Why should we exercise? Because we want to, or because we’re told to?
WHEN I SET OFF on my last run, I got an instant reminder of why I exercise.
I’d been feeling stressed but, once I’d gone a hundred metres, I just couldn’t hold the tensions in any more.
The work my arms and legs were doing forced my lungs to take in deep, long, breaths – instead of the jittery little swallows of air I’d been subsisting on all day.
Once I gave in, and stopped fighting to control my breathing, I felt my worries float away.
I felt free – but am I, really?
The sheer joy of movement was what got me into fitness as a young kid – sliding into a tackle across a wet football field, or doing jumps on my Raleigh Chopper over waste ground with my mates.
Back then, in my innocence, exercise seemed just a natural part of living – untainted by association with anyone but the kids I played with, and the adults who taught me.
These days, is exercise about social control and profits?”
But, in fact, our fitness and exercise habits have long been things that other people – often people in positions of power – have tried to interfere with.
And, these days, there’s a risk of exercise being more about social control and profits than individual happiness.
As far back as I can remember, official campaigns in Britain have told us to stop smoking/stop drinking/eat better/exercise more.
Knowing that we revere the NHS, and knowing that we know it’s underfunded, the government line is always that we have a duty to stay fit – because cancer treatment/heart surgery/obesity/diabetes all ‘costs the NHS xyz millions a year.’
The coronavirus emergency doubled down on this citizenly duty not to burden our doctors and nurses. Meanwhile, our overweight Prime Minister’s response to almost carking it from Covid-19 was to launch an Obesity Strategy to “make the nation fitter”.
Our sleep has been app-ified”
But it’s not just governments and official bodies that are using exercise to further their own ends – corporations are all over it, too.
I’m thinking, of course, about the fitness industry – from gyms to ‘Boot Camp’ companies like British Military Fitness, to getting cashback on private health insurance with companies like Vitality, if you agree to track your workouts on a phone app.
But the Vitality deal also features tie-ins with American Express, and ‘rewards’ from Waitrose supermarkets, cinemas and coffee shops – all of whom stand to benefit from us meeting our (our?) fitness goals.
Meanwhile, sleep has become ‘app-ified’ – a classic example of marketing people making us worry about missing out on something, and then selling us the ‘solution’.
And, of course, the fashion business has long had its tanks parked on our sports fields – until the 1970s, no-one except confirmed ‘fitness freaks’ wore running gear out in public, and that was usually plain shorts and a vest, or a rudimentary tracksuit.
By the 1980s, however, we had Air Jordans. A decade later, pop-star coiffed Premier League footballers like David Beckham were rocking tailored Nike kits and bold-coloured boots, making athletic gear sexy.
These days, The World and His Wife runs and rides around in beautifully designed, high-end, high-tech gear – your Raphas, Le Cols and dhb Merino Base Layers – while even people who patently don’t exercise much swan around in ‘athleisure’ threads, still feeling part of the action.
I’m not sexy – but I do like to think I’m not stupid”
Of course, there’s a win-win aspect to all of this – so what if companies make money out of more of us staying fitter? Isn’t it a good thing if we feel great and look great, in greater numbers?
Personally, I like to keep it a bit more real: I buy decent-quality trainers, but think it’s madness to shell out hundreds on expensive running clobber, with the express intention of instantly ruining it with your sweat.
No-one who’s ever seen me out in my threadbare, stinky hoody or my Halfords bike shorts would ever confuse me with someone sexy. But I do like to think I’m not stupid.
I also think that, if our governments and corporations genuinely wanted us to be healthier, they would leave off their pushing and prodding and instead do us one simple favour – give us more time off work.
A BBC Food article found recently that one of the main reasons why Britons are fatter than anyone else in Western Europe is our longer working hours, meaning – amongst other things – that we tend to snack unhealthily rather than prepare proper meals.
If we had the chance to make and eat food properly, and more time and energy for working out, maybe we could make decisions about lifestyle and exercise that will benefit us as individuals, and then the country at large. And not the other way around.