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.