It was the year of the at-home workout—Peloton, Nordic Track, and Beach Body. Or maybe you just got on craigslist and outfitted the garage. Over and over, I’ve heard people raving about how much they love their home workout routine and predicting the death of traditional gyms. Why would anyone go back?
Because Humans Are a Social Species
Forces that sometimes drift outside the cold logic of practicality and efficiency compel we human folk.
We buy paperback books because we prefer the feeling, live and die with our favorite sports team, wave strangers on at four-way stops, and spend energy each day sifting through our ever-expanding collections of shirts, pants, and shoe options to find the right outfit. We are a social species that cannot thrive or even define ourselves in isolation.
Even drugs aren’t as potent as the call to community.
In the 1970s, conventional wisdom held that drugs like morphine and cocaine presented a virtually irresistible addiction once they hit the bloodstream.
Years of tests1 conducted on rats had shown that when offered water or water mixed with cocaine or morphine, the rats would try the drugged water and return to it, manically, until they overdosed. But like humans, rats are a social species.
The rats in the tests were isolated and alone in a cage.
On a hunch, Dr. Bruce Alexander set up a different environment that he called rat park.2 It was a rat haven where rats ran free, playing, reproducing, and doing happy rat things in ideal rat conditions.
Once the rats were acclimated, Dr. Alexander repeated the previous drug introduction studies. No rats overdosed.
Most rats tried the drug solution and never returned. The implications are clear for us as we emerge from a tumultuous year of lockdowns, virtual living, and techno-induced divisiveness.2
As Dr. Lloyd Sederer writes, “Humans, not just rats, need to be part of a community, encouraged to relate and experience the support of others.2 This is about as basic a psychological truth as exists …”
As hard as our smartphones might try to the contrary, we will always congregate because we seek real communities of people who work among us and share trials.
Yes, even touch us with fist bumps, high-fives, energetic side bumps, and rear naked chokes for the jiu-jitsu enthusiasts; we don’t feel alive without these connections. This sort of interaction explicitly spurred the first gym and playground movement around the turn of the 20th century.
We Thought the Cure Was More Rest and Less Responsibility
As Brett and Kate McKay chronicle in their epic A Call for a New Strenuous Age,3 many of the developments we see in our current technological revolution mirror the second industrial revolution of the late 1800s, such as:
- Loss of autonomy and skills once universal to human life
- Loss of physical strength and vitality
- Loss of virtues such as self-reliance, perseverance, and courage
Most notably, the late 19th century America was characterized by a pervasive feeling of anxiety along with apathy and malaise—a sense of disinterest in the world mixed with restlessness and longing for an authentic life. Many became convinced that modern living was just too hard on our psyches.
The cure, they believed, was more rest and less responsibility, but idleness and avoidance only made things worse.
A counter-current developed from people who believed that the absence of challenge and the raw experience was the problem.
The loss of clear community expectations, rites of passage, vital capabilities to strive towards, and any realistic manner in which to measure yourself was what made life feel hollow.
People needed to experience the joy of striving, caring about standards, and feeling one’s power growing.
They wanted to join communities that rekindled this vitalist perspective.
The Birth of the Gym
Physical training and athletics grew in popularity as people sought to pit themselves against themselves and others and to feel the camaraderie and energy of team competition.
Gyms, obstacle courses, and sports teams were beacons, attracting the kind of people who longed to be active and live more authentically. The very essence of the gym is to war against the negative trends of society that conspire to turn us into lesser versions of ourselves.
This ethos lies at the heart of breaking muscle.
Gym-owners and anyone who wants to make fitness a part of their lifestyle stand to benefit from remembering these roots.
Today, our gyms and popular workout wisdom are funneling down to a population of individuals told what to think by influencers.
The corporatization of fitness has sold us on the type of fitness that is easy to package and market:
- Do this program, and you’ll look better naked.
- Come to this gym, and you’ll get to use all this fancy stuff.
But it’s worth remembering that those depressed rats had a hamster wheel, too. What do you think a treadmill is?
We all want to look better, feel better, and live better, but most people do not stay with their fitness goals.
Ask any Globo-gym manager what percentage of their members have used their membership in the past month. Even those who do use their membership are usually yearning for something more. People don’t just want an exercise plan; they want a connection.
People want authenticity. No offense to the virtual coach; I’ve been one. But, it is impossible to be authentic while you are smiling and coaching a camera.
We may come for the physique change, but we stay for the community. This community is the brilliance behind CrossFit.
- There are rituals that everyone can unite around.
- There are rites of passage where everyone can support each other.
- There is a philosophy, a mindset, and a way of measuring yourself that breeds confidence and motivation.
- Most importantly, there is a community bonded through shared physical presence.
None of these features are exclusive to CrossFit, however. Sean Griffin does this expertly with his Chicago primal kettlebell gym, as do many private gyms, niche sports, and even yoga studios.
I’d love to see a gym or exercise movement that built a community around the power of game-based fitness.
I’ve had a daily workout habit for over ten years, and I’m always amazed by how exhausted I get when I take my athletes out and play dodgeball, capture the flag, or any of the games that were staples of my childhood.
Why do we adults stop playing?
Like everything, the issue boils down to our culture. Adults are supposed to stop playing games and start being serious. Exercising is acceptable, but it should not look like playtime, and it needs to be carved out of obscure times of the day so as not to interfere with the parental rat race. Better for it to feel like a bit of a chore. Any passion or independent hobby demands justification.
The gym exists to be a counter-current to such destructive cultural trends.
You aren’t a bad parent because you still have life in you. Neigh, I’d say that it makes you a far better parent whose example beats the hell out of living in front of a screen and fast-food dinners on the way to elementary school select team practices.
If you want your children to grow up and live extraordinary lives, the best thing you can do is give them that model. Likewise, if you want to improve your life, the best thing you can do is start to take action.
There are plenty of worthwhile habits you can start on your own, but nothing makes those habits stick more than joining a community where desirable habits are already the norm.
That is why we gravitate to gyms.
1. Alexander BK, Beyerstein BL, Hadaway PF, Coambs RB. “Effect of early and later colony housing on oral ingestion of morphine in rats.” Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1981 Oct;15(4):571-6.
2. Lloyd I. Sederer, MD. “What Does “Rat Park” Teach Us About Addiction?” Psychiatric Times. June 10, 2019. Accessed April 20, 2021.
3. Brett and Kate McKay, "A Call for a New Strenuous Age." The Art of Manliness. Accessed April 23, 2021.