What do you do, reader, when the imps of agitation are upon you? When they’re running up and down your insides, each with his little wavering bouffant of blue flame, making the present tense an almost impossible place to be? Do you have a drink? Take a pill? Reach for your laptop? Shovel a drooping, dripping slice of pizza into your face? Because if America—as John Updike beautifully observed—is a conspiracy to make you happy, it is also a conspiracy to make you anxious, violent, horny, and obese. Stimulated by everything, nourished by nothing, you gape yet more savagely with need: the real need, the intolerable need, the need beneath the needs. So you dose yourself or distract yourself or stuff yourself.
But there is another course open to you: the course of health. You can get fit. You can address yourself to the engine of the body, and drive it and drive it until you are sanctified with shining sweat and glossy with endorphins. Self-medication through exercise. Working out works, at least for some of us: It temporarily settles the rogue brain. Many’s the time, sitting in the gym, on the factory floor of fitness, trembling between sets on some comically inhuman-looking machine, that I’ve wondered, Who else is down here because they’re just barely keeping it together? (Raise your hand, the nutcase doing burpees in the corner.)
There’s a lot of bodywork happening on reality TV right now—bodies in training, bodies on trial, bodies stretching and twanging at the highest pitch of performance. NBC’s Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge is the muddiest of the shows: five-person teams floundering through a one-mile obstacle course, writhing under barbed wire, flinging spears, bellowing like bulls. By contrast, the same network’s American Ninja Warrior, currently prepping for its ninth season, is the most joyously and aerially spectacular. Competitors dance across toadstool-like steps, cling to jolting barrels, swarm up netting, go hand over hand above a pool of water through an inverted forest of dangling, diabolical grips, and then launch themselves in madness at the Warped Wall: an almost completely vertical ramp that looms over the course like a stalled wave, a black reef of impossibility. Aficionados will tell you that the early seasons of ANW were the best, as the open-to-all qualifying rounds, held in cities across the United States, activated an occult subculture of weightless individualists—extreme sportsmen, stunt doubles, mystic free runners, and human flies. (One hectic apprentice memorably attempted the course in flowing robes, with a sword hanging from his belt.) On the other hand, increased competition has heightened the level of athleticism, and women have entered the game in a serious way. “She is a beast,” marveled co-host Akbar Gbaja-Biamila at the 2015 Venice Beach finals, watching the extraordinary Jessie Graff bounce, tumble, and waft through the course with a flickering half-smile on her face.
Then there’s American Grit, over on Fox, hosted by the former wrestling star (and fine comic actor, notably in last year’s Trainwreck) John Cena. Deep-jawed, doggily handsome, his voice a sort of genial, magmatic burp, Cena on American Grit represents concreteness and completion. He is a huge and benign fact. The contestants, meanwhile, undergoing strength and character examinations in the chilly foothills of Mount Rainier, jumping in and out of ice baths and standing on top of narrow poles until their feet go numb, are hoarsely struggling to self-actualize. “I don’t have patience for negativity,” says a 34-year-old bodybuilder named Marc. “I’m all about positivity, optimism, and success.”
Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: “Don’t bemoan and bewail. Omit the negative propositions. Nerve us with constant affirmatives.” In Marc’s proclamation, and across all these shows, one can hear the rude strains of the mind-power gospel, America’s real national religion. Say yes, think positive, boldly visualize, and reality will bend to your will. Mitch Horowitz, in his history of positive thinking, One Simple Idea, boils the many strands of American affirmation down to one proposition: “Thoughts are causative.” The greatest of the ninjas seem to float and bob over the obstacles on thermals of self-belief. “I believe in you!” shouts a team leader on Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge, straddling the top of a slimy wall while his teammates slide backward into mud and despair. Because belief—even somebody else’s belief—can grab a dude by his shorts and haul him up and over.
But the most fascinating of the recent body shows, to me, is NBC’s Strong. If American Ninja Warrior represents mind power in excelsis, ninjas in bloom, and American Grit dramatizes a lower-level struggle with one’s own limitations, Strong is at the bottom of the totem pole. Ten nonfit, nonconfident (so we are repeatedly told) women are matched with 10 top-of-the-line male trainers. The women huff, the men puff, and then, in trainer/trainee pairs, they battle through stamina challenges in a knockout competition. Here the ideology of these shows displays itself at its most naked, with some dodgy gender dynamics thrown in. “All day … Own the moment!” shout the bulbous trainers, gym-rat Pygmalions, as their trainees grunt and wobble and shed their negativity in thick waves. “Own your body, own your body, it’s your weapon!” The crude cognitive drilling is not always successful. “I’m trying to let you know that there’s more inside you,” trainer Adam tells trainee CC. “It’s not to be demoralizing.” “Well, it is,” weeps CC.
On each of these shows, a summit of difficulty looms, a test of tests. On American Grit it is the Endurance Platform; on American Ninja Warrior it is the eight-story, many-chambered ziggurat known as Mount Midoriyama. And on Strong it is the Elimination Tower. “It’s a metaphor for your life!” roars trainer Todd at trainee Brittany as they prep for this final obstacle—although really the Elimination Tower is more allegorical than metaphorical, a soul-hurdle you could fit into Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, right between the Slough of Despond and the Hill Difficulty. “That tower,” murmurs trainer Ky, “a k a the voice in your head that tells you you can’t.”
Each episode of Strong ends with a “jaw-dropping transformation” segment, in which the glammed-up contestants exult in their new bodies and look back with pity at their now-extinguished slob-selves. Love handles? No! Those were lumps of self-hate. Fear flaps. “I came here feeling just very beat down,” says Mahogany, who has reduced her body fat by 12 percent. Says Sarah, who has added nine pounds of lean muscle to her frame: “I didn’t have many friends … I isolated myself a lot.” But there’s a melancholy to these before-and-after shots. One feels a kind of instant nostalgia for the characterful, miscellaneously shaped women who have been replaced by these glaring fitness-creatures.
I was glued to Strong, and grew progressively more obsessed with the idea—based on no evidence whatsoever—that the trainers and trainees were falling in love with each other. Sweating, high-fiving, achieving, zealously professing mutual admiration, all within the hothouse of reality TV—surely it was not possible that these relationships could remain chaste. I too have known the touch of a personal trainer, and it is a profound and tender thing. He asks you whether you had enough protein for breakfast, and you feel loved. The show’s producers don’t go there, however. “You’ve changed my life!” is as close as we get. And this is as it should be. Fleshly pressures are not to distract us from the puritan rigor of the endeavor, its clean lines and life-improving goals.
The fitness pilgrimage, as pilgrimages go, is not a particularly heroic or transcendent one. And of course all this refrigerated effort and overcoming, this upward leaping, presupposes a counterstate of complete moral-physical collapse—cellulite as original sin, a nationwide depressive epidemic for which gyms and glassed-in health clubs across the land function as industrialized crisis centers. Is there another way? Can’t a person sit on his or her gently spreading ass and just be, untroubled by these frantic imperatives to betterment—these austerities, purgations, ardent burpees, and deadly you-can-do-it mantras? Well, I can’t, clearly, which is where we started. Anxiety, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour, and without regular exercise I would be a casualty of my own unoriginal mental fizz. That’s a fact, like John Cena. That’s my ever-receding Mount Midoriyama, and as I scramble toward it I see limping ninjas all around me, on the same journey, limping ninjas everywhere.