Updated: Feb 21, 2019
The historical relationship between individuals and the gym is a long and complicated one.
Here are some numbers that partially illustrate what I am referring to.
The modern gym sector:
There are now 6,728 fitness facilities in the UK, up from 6,435 last year.
Total industry membership is also up by 5.1% to 9.7 million.
Total gym market value is currently estimated to be £4.7 billion, up 6.3% on 2016, while 272 new public and private fitness facilities have opened in the last 12 months alone, up from 224 in 2016.
Taking all this into account it would be easy to think that people today are keen on using the gym, as well as other fitness facilities. After all, the fitness industry appears to be expanding so rapidly, how could that not be the case?
As a partial response to this question here are some other numbers to give context to the modern love/hate relationship between consumers and the fitness industry:
80 per cent of those who join a gym in January will quit within 5 months.
Can you imagine 80 per cent of the people who choose their mobile operator quitting only five months after joining?
Then there is the £37 millions wasted on unused membership annually, while research has also shown that half of the people who go to the gym only do so to look at the opposite sex.
This particular statistic is interesting in itself because it suggests that for a lot of members the gym is seen not as a social place where you can physically train, but where you can meet others for er, different reasons.
And to finish this statistical meditation, here are some UK sport-specific numbers:
2.5 millions people choose to swim every week.
2.4 choose to undertake athletics each week.
2 millions cycle regularly.
1.8 millions play football on a regular basis.
So how best to interpret these figures?
Well, first of all let’s take a look at how the physical activity sector started way back in human history. Because fitness as a lifestyle choice is not a recent invention, and it most certainly did not start with the emergence of Arnold Schwarzenegger onto the world stage. Human beings have exercised regularly, or have been working out as a social pastime for a long time, while structured exercise itself began pretty much at the start of human history.
The Primal Period -
Humans have a tough start, fresh out the blocks, as they have to run for their life in order to not become the prey of other species. Not only that, they also have to create tools to kill their own prey in what is by definition a very physical existence.
The Neolithic Period & crop culture -
Between 10,000 and 8,000 BC an agricultural revolution takes place, considered by many to be the dawn of human civilisation.
In terms of physical activity, tasks become more repetitive and require less movement than during the previous epoch, when chasing prey was required to sustain humanity.
The Ancient Times -
Human beings need to exercise to prepare for war.
Between 4,000 BC and the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD Greeks and Romans train their men hard, as the focus of politics and society is all about conquest, while for the first time the concept of the beauty of the body appears. With the Greek statues and the glory of the body, men find that they tend to respect God slightly more than they did previously.
The Dark Ages & the rejection of the body -
From the 5th Century to the 10th Century war and the quest for empire dominates, as does the building of a kingdom of barbarians (Lord of the Rings for real), as the devastation caused by plagues is widespread. During this epoch the Christian mantra is to prepare for the afterlife and, as a result, the human body is perceived as being sinful and without importance.
The Renaissance & a new start -
Between 1400 and 1600 a new era begins, open to an interest in the body, anatomy, biology, physical health and education. Vittorino da Feltre makes his mark during this period as an Italian humanist and one of the first modern educators, while in 1553 El libro del Ejercicio Corporal y Sus Provechos by the spaniard Cristobal Mendez is published as the first book which exclusively addresses physicality and its benefits.
In addition, in 1569 Mercurialis, an Italian physician, writes De arte Gymnastics, widely considered to be the first book on sports medicine, and which strongly influences the wave of physical education and training methods that start to emerge in Europe two centuries later.
The Old Times -
The first industrial revolution, starting in 1760, marks the change from manual production methods to machine-based manufacturing processes (which also prompts a move forward to a more sedentary way of life, though it may not seem like it at the time).
In parallel, during the 19th Century, possibly to counterbalance this growing sedentary dimension, nationalistic fervour extols a sense of pride in being fit and strong, with men encouraged to be ready to defend and serve their country, as physical fitness becomes a question of pride and a civic duty.
The Modern Era & rise of the contemporary fitness industry -
The 20th Century sees the rise of specialised competitive sports, as well as the emergence of a well organised and thriving fitness market and sector.
From this point on we enter the current age of confusion, with the emergence of the contemporary fitness sector as a mature business, together with its many fads and aesthetic-driven, bodybuilding approach to defining physical beauty and widespread use of increasingly sophisticated exercise machines in gyms.
And that’s not taking into account the growth of the current fitness media; with its DVDs, apps’, magazines and books, etc.
So today, where are we? And perhaps more importantly, has the current popular approach to fitness been more intelligently pursued in the past?
Well, on the plus side there is more awareness generally about the benefits of working out regularly and there is also a better understanding about how the human body works.
At the same time it is also true that the general population has never been so physically sedentary and out of shape.
One of the reasons for this apparent contradiction could be the lack of motivation that many people feel to maintain a fit and healthy lifestyle (we are, after all, living today in a society in which being fat is not seen as a stigma).
Another factor in this debate lies in the common perception that the fitness industry has turned its back on the majority of people by sharing a limited perception of what health and fitness actually is. The most common perception of what it means to be fit, and the primary motivation for exercising in the eyes of many in the industry today is quite simply to LOOK fit (and also to look fit so as to meet other people).
For many in the sector today being fit is no longer about having a healthy body that can actually do stuff that is practical in real life (I see, for example, a lot of people in the gym who can’t actually walk properly because of how and for how long they workout). Worse, for many who work in the sector there has been a loss of clarity and simplicity as to what is being taught and trained.
There has also been a loss of any sense of of practicality and naturalness in training others to become fit and healthy individuals. In this light physical fitness is not a natural expression of who we are or potentially can be, but more about what we might be able to look like.
It is obviously true that we are living in a very visual world. We are also, I would suggest, becoming less and less sensitive to each other as social beings. In addition, I would argue that we should be asking ourselves ‘How do I feel?’ when or after exercising, and if the training we are undertaking is not making us happy (because how we feel is not necessary the same as how we look) I don’t think we should continue with that training.
Or, to put it another way, I think that we should return to the basics of physical training and that we should practise fundamental and proven movement skills in order to develop a baseline of physical competence that is actually useful in real life.
We are designed to move and to enjoy life in a natural state and, because of this, strength and cardio’ exercise goes together, just as the body and mind goes together and as fitness and health goes together.
Movement and physical activity should be a joyful expression of who we are and what we can be.
Regardless of what we look like when we are doing it.