2,500 years of gyms (and you’re still better off walking the dog)

In a review of the Temple of Perfection by Eric Chaline, Mark Mason sees the gym as our modern place of worship

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym Eric Chaline

Reaktion Books, pp.272, £20, ISBN: 9781780234496

My favourite fact about gyms before reading this book was that the average British gym member covers 468 miles per year and the average British dog walker 676. Eric Chaline’s history of the institution has offered up some competition on the fact front — but my cynicism remains undimmed.

Chaline, a personal trainer and weightlifting instructor, certainly shows that ‘gym-bunny’ doesn’t have to equal ‘numbskull’. The book is learned and well-researched, and although this sometimes gives us sentences such as ‘The body plays a central role in the transformation of abstract social discourses into lived actions and identities’, it also furnishes some pretty interesting history.

We start with the Ancient Greeks, whose gymnos (‘naked’) gave us the word ‘gymnasium’ in the first place. That’s how they exercised, you see, although because large penises were unfashionable back then you had to tether the old chap to your waist with a leather thong. Not that it wouldn’t see action: Greek gyms were hotbeds of gay sex, to the extent that boys were told not to sit in the sand lest the impressions left by their genitals arouse the elders. A more calming influence was the flute music that accompanied proceedings, the ancient equivalent of Bruno Mars on the iPod.

Fourth-century Christians banned gyms (indeed all athletics) — ironic from the viewpoint of today, when the gym has replaced the church as many people’s place of worship. An Italian physician of 1569 recommended holding your breath as a way of exercising, but it was the 19th century before gyms really flourished again. Mac-laren’s in Oxford boasted the trunk of a 60-foot Norwegian spruce as its climbing frame, while at the gymnase de Triat in Paris groups of men were put through their paces dressed only in red tights. Funnily enough lots of women turned up to watch.

Spectators also flocked to Santa Monica’s open-air gym on Muscle Beach, at least until 1959 when the authorities closed it for being ‘freakish, homoerotic and unbalanced’. (Talking of which, you may wish to avoid the photo of a bodybuilder on page 136 if you have recently consumed food.) Two decades later the Village People honoured Manhattan’s YMCA on East 48th Street: the hit was inspired by all the gay New Yorkers who went to YMCAs to use the gym (among other things).

We also encounter Vic Tanny, the American whose establishments asked members to refrain from grunting or groaning, and Jane Fonda, whose workout video forced gyms to introduce sprung floors, so often were members injuring themselves by recreating the high-impact aerobics moves. Meanwhile Saturday Night Fever led to a craze for dance classes, and Arnold Schwarzenegger once trained with two Californian blondes sitting on his back.

Perhaps this last option might entice more gym members to stick with it. Chaline admits that almost a quarter of Americans lapse within their first year, and cites a friend who moved to a budget gym because ‘when he was a member of a more expensive gym and he did not use it, he felt he was not getting his money’s worth’. Presumably he’ll now continue not to go and feel he’s saving money. It would be typical of the twisted logic these places instil in their users. My partner is a serial joiner-avoider. For one of her occasional visits she asked me to give her a lift to the gym, then complained when heavy traffic meant she had to walk the final 200 yards.

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  • Helen of Troy

    Writers can try too hard at times (except when they don’t try hard enough: e.g. Seth Godin). ‘The body plays a central role in the transformation of abstract social discourses into lived actions and identities’ is an instance of this. Where was the editor??

  • mumble

    Plus ça change: “Gym is gay church.” —Will & Grace

  • Nele Schindler

    Gym-sneering, bla bla bla. Pointless? My mum, 67, is an avid gym goer. In December, she had her second back surgery (after a fall a few years back) and is now back in her local gym three times a week. She made a speedy recovery, the pain has vanished and her doctor is extremely pleased with her progress.

    Compare this to my dog-walking friend half her age. Same situation – two back surgeries after a fall. She is now drawing a state pension, unable to work, because she cannot even move in the morning. Apparently the gym is ‘not for her’.

    My mum was retired but that didn’t work out. Her former colleagues can’t handle the workload and negotiated a three-days-a-week part-time contract. She’s as alert and energetic as she was when she was 40, only more fun.

    I vowed to not skip my gym sessions. All that silly waffle about how the gym isn’t a modern church probably has got a kernel of truth in it. Like church, the gym can be a life-saver.

    • Helen of Troy

      Okay, but how are her triceps? (Joke) I take your point, but prefer myself to exercise in my own environment: I have more control over the pace and style and set-up, I am more dignified, I can do it and leave it with much more celerity, and I don’t get exposed to other people’s germs.

      • Nele Schindler

        ‘Other people’s germs’. Dear heavens.

        • Helen of Troy

          Indeed. My own are much safer. I have moved house many many times in my still-short life. Other people’s dirt is always much more alarming and I clean like Evil Knevil at first because their dirt is… theirs, not mine. (Not that I become a slob thereafter, but I trust I’ve made my point.)

          • Nele Schindler

            Your own are just as germy as everybody else’s my dear! Vile little things with pointy teeth and tentacles for arms. Now go and behave like a member of the human race and laugh in their face.

          • Helen of Troy

            Now, now. Germs is germs but there must be something to this: one’s immune system is used to … oneself, and one’s family.

          • Nele Schindler

            Mine stretches beyond the immediate family and I’m still rocking on 42 years later!

          • Helen of Troy

            Glad to hear it!

  • mumble

    Hey, Mr. Moderator,

    (Talking of which, you may wish to avoid the photo of a bodybuilder on page 136 if you have recently consumed food.)

    And how do we locate p. 136 on the web or app versions?

  • Dogsnob

    I used to visit the gym two, maybe three times a week but I’m alright now.

  • Now that I’ve turned 35, alcohol does nothing but make me depressed, anxious and sick, and the gym leaves me feeling buoyant and capable of anything.

    I feel a lot of these articles are written by sick, tired men who haven’t felt properly well in quite a while.