Issue #7: health

Showing off that shiny red rump

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by Tim Dean on August 7, 2015

I despise gyms. I honestly couldn’t tell you if it is the nauseating funk emanating from dozens of perspiring bodies therein or the mind-numbing beats designed to invoke a kind of catatonic devotion to “pumping it!” that turns me away.

Perhaps it’s that they’re temples where we solemnly gather to sacrifice our dignity at the altar of the impossibly perfect body. Institutes of self-flagellation where pain and misery are instruments to alleviate a societally-instilled guilt that we don’t look good enough naked.

It could also be the overly bubbly staff, wild-eyed and wiry or bulging and taut, who seem to fail to appreciate that they’re in the vanishing minority of freaks who seek out intense daily exercise for pleasure, and so fundamentally fail to truly understand why most of the hapless folk they sign up are having such a miserable time. “Alright! Let’s DO this!”

Clearly, gyms aren’t for me.

I appreciate there are some who relish their time in these stinky torture chambers, but whenever I glance around at a gym, I see the frenzied gazes of people on a crusade. They’re dressed like fluorescent jesters. They’re in pain. They know they smell bad. Yet there they are.

It’s also not like these regimens of shame and misery come cheap, but people continue to sign up in droves. So what’s the attraction?

Ostensibly, one goes to a gym to get fit. But why? Evolution built us in a very different time, in a very different environment. The kind of fitness that worked to keep us alive and breeding 100,000 years ago has little function in our modern lives. Back then, running from hyenas was a thing. Not so much these days.

For the vast majority of us, it’s also not like fitness improves our work prospects either. We don’t require bulging quads or rock hard abs if we spend most days plonked on our glutes. And those who do need to flex for a crust probably sweat it enough on the job to obviate a membership at a gym.

In fact, it’s those of us who do dwell in chairs that tend to justify the pursuit of fitness on that very basis: one can’t get fit sitting down (late night infomercial claims notwithstanding). So we need to get fit because… health?

The thing is, good health isn’t that hard to achieve. A modicum of temperance when perusing the menu and a brisk stroll home is enough to keep the worst of the heart disease and diabetes fairies at bay. One needn’t go anywhere near a leotard or lift a single dumbbell to just have good health.

Yet many of us spend too much money on ingesting calories we don’t need, then spend more money on a gym membership to burn them off. That’s the modern way. It’d probably be cheaper, and significantly less humiliating, to just spend a bit less on the lot.

So, I’m not convinced that the pursuit of fitness is necessarily subsumed under the pursuit of health. Fitness – particularly that obscene gym flavour of fitness – seems to be over and above mere health.

When I come across truly gym-fit people – you can tell them right away by their sideways glances to watch you watching them – I am reminded of a baboon’s swollen red rump.

Most primates fare perfectly well with more modest posteriors, but the female baboon is renowned for having radiant red rumps that balloon when it comes time to attract a mate. Why, one might ask oneself in a moment of private reflection, should female baboons cultivate such prodigiously bright butts?

It’s because they’re showing off, naturally. It’s a case of what’s called “costly signalling” in biological circles (presumably because “red rumping” was too racy for journal editors). The peacock’s tail is the typical example given in biology textbooks, although I prefer the spectacle of the baboon’s red rear as a working example.

The problem boy baboons face in choosing a mate is that they are yet to master genetic sequencing. That means it’s difficult for them to read the quality of a potential mate’s genes just by surreptitiously gazing at them from a distance. Sure, most girl baboons will try to convince the boy baboons of their superior genetic endowment, but how can they be trusted?

The thing is, producing a behind of such abundant size and ripe hue is a costly investment for a baboon. Energy is hard to come by on the savannah. So a lass who can afford to devote a substantial portion of that energy into producing a rear end that only slows her down and makes her a visible target for predators is clearly formidable enough to overcome such handicaps. That’s hot stuff to a baboon bachelor.

And we are not all that different. Consider that it’s also challenging to determine the quality of someone’s bank account just by gazing at them across a bar. Unless, of course, they are so wealthy that they can afford to adorn themselves with costly ornaments that serve no other function than to signal their prowess when it comes to sitting at a desk all day and moving numbers around a screen. Hot!

We’re master signallers, but not only when it comes to modern attractions like money-earning potential. We’re still primates, not all that far removed from our cousins with the crimson rumps. Replace red rump with rock hard abs or a rounded rear end and you can see how fitness isn’t just about being able to lift things more easily, but about demonstrating a commitment to a primordial penchant for running away from hyenas.

Because someone who can invest so much time and money, and can suffer so much pain to hone their body to unreasonable levels of fitness presumably has a genetic endowment that makes them a high value mate. So, really, when you boil it all down: gym memberships are ultimately about sex. That will surprise no one. But it’s still not enough to get me into a gym.

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