The Gym-Cult?

From The Economist:

To anthropologists of the future, however, the gym boom may look as much like a sinister cult as a commercial triumph. Gym-going, after all, has all the basic lineaments of a religion. Its adherents are motivated by feelings of guilt, and the urge to atone for fleshly sins. Many visit their places of worship with a fanatical regularity: a third of LA Fitness members, for instance, go virtually every day. Once there, believers are led by sacerdotal instructors, who either goad them into mass ecstasy during aerobics classes, or preside over the confessional tête-à-tête of personal training. Each devotee has his own rituals, though most rely on the principles of self-mortification and delayed gratification. The extremist cult of body-building, whose Mecca is Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, has become a mass movement.

After escaping from a brush with the horizontal leg press, the question that troubles this slobbish journalist is: why? What inspires the armies of devout body-worshippers? What is the point?…

slightly less depressing possibility is that the appeal of the gym cult lies in the structure of religion itself. Perhaps hedonism is losing its lustre, and rich westerners once again crave the shape and strictures, however masochistic, that orthodox religion once supplied. Like Christian salvation, the holy grails of gym-goers may be distant and unattainable, and the paths towards them painful, but the rules and routines that their pursuit involves seem to provide comfort to a new and growing breed of secular puritans.

In the end, gym-attendance, like most popular religions, probably has something to do with fear of death and the quest for immortality—as if a well-toned body could somehow stave off the day of judgment. Which, unfortunately, is just another way in which it is liable to lead to disappointment. Gyms may not actually be bad for most people who go to them; but, as a wise man once inquired about hard work, why take the risk

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • RobS

    If someone can answer why Cross-Fit people like to take pictures of themselves in the gym and post it on Facebook daily, I’m eager to learn. A special event, or competition or maybe a couple times a year, I get for anyone’s interests or hobbies — but sometimes it’s every time they go for the week they have a new picture. I just find it amusing.

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    “mass” movement—[chuckle]

    How about a well-toned body simply being a helluva lot more fun in bed?

  • http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com Jim West

    have you read stephen moore’s ‘god’s gym’? fascinating work.

  • John M.

    You’re messing with my annual new year’s resolution to “loses eight” and “get in shape.”

  • John M.

    “lose weight”

  • Tim

    I’m not motivated by feelings of guilt or an urge to atone for fleshly sins. The fitness routine I’ve had the last 40 years has benefited my physical and mental health. A well-toned body just feels better.

  • Cathy

    I agree with Tim. It’s not guilt or vanity that drives me to exercise, but rather a desire to prolong my life … to exercise the body God gave me – a body that has survived cancer and, due to a drug used in chemotherapy, now has congestive heart failure. I exercise to strengthen both body and mind – it all works together … and, after a good hour in the pool, my body & mind feel much better.

  • Gary Lyn

    Sounds like it was slow news day for this writer. He’s working a bit too hard…and to me, it seems, it doesn’t work

  • PJ Anderson

    Why is this generation so mired in contrarianism? We cannot enjoy anything or celebrate anyone…it’s just depressing.

    I go to a gym about 4 or 5 times a week. I run on a treadmill, row, lift weights, swim, sit in a sauna, and talk with people I know there. It isn’t because of a slavish devotion to the altar of hedonistic narcissism. Going to the gym allows me to be healthier, have more energy, enjoy the company of others, and live a long, rich life.

    The endorphin release allows me to keep up my, fairly , rigorous schedule with little need for caffeine and I am not needing to take naps during the day. My focus is sharper and I’m a better person to be around.

    The gym where I go usually sees an influx of new folks every January, and them before swimsuit season in May. Many of these people disappear one or two months later. For the rest of us we have a nice little community where we are all fairly healthy and do something other than sit on a couch and watch TV. I don’t mind the reality that I might live longer too. Is there really a counter-argument that we should look forward to our death?

    (Sorry for any typos, I used my mobile)

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t know, I think for most Americans getting too much physical exercise isn’t the problem, but I do some people who are pretty narcissistic and seem to fit the portrait painted in this article. I think some people really do take it to far. But there’s always people you can find who take any endeavor too far.

    When I was in high school, I lost a lot of weight my senior year. Mainly I just got tired of being the fat kid. I worked out religiously twice a day. I almost never missed a day, and I hardly ever took a day off. I ended up losing like 90 lbs, but it was an all consuming thing in my life. It simply wasn’t sustainable for me in the long run. Thankfully, I did learn to have a more balanced approach, and I have managed to keep most of the weight off, but I can see how people can become obsessed with things.

  • Robin

    1. In a country with 30-40% of the population being Obese, a “gym-cult” is probably not the problem.

    2. I was just thinking about the cultish or religious symbols or behaviors that might help to identify a cult…Cathedrals in Christianity, regular attendance, obedience, tithing, etc. and it strikes me that the level of advertisement, spending, large physical structures, etc. that we have in the food industry is much more pronounced than in the fitness industry.

    Whether you are talking about the golden arches that can be seen for miles away and attract a steady crowd from 5 AM to Midnight, or how we have entire television channels dedicated to showing us new food and introducing us to new “up and coming” chefs.

    I definitely think our food culture, or our beer culture, is more cultish than our fitness culture.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Most people are incredibly deprived of physical activity. I agree with the other posts… I don’t think the “gym cult” is the problem.

  • Mike M

    We know what needs to be done to stay in shape, which by itself is not a cultish objective: get your heart beating in “target heart range” (65-85% of maximum heart rate which is roughly 220 – your age) for 20-30 minutes 3x/week, AND some form of progressive resistance weight lifting, hitting all major muscle groups 2-3x/week. Anything more is counter-productive and leads to over training which is a sign of obsessive behaviors. Staying in shape is not narcissistic and reflects a Christian’s duty to treat the body as a temple of God. Paul himself was an athlete and I don’t think he considered his training as unbiblical.

  • http://www.chezman86.blogspot.com Kevin

    “Vanity…definitely my favorite sin”


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