No matter how they package it, these businesses aren’t just selling physical activity; they’re providing people with a way to adhere to expectations that the industry itself helped set. “Exercise, and especially public exercise, came to signify mental, emotional, and even spiritual health and virtue,” Marc Stern, a historian at Bentley University, wrote in 2008. In return for the effort, gym-goers attain the type of body that proves their virtue to all who see them.
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That these physical standards are difficult to achieve is the point. “We live in a culture in which being industrious is highly, highly valorized,” Petrzela, the New School professor, who is working on a book about fitness’s place in American culture, told me. “Many people want to be perceived as people who value exercise, because it shows they’re committed to self-improvement, and to hard work.” Above and beyond movement itself, part of the satisfaction of gym-going comes from performing those values around other people who share them, and from achieving what that community regards as success.
This psychological cycle of work and reward means that there’s all the more to lose when gyms go dark. If you spent hours every week in Pilates class or carefully monitoring your protein macros in pursuit of gains, where do the energy and care put into those rituals go when you’re asked to stay home? “Those kinds of things really do matter to people,” Stern told me. “Many people view the gym as that space where they’re able to demonstrate their own willingness to try to control their life, and it’s especially important in a time when that kind of control is really absent.” For some people, exercising alone in their living room doesn’t grant that same sense of role-fulfillment. Proving something to others is often a big part of proving it to yourself, and that’s difficult to do when no one else can see you.
Even for people who would be physically satisfied by a solitary run, the gym can provide a clear advantage, after six months of lockdown: It’s not their home. They might be eager to return to the gym just because it’s an opportunity to spend an hour away from the family members they’ve been cooped up with for far too long, and because they see fitness as something they do only for themselves. “The home is not the place where I relax. It’s a place of multiple obligations,” McKenzie said. “If you’re a working family, and you have kids on Zoom school, that’s your priority right there.” She said that for a lot of people, starting a whole new at-home exercise routine is a psychological bridge too far. For many people, time spent working out before the pandemic was “me time,” an experience that can’t be re-created at home if your kids are watching you do a yoga video.
In some ways, though, the desire to return to the gym is as much about the presence of others as it is about a focus on the self. “A lot of people who are missing the gym are not just missing exercise, but they’re missing having another institution in their social life,” Petrzela said. There’s a certain pleasure in being a regular somewhere, no matter where it is; McKenzie referred to it as the Cheers effect. Some people have regained bits and pieces of those social interactions as certain types of local businesses have reopened. I, for one, can’t quite account for the level of excitement I felt when I first saw Beatrice, my favorite bartender at my favorite wing place, when the restaurant finally reopened. For some people, their Beatrice is at the gym. “A lot of us really come to enjoy a particular instructor,” McKenzie noted. “The minute the gym closes, you don’t see that person who may have been tremendously influential in your life.” Even if those instructors have been teaching online classes to bridge the gap, the connection just isn’t the same.
For people who had built a gym routine before the coronavirus changed everyone’s life, there is comfort in regaining one more psychological tentpole of normalcy, even if the circumstances—masks, lines, acrylic partitions, and fewer gym-goers allowed inside—are far from normal. You can watch all the guided yoga routines in the world, but the YouTube-famous instructor onscreen is never going to be excited to once again see your smiling face at six in the morning.