Milo of Croton, a wrestler from 6th century BC, is said to have achieved his strength somewhat unintentionally. From a young age, he carried a newborn calf on his shoulders. He did this each day. As the animal grew bigger, Milo grew stronger.
Legend has it that he once carried a fully-grown four-year-old bull on his shoulders. He then slaughtered, roasted, and devoured it in one day.
Things are a bit different today. We don’t carry carcasses up hills. Most of us have never wielded an axe, chopped wood, stacked granite boulders, or been chased by wild dogs. Getting fitter, faster, stronger, it’s not something that just ‘happens’.
To make it happen, we use gyms.
We pay money to pick up heavy stuff, just to put it back down. To run on the spot. To squat in front of a mirror. Often, we jump up and down whilst getting berated by a beefcake in a tank top who we paid to make us to jump up and down. This is modern day health and fitness.
But Milo was a rare case. Depending on your ambition, or indeed, your appetite, you might long for his routine; his athleticism, achieved without extravagant workout routines or a monthly subscription. However, our species have needed gyms for a lot longer than you may think.
“Humans started training their bodies two and a half thousand years ago,” explains Eric Chaline, author of The Temple of Perfection, which charts the gym’s long history.
“The gym has always been much more than a place to exercise,” Eric says, revealing that the first gyms appeared in ancient Greece, fulfilling many social, military, and educational functions.
The modern gym emerged in California as part of the social and cultural revolution triggered by the Second World War.
Today, the UK fitness market is estimated to be worth around £5billion – with the industry globally valued at nearly $100bn. It is a thriving sector, with many people striving for a healthier lifestyle, or the perfect selfie.
But everything recently came to a halt. Gyms including PureGym and Virgin Active froze their memberships and we have been forced to find new ways to stay active – using technology, online workouts, and increasingly, Joe Wicks.
But are these new methods making us think we can live without gyms? Or is isolated training helping us realise that they offer more than just a place to exercise?
“The individual and social functions of gyms ancient and modern have been consistently underplayed by historians and social scientists,” Eric says.
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“What regular gym-goers are realising during lockdown is that, while they can train perfectly happily at home on their own, they cannot make up for the social aspects of the gym that normally frame and underpin their daily lives.
“For many, the gym functions like belonging to a church, having an engrossing hobby, or being part of a work or sports team.”
This social and mental significance of the gym is underlined by Lianne Sykes, CEO of The Lean Body Project in Stockport, which offers its customers personal training and body transformation packages. For them, creating a community is the key to getting results.
“We can help people get results from anywhere,” Lianne says, “but having a gym as a physical location helps to get them in the mindset.
“There’s no shortage of workouts, recipes and videos online available for free, but people still struggle to lose weight and be happy and confident.”
“Because you need accountability,” adds Lianne.
“You need to address your mindset, you need to be coached, motivated and educated. Our members say our gym is their ‘happy place’ – their one hour of the day to have selfish time.”
Samantha McGowan echoes this. Samantha, 29, is a personal trainer, online coach and Under Armour athlete who has been providing online workouts to her clients during lockdown.
“What I miss is the atmosphere and the human connection,” Samantha says. “Lockdown has highlighted how going to the gym makes us ‘feel’.
“It’s shown me just how much you can do with little equipment, but it isn’t just the ‘gym’ itself; it’s the energy, the mindset change that happens when you get there and the feeling you get coming away from it.
“It’s a place to escape and I think that is what we’ve taken for granted.”
So, when lockdown is lifted and we need to socialise; to unwind; to reconnect, perhaps the first place we’ll go won’t be the pub or local coffee shop. It will be the gym.
Seriously. No bull.
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