The fitness fix

The news that exercise is as addictive as booze and fags will come as a surprise to anyone who has tried all three. Apparently, however, it is true: in an experiment using some special exercise mice, scientists from the University of Wisconsin discovered that denying the rodents their daily workout triggered surges of neuronal activity identical to those found in cocaine addicts who found themselves without cocaine.

I am not addicted to exercise. I can quit any time I want. It is no big deal: just an hour a day, a couple of times a week, more if you count cycling to the gym and back. Occasionally I might do three times a week, but I am not like those other people you see at the gym. The people on the treadmills, the ones who watch the telly.

It all started about two years ago, when a friend who engaged in boxing training needed someone to hold the pads for him. At the time I hadn’t done any real exercise in… er, ever, and I found it difficult to hold my arms up for any length of time, so we switched over and I punched for a bit. It was amusing to indulge in aggressive behaviour so early in the morning. I went along once a week for a month. I didn’t even join the gym. It was just a bit of fun.

Then I got involved with the trainer, Mike. We realised that if we paid someone to hold the pads, we could do even more punching. Eventually I was coerced into joining Mike’s Friday-morning circuit: a little skipping, some squats, some sit-ups, a few weights – nothing major. It was a regular group of people, which created a sort of vague obligation to show up. And it was important to keep Mike happy, because his mood directly affected the number of press-ups one had to do.

After six months I was attending the gym three times a week, until my wife found out how much money I was spending. I cut back to two. It didn’t feel like enough. I didn’t realise that addictive endorphins were involved, flooding my receptors whenever I worked up a sweat. I just thought I was happy because the hour was up and I could go home and fall asleep in the bath. While I would hesitate to use the word well-being – I don’t really believe in it – I certainly felt healthier, and regular gym work does create in one an entirely false sense of accomplishment. I tried not to talk about it at dinner parties – I know exactly how stupid it sounds – but I couldn’t help it. I thought of little else. I saw fitness as an open-ended thing; I imagined being extra-fit, super-fit, hyper-fit. If I kept going, I would eventually break the fitness barrier. People would come to the house to photograph the iron-hard topography of my stomach.

Inevitably, I hurt myself, injuring my back while doing press-ups with my feet on one of those outsize blow-up balls. I had to stop for more than a month. Of course, this happens to everyone who exercises, eventually. One comes to see gym-going as not so much a quest for fitness as a lottery of self-harm. It is ridiculous that people successfully navigate the considerable dangers of real life, day in, day out, only to injure themselves in a carpeted room full of stationary bicycles. I missed the gym, I suppose, but I don’t remember any withdrawal symptoms – just a bit of guilt. If you asked me whether a month without exercise produces as much withdrawal as a month without alcohol, I would have to say I have no idea. A month without alcohol? I’ve never hurt myself that badly.

I’m back up to twice a week but I can handle it. I certainly didn’t feel addicted to exercise this morning, when I awoke at six and realised I faced a 20-minute bike ride in the driving rain just to get to the gym in the first place. I went anyway, though.

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