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My gym has a stair climber. When you push the start button, the display screen says: "Enjoy Your Workout!"
Listen, stair climber, I don't need your sarcasm.
To understand what a ridiculous place the gym is, let's rewind the clock by a few thousand years. For most of history, every human being's biggest problem was getting enough food to stay alive. The calories you expended while hunting woolly mammoths and gathering roots and berries were roughly equal to the calories you got from eating them.
The invention of farming gave humans our first food surplus. Still, life was physically challenging and no one ever needed to do jumping jacks because they had eaten too many carbohydrates.
Skip past the Industrial Revolution to today's world of elevators and online shopping, and you have people whose biggest problem is getting enough exercise to fit into last year's pants.
Our solution is to put a bunch of heavy metal plates in a big building and go there several times a week to practise lifting them. Imagine going back in time to feudal England and trying to explain to an exhausted peasant that in the future, we don't have to plow fields, but we optionally take kettlebell classes.
I live in a post-exertion society. I can support myself with a job where the most physically challenging thing I have to do is refill the photocopier. My hobbies are Xbox and Netflix. I could easily go an entire year without breaking a sweat.
Despite that, I've been a regular at my local gym for more than a decade. I've done thousands of pull-ups and logged enough kilometres on the treadmill to get from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. And at no point in my life have I ever needed to lift my body weight with my arms or run more than half a block to catch a bus.
So, why do I invest hours each week to build muscles I never use?
The practical value of fitness may be obsolete, but that doesn't mean fitness has no value.
Being strong has never benefited me at all; looking strong has benefited me every day. When a guy has broad shoulders and a flat stomach, people assume he has all sorts of other masculine attributes. They assume he knows how to jump-start a car, gut a fish, build an end table. They assume he's a hard negotiator who won't be taken advantage of. They assume he's got a strong work ethic and firm control of his emotions.
A fit man is automatically treated with respect he hasn't earned.
Here's the truth: I've got no practical skills at all. I wouldn't know which end of the car to put the cables on. I'm such a timid negotiator that I get stressed out playing Monopoly. As for emotional strength? I cry at the end of Lord of the Rings. Every time.
Men of my generation are having a rough time defining masculinity. We don't get to chop down trees or lasso steers or do anything else that's both strenuous and useful. We spend our most productive hours and our leisure hours in front of a computer.
We need the gym to disguise our bodies and create the illusion of ruggedness.
Some fitness enthusiasts might point out that exercise isn't just about looks, and working out has all kinds of long-term health benefits. I know that. But to most guys, those health benefits are like the parsley on the side of a perfectly grilled steak: not the point, and you wouldn't even notice if they weren't there.
Guys in their 20s and 30s aren't scared of getting heart disease in their 50s; they're afraid of feeling embarrassed when they take off their shirt at the lake this weekend.
Building muscles to bluff your way through life isn't easy. The hardest part is sharing gym space with other guys who are building muscles to bluff their way through life. The combination of insecurity and boosted testosterone brings out the worst behaviour in the male gender.
Here are a few classics I run into regularly:
The guy who wants everyone to see how much weight he's lifting, and so grunts like a sumo wrestler and clangs the dumbbells to the ground in case the grunting didn't get enough attention. He was the child who wouldn't jump off the diving board until he was sure everyone was watching.
The guy who can't stop checking himself out in the mirror. Unless he was raised in a tribal village and this is his first time seeing a reflective surface, there's no excuse for doing this in public.
The guy who wears a tuque at the gym. Tuques are for keeping your head warm. Outside. If he needs to make an incredibly stupid fashion statement, he might as well wear a scuba mask.
The guy who thinks that every piece of equipment belongs to him, as if the gym is his personal living room and everyone else is there by mistake. He finishes with a machine and walks away, and when you get on it and start exercising, he comes back and stares at you like you're a dog eating out of his bowl.
I would love to have enough confidence that I didn't need biceps for decoration. But a secure self-concept is even harder to develop than a muscular frame.
Dave Jorgensen lives in Victoria.