Have you ever seen people riding those two-wheeled elliptical trainer contraptions? It looks like they just tore free of their moorings at the gym and started cruising down the street. Are they supposed to be scooters, NordicTracks, bikes, or what? They should decide whether they want to run or ride a bike or cross-country ski. They look ridiculous.
Of course, so does most exercise. We humans face an inherent conflict: Our bodies are meant to subsist on only the foods we can hunt down, scavenge, or coax from the earth by endless sowing, tending, and reaping. But our actual lifestyles consist of sitting on soft chairs and eating unlimited, delicious, and inexpensive calories. As a result, we engage in outlandish activities that are, when considered objectively, completely preposterous.
While less jarring than the sight of someone riding a piece of cardio equipment from the gym down the street, cyclists are a bit of an eyesore themselves, what with their loud, matching Lycra shorts and jerseys emblazoned with logos of Italian bikes that cost more than most of the cars I’ve owned.
By the looks of these Spandex harlequins, they’re more obsessed with their outfits, shiny components, and carbon-fiber frames than with the actual riding of their bikes, which, by the way, is accepted by much of the world as a means of transportation for people who wish they had cars.
Runners, on the other hand, with their minimalist equipment and dedication to doing only the most primitive and laborious of human physical activities, are the ascetic monks of exercise. It looks like a penance as they chug grimly along in whatever unpleasant conditions nature throws at them. Their faces weather-beaten and haunted, and their dead eyes fixed on the horizon, they seem just steps ahead of their personal demons, usually nursing a half-dozen or so repetitive-stress injuries.
What about grown-ups who play recreational team sports? Is there a less efficient way to get exercise than to spend hours and hours organizing, preparing, and traveling just to sprint around a field for a few minutes with a bunch of sad former high school athletes who can’t let go of the past? When coming across adults playing soccer or softball, you might think, “Wow, that’s so great that they’re staying active”—but you could just as well observe, “There’s no way their poor partners and kids don’t realize that this is just a way to escape their disappointment in the reality of adulthood.” I guess it’s better than going to the bar every night. But just barely.
Swimmers are some of the most deluded and masochistic exercisers of all. Swimming itself is an important skill, sure, and kids should definitely learn and practice swimming for the sake of their survival and fun. Having logged some hours in the lap lanes certainly makes one more comfortable during beach vacations and pool parties. But as exercise? Touted as a “low-impact,” full-body workout, swimming actually entails slogging back and forth, gasping for air, in a chemical bath of chlorine and other people’s bodily excretions, for hours at a time, to ultimately burn the caloric equivalent of two light beers.
I could go on. Who among us hasn’t sniggered at the sight of grown men and women rollerblading down the boardwalk or race-walking around the reservoir? How many times have we crossed to the other side of the park to avoid the freaky loner doing tai chi or quigong, or whatever you call it when they perform slow motion kung fu battles with imaginary villains? Bearded, Patagonia-clad Alpinist-posers climbing fake cliffs and walking on tightropes between trees at the urban greenspace?
However, the most ludicrous of these caloric compensations are the trendy organized exercise classes that ebb and flow in popularity depending on the whims of our revered health gurus, tastemakers, and celebrities. The floodgates were opened in 1969, when Jazzercise (which still exists) was first introduced, and global levels of embarrassing fitness trends have been steadily rising ever since.
All manner of choreographed dancing and jumping about with steps, balls, balancing platforms, rubber bands, dumbbells and so on have been created from whole cloth, but the truly absurd group-exercise spectacles are revivals or updates of ancient (or at least kind of old) workouts, especially those imported from exotic (or at least kind of foreign) cultures.
Pilates, for instance, invented by a German visionary in the 1920s and involving equipment that would look at home in a Berlin sex dungeon, is now so mainstream that your parents probably do it. Speaking of torture, the millennia-old, formerly religious practice of yoga has grown so many different branches that it now defies definition. The one commonality among different schools of yoga is that practitioners must put themselves in intensely uncomfortable positions and try not to cry or have a panic attack before the instructor says, “And … release.” For an added challenge, you can do Bikram yoga in a muggy, 106-degree bacteria incubator that smells like intestinal gas, vomit, and the despair of your classmates.
Oh, what do I do for exercise? I’m glad you asked, because I have got this fitness thing totally dialed in.
My current plan consists of lifting weights, Crossfit* (*-style exercise with a dude at the park who carries tractor tires around in his van—seems legit), and Zumba. To be honest, I have dabbled in all of the ridiculous exercises I listed above and more, but my years of research have brought me to the holy trinity that is keeping me excited about working out four to six times a week.
I know, I know: Weightlifters are seen as vain, body-dysmorphic, 'roid-addled mirror-monkeys who care less about their health than achieving their dreams of looking like swollen plastic action figures. Crossfitters are supposedly Navy SEAL-wannabe macho dudebros who push one another to the edge of rhabdo while air-humping kettlebells and slamming medicine balls into the ground like angry gorillas. And Zumba is for ladies.
The legitimacy of the criticisms of my regimen notwithstanding, there is something intensely satisfying about working a certain muscle group until it no longer functions, but only burns in exquisite agony. And there aren’t many workouts where you get so wrapped up in efficiently using your whole body to overcome gravity that an hour is over so fast you might think you blacked out in the middle of the class, which seems like something that could totally happen.
As far as Zumba goes, I haven’t sweated so much while smiling and laughing since the raves my college friends and I would attend back in the day. To the person unconvinced by what I have determined (for now) to be the best forms of exercise available on the planet, I might look like an ass, grimacing at myself in the mirror at the gym, shambling around in a field holding a barbell weight over my head, or clumsily shaking my booty to a Daddy Yankee track. But until I find evidence to the contrary, or am seduced by another fitness craze, I maintain that there is nothing at all silly about shimmying, benching, burpee-ing as a substitute for chasing down buffalo like my ancestors did. Which reminds me that I have a Groupon for Aerial yoga that I need to redeem.