A dangerous Eden

I have been going to the gym. Seriously. For about a couple of months now. I'm doing weight training for the first time in my life, and cardio exercises, including - wonder of wonders - short bursts of running. I'm even paying for a personal trainer. It's a shocking extravagance, but I'm likely to find any excuse under the sun not to do my workouts unless I have someone telling me what to do and shouting at me if I don't do it. As one of my school reports said, "Frances does not enjoy physical exertion". Truer words were never spoken. Sporty, I am not.

So why am I doing this? It is all because of my family. Specifically, my father. He has serious heart problems, vascular deterioration in his brain and Type II diabetes. And I am a lot like him. 

Ok, so he is 83. But he was a lot more active in his 50s than I have become. Since I reduced my singing teaching and took up writing, I have become largely sedentary. Even gardening has gone, killed by a brutal combination of severe hay fever and asthma. And although I enjoy walking, I don't do it nearly enough. It is too easy to hop into the car even for short trips, and longer ones are a rare indulgence in a life dominated by work. 

I looked at my father - now slim, after drastically changing his diet when he was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. And I looked at me. And I did not like what I saw. I decided that if I wished to avoid heart problems and diabetes, I had to slim down and get fit. So I went to the gym. 

I am far from alone. In a recent panel discussion on the future of work, I asked the audience how many of them went to the gym. A forest of hands went up. It appeared that nearly everyone in the room, young and old, visited a gym. Slimming down and getting fit is fashionable among London office workers. 

But back in the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a gym. Nor would people have visited gyms even if they existed. Even if they could afford them, they did not need them. For the vast majority of people, work itself involved physical exertion. It did not matter whether you were an agricultural labourer, a scullery maid, a cook or one of the thousands of people who worked in factories and mines up and down the land. Work was hard. 

There was a lot of it, too. People then worked longer hours than we do now: working days of 10-12 hours were typical. Most people started work when they were children, and continued to work well into old age. The state pension introduced in 1908 set the retirement age at 70 for both men and women. Prior to that, elderly people who could not support themselves were forced into workhouses - where they were, of course, required to work. 

Even for people doing desk jobs, such as Dickens' Bob Cratchett, work was physically harder than it is now. Offices were neither centrally heated nor air conditioned, and there was no concept of "ergonomic design". And Victorian ledgers were no light weight: any clerk lugging those around would have been doing the equivalent of modern weight training. Not to mention dragging in buckets of coal and logs to feed the open fire. 

Transport to work also involved what we would now regard as hard work. Most people would have walked to work, often some distance. Even richer people regarded walking long distances as normal: in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and her aunt and uncle decide to walk round the Pemberley park on discovering that it is "only 10 miles round". Admittedly, 10 miles proved too much for her aunt: but when Elizabeth marries Darcy, her aunt observes that a pony and trap would be the very thing in which to tour the park. Riding in an unsprung carriage (or pony trap) might have saved her feet, but it would have used every muscle in her body. Among richer people, horse riding was a common means of transport: but that too involves using muscles that many of us today don't know exist. 

In one episode of the BBC's "Victorian Slum" - a well-constructed "living history" programme showing what life was like in the Victorian slums of East London - the historian on the programme, watching young men struggle to lift heavy sacks of meal, observed that Victorian men were fitter and tougher than today's young men. Although their nutrition was far worse than ours today, and there was next to no healthcare, they were used to lifting heavy weights and performing physically demanding manual tasks. 

So for our forebears, gyms would have been superfluous. It was the daily grind of living that kept them fit. When they stopped work, they rested. And because there was much work, and little rest, they longed for a world in which there was much rest and little work. Freedom from toil has been the goal of mankind for millenia. 

We are hardwired to use our ingenuity to find easier ways of doing things. Our prehistoric ancestors directed their efforts towards making hunting and gathering more efficient: so they invented weapons with which they could kill much larger prey (and could therefore afford to hunt less often), and they invented ways of improving the productivity of plants, so that they need not forage so widely. Eventually, of course, they learned to keep the plants and the prey close to them, so that they could tap them whenever they wanted rather than having to find them. Of course, farming did not eliminate either food scarcity or hard work: but it made them more controllable, especially as humans devised ever more imaginative ways of preserving food.

Now, we create labour-saving devices that reduce the amount of physical effort required to keep a home clean, clothes washed and dinner cooked. We invent machines that eliminate the need for humans to exert themselves physically to produce food. We develop faster and more efficient ways of moving people and goods around. We speak of the "changing nature of work", as if it were something new: but in reality, the nature of work has been changing for generations, as machines have progressively replaced human muscles. Our worry now is that machines will replace not just our muscles, but our brains. 

But progressively replacing human brawn with brain in the world of work is already creating an unexpected problem. Freedom from toil isn't all it is cracked up to be. Our bodies need physical exertion to remain healthy. Sedentary lifestyles shorten people's lives

So, do we kick out the machines and do the work ourselves? No. We go to the gym. In other words, we pay to do physical hard work for which in the past we would have been paid. Some of us (me) even pay a personal trainer to play the role of the employer that would have told us what to do and shouted at us if we didn't do it well enough. 

The burgeoning fitness industry is a fine example of how the changing nature of work sparks new, previously unimaginable types of job. Who, one hundred years ago, would have foreseen that entire factories full of machines would be created not to produce goods, but simply to enable people to stay healthy? Even the treadmill of nineteenth century prisons and workhouses served a useful purpose: it generated energy to power mills. But as far as I know, no-one has yet tried to harness the physical energy that thousands of people waste every day in gyms up and down the country. Mind you, it is surely not going to be long before someone realises that gyms could be self-sufficient in energy and possibly even provide electricity to the local community. Who needs wind or solar, when you have a spin class? 

We also re-create the food scarcity that was the lot of our distant ancestors. Our instinct is to seek out foods that were previously scarce but are now abundant, such as sugar and fat, but we know that indulging our preference is dangerous to our health. So we follow diet plans of varying scientific credibility, and consult dieticians who advise us on what not to eat. We voluntarily restrict both the amount and the variety of food we eat: we may even pay extra for foods that are produced in a less efficient (but more "natural") way. To the people of the "Victorian slum", this would have seemed extraordinary. 

Indeed, it would seem extraordinary to people in developing countries today. What I describe above are first world problems. At the same time as we are artificially creating hard work and scarcity to preserve our lifespans, our cousins in Africa are doing real hard work and experiencing real scarcity, both of which shorten theirs. The changing nature of work has made our lives too easy, while theirs remain as hard as ever. 

But perhaps, in the distant future, even our African cousins will be relieved of the necessity of physical toil, and benefit from the abundance that efficient machine production can deliver. Then our problems will be their problems, and they too will voluntarily pay to work and to starve. 

Who would have thought that the Eden of which we have dreamed would be so dangerous for us?  

Related reading:

Image from Wikipedia.


  1. Buy a bike and join your local club. Except don't do this in suburban north Kent or London.

    1. Suburban north Kent is where I live....

    2. I guessed from your previous posts, hence tongue in cheek. I was born in north Kent. Mad car drivers. Speed limits and indicators optional.

    3. Heh, driving to the gym is a LOT safer!

  2. Utterly tangential to your interesting post here, Frances, but I shall note that I began to exercise regularly in my mid-20's solely because I lived someplace with year-round nice weather and delightful bike routes.

    And what I surprisingly found was that the regular exercise had dramatically positive effects on my mental health. I didn't have any serious mental health issues prior to exercising, but I found it nonetheless noticeably improved my mood, my thinking, and my overall mental acuity/energy/curiosity.

    So, once I left that nice weather Eden, I continued regular physical exercise in the far less pleasant environment of gyms. And when I had a few hiatuses in my exercise routine, I could easily notice the degradation in my mental well-being.

    Thus I became an exercise addict not to enhance my physical health, but to enhance my mental well-being. (And my approach is very desultory. I only do cardio, not weight training. And I find a 30 minute workout 3 times a week is all I need to do to keep myself on track.)

    1. That's an interesting point, Petey, and I think it relates well to my post. I focused on physical wellbeing, but as you know physical and mental health are inter-related, so it seems entirely possible to me that dangerously sedentary lifestyles and undisciplined diets could be linked with mental health problems.

  3. Having just read Youval Noah Harari's books "Sapiens" & "Home Deus" last week, I found your reflections very much in keeping with his analyses of both deep history and likely lifestyle choices in a possible post capitalist world.

    In case you have not (yet?) read these yourself I think you too will find them worth the "effort" - perhaps when recovering from the physical exertions of exercise!

  4. Congrats on the training.

    I am surprised you managed to use the keyboard after lifting weights if you have never done it before. Must have been a few aches.....

    Diet and exercise have to be a lifelong commitment. Most people cannot make it, they succumb to the long list of ready excuses that spring instantly to mind on "training days", sliding down the slippery slope back into the comfortable sofa of sloth.

    How many of those "hands up" would have remained "hands down" if you had asked, "Who has been fitness training in the last four days?". A guilty single session after New Year's binge does not count as "going to the gym".

    There is a lot of self-deception aound.

    1. I was pretty achy the first few times. Thank heavens for ibuprofen!. But I'm getting used to it now.

      I know this has to be a lifetime commitment.

  5. “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” Iris Murdoch

    and, she might have added, fixes the problem of sendentarism while also getting you somewhere. Even in North Kent, cycling is probably safer than not cycling !

  6. Hi Frances. Going to the gym is great for improving fitness, building muscle and releasing "feel good" endorphins. However for fat loss (and all the diseases associated with obesity and metabolic syndrome) the only method is to change what you eat.

    I would recommend reading "Why We Get Fat & What To Do About It" by Gary Taubes where the science of our fat cell growth is explained and which will help you better plan your food intake going forward.

    1. My problem is flab rather than fat. When I was teaching singing full time, I was doing a physically demanding job - operatic singing done properly is a serious workout, and I sing a lot when I teach. But now I'm doing much less teaching, I was getting flabby. Flab looks and feels like fat, but exercise is the right way to deal with it, not dieting. Important to distinguish between the two.

    2. Oh, and the British Heart Foundation report I linked to makes it clear that exercise, including strength building (ie weights) is needed to protect the heart. As my family has a history of serious heart problems on both sides, this is important for me.

  7. Give up sugar and things that contain sugar.

    The first week is really hard because your body craves sugar. After that it is just hard, but after a while it is possible to look at a slice of cake and not want it.

    1. I don't really eat sweet things. Went off them years ago. Except for marmalade.

  8. Back in the 50's when doing manual work some of my workmates had been born in the Victorian age. Compared to them many of our young men today, including professional football players, are wilting flowers.

  9. "But as far as I know, no-one has yet tried to harness the physical energy that thousands of people waste every day in gyms up and down the country"

    A lot of mid range Cardio Vascular gym equipment uses the kinetic energy to power the LED displays, although maybe not the stuff you see at the more expensive gyms.

    But did you know that Playground Equipment manufacturers have been toying with this idea for a while as a means of getting kids more active: -


  10. In fact, the machines needs energy so you can exert yourself against. Mother Earth provides gravity for weight lifting but not for astronauts. So they nedd the COLBERT machine.


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