Regardless of how they package it, these companies don’t just sell physical activity. They offer people the opportunity to meet the expectations that the industry itself has helped to shape. “Exercise, and public exercise in particular, meant mental, emotional, and even spiritual health and virtue,” wrote Marc Stern, a historian at Bentley University 2008. In return for the exertion, athletes achieve the kind of body that proves virtue to all who see them.
The point is that these physical standards are difficult to achieve. “We live in a culture where hard work is valued,” said Petrzela, the New School professor who is working on a book on the place of fitness in American culture. “Many people want to be seen as people who value exercise because it shows that they are committed to self-improvement and hard work.” Beyond the movement itself, part of the satisfaction in exercising is realizing these values to other people who share them and achieving what that community sees as success.
This psychological cycle of work and reward means that there is even more to lose when the gyms go dark. If you’ve spent hours in Pilates class every week or carefully monitored your protein macros for profit, where does the energy and care gone into these rituals when asked to stay home? “Things like that are really important to people,” said Stern. “Many people see the gym as the place where they can demonstrate their own willingness to control their lives, and this is especially important at a time when that kind of control is really lacking.” For some people, exercise alone in the living room doesn’t mean the same feeling of fulfilling a role. Proofing to others is often a big part of proving to yourself, and that’s difficult when no one else can see you.
Even for people who would be physically satisfied from a lonely run, the gym can offer a clear advantage after a six-month lockout: It is not their home. They may desperately want to get back to the gym just because it’s an opportunity to be an hour away from family members they’ve been with for far too long and because they view fitness as something they only do for themselves. “Home is not the place where I relax. It’s a place with multiple commitments, ”said McKenzie. “If you’re a working family and have kids at Zoom School, that’s your priority right there.” She said that starting a whole new exercise routine at home is a psychological bridge for many people. For many people, the time they spent prior to the pandemic was “me time,” an experience that cannot be recreated at home with your children watching you do a yoga video.
In some ways, wanting to return to the gym is as much about the presence of others as it is about focusing on yourself. “Many people who lack the gym not only lack exercise, they also lack another institution in their social life,” said Petrzela. There is a certain joy in being a regular anywhere, no matter where it is; McKenzie referred to it as a cheers cause. Some people regained parts of these social interactions when certain types of local businesses reopened. For one thing, I can’t quite explain how excited I was when I first saw Beatrice, my favorite bartender in my favorite grand piano seat, when the restaurant finally reopened. For some people, their Beatrice is in the gym. “A lot of us really come to enjoy a particular instructor,” noted McKenzie. “The moment the gym closes, you don’t see the person who may have had a huge impact on your life.” Even if these teachers taught online courses to fill that void, the connection is simply not the same.
For people who had established a fitness routine before the coronavirus changed everyone’s lives, it’s comforting to regain another psychological tentpole of normal, even when circumstances – masks, lines, acrylic partitions, and less-licensed athletes – are far from it are normal. You can see all of the guided yoga routines in the world, but the famous on-screen YouTube teacher will never be delighted to see your smiling face again at six in the morning.
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