Magazine | March 14, 2016, Issue

Exercise in Style

(Glow Wellness/Getty Images)

When I first saw the men’s locker room in my new gym, I thought, Really? I know that few gyms in the city are housed in spaces that were designed for that purpose, so improvisation is the order of the day. But here was truly a desperate solution: a long sad slot; a steam tunnel with lockers, a boiler room with toilets; if four men wanted to take showers, one would have to wait; if the lucky three wanted stalls with shower curtains, one of them would have to wait. The rest of the facility was only a little more commodious. The main exercise room recalled a surgical theater, or a cockpit. Additional pieces of equipment were shoehorned into the hallways. All of this was underground, in the hall of the mountain king. Almost as an afterthought, a few exercise bicycles were left in the street-level window by the reception desk, for the edification of passers-by.

But the new gym is cleaner than the old gym, the equipment is better, and the staff is welcoming. Compensation, as Emerson said.

Gym-going does not come naturally to me. I have never been athletic. As a city dweller who for years owned neither a car nor a house, I was unmindful of maintenance generally; if I had to go anywhere, I took a subway, a cab, or my feet; if water, heat, or gas went on the fritz, I left it to the super or the utility. As with my life, so with my body. Yet I have been going to gyms for almost a quarter of a century now. Why?

Disease is a great prompter. If you almost die, you realize you surely will. Paradoxically this encourages you to live better, at least as far as health and fitness are concerned. Time is disease’s unbeatable reinforcement. Illness is a game of odds, erratic though ultimately losing, but new days come like clockwork. Someone e-mailed me a picture of myself in college: Seventies hair! Over time it has become gray, then white, all the while becoming less. So I go to the gym. I will never do triathlons or load up on steroids, but stick arms, stoop shoulders, and writer’s gut can be combated if not averted entirely. This combat is surprisingly easy. All it takes is effort. Think of it as reading an extra newspaper three days a week, without having to look at Kim Jong-un. The routines of journalism, simultaneously niggling and soothing, suit me for such regularity.

Another reason for going to the gym is comradeship. Regular attendance there is the easiest way to follow sports. One of the regulars at my old gym went to Notre Dame, while another is a high roller: two different styles of obsession. I stay abreast of World Series, bowl games, and March Madness without experiencing the tedium of actually watching the games. If anything memorable happens, like Jeter’s final walk-off single, I can catch it online. It’s like being a historian of politics: I know what states Henry Clay carried in the election of 1832, even though I did not live through it.

Comradeship teaches me things I did not know. I have had two trainers; one was a gay man from New Orleans and Sicily, the other is a black man from the islands. Knowing them has been like knowing five countries. Once my first trainer pointed out another exerciser who was wearing a brown scapular; if you wear that when you die, he explained, you will not go to hell. I understand the theology of it is more complicated than that, though not in Sicily. What I contribute is a modest gossip buzz — almost-celebrities I know, celebrities I almost know — and political analysis. It’s so much better doing the latter in the gym than on TV; I don’t have to pretend to be authoritative, only current. Together we discuss what we have learned from the papers of record, the tabloids. Eliot Spitzer actually seems to have found someone worse than he is.

A hidden reason for going to the gym is what going there preempts. While I am in the surgical theater and the locker room, or going and coming, I cannot be online.

My name is Richard, and I am an Internet user. Here are the dimensions of my use. I don’t own an iPhone, a laptop, or any portable device. All my time online happens at my home PCs, or in the business centers of hotels. My only social medium is Twitter; I once was on a listserv, but I gave it up. Most of my computer time is spent doing what I am doing now — writing — or researching. (No one will ever again go to a library to consult Benton’s Abridgment of the Debates of Congress.)

But there, on the blue screen, is the pool of the world. I check four sites regularly — NRO, of course, an art blog, an aggregator, and a headline service. That’s not a lot (cf. I drink only wine). But then there are links to other sites, some of them not the Daily Mail. If I want to look up something quickly, there is Wikipedia (I know the rules: judgments worthless; birth dates and death dates safe). Then there are the impulses. When I was a little boy my parents had a record of “The Oceana Roll.” I recently wondered, could I find that? Sure thing — several versions, all lousy (it is a lousy song).

How did I use to waste time? I read the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Alphabetical order was a much better stimulus for mind travel than links. I pulled books off shelves (still do that, but not enough).

Now the online world invades the gym. The exercise bicycles at the new place allow you to pick a TV channel. My second day I saw Al Capone beating someone to death with a baseball bat. No thanks — I’ll just work out.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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