Vital Signs: Gym might fix it - Fat is a careerist issue. It's nicer to have a flat stomach - clothes hang better that way

Vital Signs: Gym might fix it - Fat is a careerist issue. It's nicer to have a flat stomach - clothes hang better that way - Just look at joggers' faces and you'll see why I don't hold with exercise. They look crazed, starey, otherworldly. They've persuad

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing directorof consultants SRU e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Just look at joggers' faces and you'll see why I don't hold with exercise. They look crazed, starey, otherworldly. They've persuaded themselves they're guided missiles launched towards a better world; that there's no gain without pain; and that they don't look silly.

You have to be an American - and a particular sort of American at that - to embark on that kind of self-improvement routine, untroubled by doubt or irony.

I don't do exercise. Among other things, it involves the wearing of training shoes and to get round that I'd have to put on a rubber Clinton mask because I so hate trainers. But medical advice changes everything; if I was told it was the treadmill or croak the day after tomorrow, of course I'd do it.

But don't do as I do, do as I say, namely - you should exercise modestly but constantly for the following reasons. Fat is a careerist issue and exercise does help. It's nicer to have a flat stomach because clothes hang better that way. It helps clear the mind - which is useful if you're an aggressive, troubled kind of person - and so aids restful sleep. It may help with self-esteem - some people who find their performance in corporate workshops weighed down by a sense of their own hopelessness discover that a bit of bouncing around sends more blood to the brain. It may provide a hobby - I have friends who, remarkably, have found themselves in the gym and proceeded to make their bodies their lives' work. 'You may prolong active life' ((C) dog food) ie while exercise probably won't make you live longer, it could keep you operational longer.

With the exception of the last - no one can bet on that - these aren't my problems. Anyway you'll note how very measured and hedged this all is. We've been through nearly 20 years of American 'change your life' propaganda about exercise from the health care, equipment and gym industries and seen how they can't possibly deliver to that level of psychic or physical reward, how people drop out of exercise programmes just like they renege on diets. The gym won't do it for Austin Powers or Dawn French lookalikes.

There are more fat blobs, at every age and class level, emerging from the production lines every year.

The gym industry treads, jogs and runs on hope. Its growth precisely parallels the huge expansion of 'grazing' choice in food available everywhere and the declining need for any reasonably well-paid online car owner ever to move a muscle. So it follows that I believe a) a fairly painless restriction of total calories (calories do matter) and b) the discovery of a physical activity you actually like are a million times better than the religious rituals of the gym.

Gyms are an absolute fail-safe last resort. The criteria you should follow in choosing one should be as follows. First, do they deal with the likes of me? If you're a sedentary middle-aged, middle-class midget you should seek somewhere where you can be among your own kind, rather than amid enthusiastic young men in boxing-related Mile End gyms.

Second, can I get more guaranteed remedial help, even if I have to pay extra for it? Of course with your sub you get the assessment and the fat-pinch test with the cruel clippers and the appearance of scientific monitoring over time. But it's not worth a light if you've lost the urge and the plot after two sessions. You need somebody - with some social and verbal skills rather than the ability to do a million reps without breaking sweat - who can spend time talking you through it all in the first sessions, helping you find what works for you rather than what the programme dictates, which is always more intimately linked to the owner's return on capital than your health.

Third, will I meet a nice class of person while I'm doing it? There is nothing so encouraging to continued exercise as the prospect of a raft of good contacts emerging from it. Gyms don't arise from affinity groups and shared enthusiasms now, they're big packaged deals for the over-broad masses. So your research, which will naturally cover all the basic competencies (staff degrees and diplomas) and facilities (pools and machines and so forth) about which I know absolutely zilch, should start with the basic question, who goes there? - names, ranks, sectors. The ideal, of course, is people who are both worse and better. They're fatter and more unfit but several useful notches up from you in the great commercial scheme of things.

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