Something weird has happened to me since I returned to the US. I started going to this room full of equipment and sweaty people called… the gym. And the oddest thing is, not only do I go frequently, but I actually enjoy it. How twisted is that? What has become of me? I’ve become a fit masochist.
Going to the gym strikes me as a particularly American thing to do. Of course there are gyms in other countries (I briefly flirted with the gym in London, for example, before standing it up for so many dates that I finally broke it off for good). And there are plenty of countries where fitness is an integral part of the national culture – Australia, New Zealand, and Scandinavia spring to mind.
But in the US, I feel like “going to the gym” is more than something you just do on occasion, or even do regularly; it’s an institution. Like buying a house or getting married, everyone seems to be doing it (or at least trying to do it, even if they end up defaulting on their monthly payments or suffering a separation).
For many people, it’s a lifestyle. I’ve been going to the gym several times a week, which I think would qualify me as a “regular,” but somehow I still seem to be the least integrated person there. There is a whole slew of equipment there which I see people employing with ease and familiarity, like they’re using it for the thousand-and-first time, and there I am, fearing a fall off the back of the treadmill.
I find it ironic, because Americans have the reputation of being fat and out of shape, and indeed many of them are. But at the other end of the extremely polarized population are the fitness freaks, making up for the plump ones with their total lack of body fat. It’s as though the “normal” segment of the population, which doesn’t work out but isn’t overweight, just doesn’t exist. Or they exist, but just aren’t as numerous as they are in Europe, where I felt I knew more people who were fit without being gym-goers.
I presume this is because a lot of the “natural” fitness, which comes from engaging in the sample act of living, has been artificially cut out of daily life in the US. While Americans are driving, Europeans are walking or cycling. While Americans are taking escalators or elevators, Europeans are taking the stairs. While Americans are having their groceries home delivered, Europeans are carrying those heavy bags home. And while Americans are sweating in a windowless room on a stationary machine, Europeans are at home enjoying a glass of wine.