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As the nine-to-five office-based workday becomes more and more obsolete, the big-box gym model is going the way of the dodo, writes Paul Landini.

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Some tough conversations are being born out of the COVID-19 crisis about the way we work; the way we treat our elderly, disabled and impoverished; the ways in which we travel and engage with the world; and, while we’re at it, the nature of the fitness industry.

The fitness-industrial complex, much like most of the modern world, revolves around the nine-to-five workday. You go to the gym before work/after work/during your lunch break; you change, you work out (always for 60 minutes!), you change again, you go home, you sit, you sleep. Rest and repeat ad nauseam.

This approach has served many well – the naturally motivated, the athletically gifted ... people who, for the most part, already think of fitness as lifestyle. But these folks are the minority. What about everybody else? What about the single mother who’s already struggling to balance daycare, work and parenting? Or the entrepreneur whose waistline grows with each 18-hour day spent at his or her desk? The only solution Big Box Fitness seems to have for everyone with a life is to offer 24-hour access to their facilities. Now you can feel ashamed for being out of shape and for not wanting to wake up at 4 a.m. to plod away on a treadmill.

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Here’s a test for everyone with a gym membership: Can you touch your toes? Can you sit flat on the floor and then stand back up in a single, unassisted motion? Can you run 1 kilometre without getting winded? How about walking 5 km? How many perfect push-ups can you perform in one minute? For 95 per cent of the population, pursuing any of these metrics will pay far greater dividends over the course of a lifetime than chasing after a 500-pound squat.

You also don’t need a gym – or much more than 45 minutes – to accomplish any of them.

True fitness and health is a mindset and a lifestyle. It’s the understanding that ability matters more than aesthetics. The whole supposed point of “getting in shape” is to be able to better perform the things we do on a daily basis and maybe delay the inevitable for a few years. But what’s the use in either of these things when most of our lives are spent indoors, staring at screens?

Jerry Seinfeld summed up this problem nearly 20 years ago: “You see all these people and they're working out. They're training and they're getting in shape, but the strange thing is nobody is really getting in shape for anything. The only reason that you're getting in shape is so you can get through the workout. We're working out so that we'll be in shape for when we have to do our exercise. This is the whole thing.”

My clairvoyant powers aren’t what they used to be, but I’m predicting that as the nine-to-five office-based workday becomes more and more obsolete, the big-box gym model we’re familiar with is going the way of the dodo. That is to say, its days are numbered.

I say good riddance, but thanks for the memories.

In place of these glitzy temples, we’ll see a proliferation of scaled-down specialty gyms, facilities following CrossFit’s example of training practical fitness skills and fostering community. This will be a win for everyone. The smaller size means trainers and coaches will be able to better focus their attention, leading to greater results for their clients, and members will benefit from not having to swap quite as much sweat with strangers.

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We’ve still got a ways to go before reopening the world. Once we’re there, I encourage everyone to think outside of the big box. There’s a whole world of fitness challenges out there that have nothing to do with treadmills and dumbbells. Think rock climbing. Think parkour. Think gymnastics, ballet, bike polo, boxing.

The human body is a marvel of evolution and intelligent design, capable of performing staggering feats. It’s high time we explored the full potential of these incredible machines.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.

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