Just one more lap, then I’ll call the doctor

Training in vain: Postponing this year’s London Marathon has disappointed 40,000 runners. © Getty

Is the cult of exercise bad for us? Everyone knows that fitness is important – but some people are so obsessed with it that it can dominate their lives and damage their relationships.

It was an odd letter for the Guardian’s agony aunt to receive. “My husband of 10 years has become obsessed with fitness. He’s at the gym twice a day: swimming in the morning and again after work for up to two hours. Our living room is cluttered with dumbbells and our small kitchen has been overtaken by tubs of protein. He doesn’t have the time to help me around the flat.” Should she leave him?

Traditionally, wives have complained of their husbands lazing in front of the TV or disappearing to the pub instead of doing their fair share of housework. Now, as the letter suggests, things have gone to the other extreme.

It is not just men who have become obsessed with exercise. With gyms closed by the lockdown, we can see just how many people of both sexes are in thrall to it. The streets and parks are filled with Lycra-clad figures jogging and working out, often taking remote instructions from instructors on their smartphones.

The benefits of exercise are well known. It is good for your heart, lowers your blood pressure, improves sleep, and strengthens your muscles and bones. It also helps you keep at a healthy weight by burning calories and raising metabolism.

But experts worry that many fitness fanatics are narcissists who care more about their appearance than their health. A survey by an American eating-disorder charity found that 48% of women took exercise mainly because they wanted to look thinner.

Obsessive exercising often results from an unbalanced state of mind. Another survey found that 80% of marathon swimmers suffered from psychological problems. The gym is a common refuge for people who are in emotional turmoil.

Another letter to a newspaper offers an alternative perspective. “I walk and, yes, I garden, but only for pleasure; never in obedience to a fashionable mania,” wrote Edna Thomas to the Sunday Times. “I like steak and chips, chocolate digestive biscuits, thickly buttered toast, strawberries and cream. I take no medication. My weight, blood pressure, heart, and lungs are all in excellent order […]. I find super-exercisers boring and super-muscular bodies somewhat repulsive. I am 92 years old.”

Is the cult of exercise bad for us?

Fit for purpose?

Some people argue that anything which encourages people to keep fit is a good thing. One of the greatest threats to health is a sedentary lifestyle, which often leads to obesity and diabetes, costing the NHS a vast amount of money. Computers have become so much a part of our lives that we need an alternative to sitting in front of the screen, and nobody should complain if a gym supplies that.

Others say fitness fanatics are self-obsessed people with no consideration for others. Their routines rule their lives, and they make those who cannot emulate them feel inadequate. We only need a moderate amount of exercise to keep healthy – too much will damage the body in the long run. It is also a poor use of energy: the same time and effort would be much better spent on building something.

You Decide

  1. Who do you admire more: marathon runners or mountaineers?
  2. Should healthcare benefits for obese people be made conditional on their taking proper exercise?

Activities

  1. Paint a portrait of a famous athlete, such as Usain Bolt.
  2. Draw a scientific diagram of the human body and label as many different parts of it as you can.

Some People Say...

“Exercise is bunk. If you are healthy, you don’t need it: if you are sick you should not take it.”

Henry Ford (1863-1947), US industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Physical and mental wellbeing have always gone hand-in-hand. One of the most famous Latin sayings is: “Mens sana in corpore sano” (a healthy mind in a healthy body). In ancient Greece, a gymnasium was a place not only for exercise, but for lectures and discussions on subjects, such as philosophy and literature. In modern German, “gymnasium” means a secondary school.
What do we not know?
How much exercise is the right amount. The NHS recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, but does not set an upper limit. Research has found that those who meet the guidelines reduce their chance of dying prematurely by 31%; for those who do three times as much, the reduction is 39%. But taking any more exercise than that does not seem to increase life expectancy.

Word Watch

Agony aunt
A female journalist who gives advice on readers’ personal problems. In the US, President Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor was an agony aunt for 20 years.
Dumbbells
Short bars with a weight at each end.
Lycra-clad
A light, stretchy material popular with runners and cyclists. In the US, it is usually called spandex – an anagram of “expands”.
Metabolism
The chemical processes within the body which produce energy. It derives from a Greek word meaning “change”.
Narcissists
Generally, people who are obsessed with themselves. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool.
Turmoil
Violent confusion.
Sedentary
Involving little exercise and a lot of sitting down. It comes from the Latin verb “sedere” (to sit). Zoologists use it to refer to creatures that remain in one place rather than migrating.
Emulate
Match or imitate, from the Latin “aemulus” (rival). In computing, it means to copy a software system designed for a different kind of computer.

Subjects

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