingly desiccated and soulless culture.

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