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Something strange is happening to the fitness industry. Or maybe it already happened – years ago – and I’m only just noticing now (having no social media presence can be a mixed blessing). There’s a shift in how fitness is being packaged and sold, a shift that emphasizes an almost slave-like devotion to the self. During my lifetime the act of “working out” was usually presented as democratic in nature, a basic right accessible to all. Now, it’s being rebranded as a sort of mandatory luxury item for this generation of digital nomads.
Hell, even the language has changed. Health is “wellness”; exercising is “training”; getting a massage is “self-care.” Forgive me for coming off as a younger Andy Rooney, but back in my day you’d hit the gym a few times a week, either before or after work, and that was that. Maybe you’d play some ball with buddies on the weekend, maybe run an easy 5K Sunday mornings. Food mattered, but it wasn’t something to stress over.
Today the expectation is to be up at 4 a.m. for morning meditation and journaling while riding out the final wave of your 12-hour daily fast. Breakfast – and every morsel that passes your lips thereafter – is posted on Instagram for the approval of the oh-so legitimate dietitians, trainers and food scientists who lurk in the comments section. Your workout is no longer just that, it’s an “experience” to be shared with your tribe/team/pod, one that we must pause and express gratitude for whenever possible (quick, grab your journal!).
By now you’re likely wondering what my point is. Hasn’t the pursuit of physical perfection and ultimate longevity always been just a tad self-indulgent? And what’s wrong with indulging the self anyway? My point – and my problem – is that entry into this cult of wellness comes at a ridiculous cost, in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the word. Forget for a moment the time commitment required; society is being duped into believing you need a Fitbit, compression shorts and a $200 pair of lifting shoes to get in shape, when a notebook, sweatpants and Chuck Taylors will do just fine.
Of course there’s always been a market that caters to the well-heeled. Peloton presents the most extreme example of this absurdity. Have you seen how much those bikes cost? And then there’s the monthly membership to boot. You could fly first-class to France and tour the countryside on your own damn bike for the same price. The same goes for Equinox – not a gym, but a “temple of well-being” that charges its parishioners thousands of dollars for the privilege of spilling sweat inside its walls.
Pay attention to the way these products are being positioned. Peloton ads feature everyday, average folks pedalling away on $3,000 machines in their unspectacular homes. Lululemon ads feature everyday, average folks running and bending and lifting in outfits that cost more than most people make in a day. The message is clear, yet entirely incongruent with reality. At least Equinox has the decency to showcase their upper crust offerings in the proper context; in keeping with the tradition of aspirational luxury brands, their ads make no sense at all.
Getting in shape doesn’t require a payment plan or a line of credit. I’ve spent time in posh gyms and I’ve spent time in musty warehouses and I can assure you there is next to no correlation between high fees and quality of service. In Toronto, Hone Fitness offers memberships for as low as $30 a month and you can bring a friend whenever you want. The YMCA has 120 fitness centres across Canada with fully-equipped weight rooms and loads of fitness classes; their membership subsidy program ensures everyone, regardless of income, can cycle their stress away. You may not be able to bathe yourself in eucalyptus-infused steam showers afterwards, but really who needs that anyway?
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.