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Have UK Gyms Gone Mad?

To steam, or not to steam…? That is the question. I’m not talking about your broccoli. I’m talking about what you do to your body down at the gym. Gone are the days of sweaty little weight rooms full of grunting men in low-cut vests and veins throbbing with steroids. Today, the UK’s gyms have become like holiday resorts – jam-packed with steam rooms, saunas, Jacuzzis, foot spas and even meditation rooms. But while there’s no doubt that this stuff makes for a lovely outing, is it actually what you need from a gym?

I mean, it’s not like it all comes cheap. The average cost of gym membership in the UK is now £40 a month and the top tier memberships can be around £600 per month. Talk about shedding a few extra pounds! The real problem, though, is that all too often gyms now seem to be designed to help you break a sweat without actually breaking a sweat. They attempt to give you “a fitness experience” rather than to just help you get strong and healthy.

This isn’t an unreasonable aspiration for a fitness business trying to compete in a crowded market; it just seems a bit misplaced to me. And, if you’re not careful with these modern sorts of gyms, you can find yourself cast under their spell of wellbeing – living under an illusion that you’re getting incredibly fit, when all you’re really doing is paying through the nose to be a member of a certain sort of club that happens to be centred around fitness. You turn up in your snazzy kit, do a bit of yoga, have a little jog on the treadmill, maybe dabble with a few weights, and then hit the sauna or go and lounge about in the café slurping smoothies; all very pleasant indeed, but not quite a path to genuine fitness. It’s a bit like buying those colognes from Mercedes Benz – you’re not actually the owner of a Mercedes, but it gives you an agreeable feeling that you’re part of the club.

In a gym I visited recently, it was so plush that in addition to the numerous steam rooms, cold rooms and aromatic showers, it even had a special room in which you could go to take a nap. …A nap! In a gym…? This is madness! I know we’re all struggling to get our head’s around Covid and Putin; but we must still have some brain capacity left. Does nobody realise that you can nap at home for no cost whatsoever? It’s ever so simple. You just lie down on the sofa and close your eyes, or better still get into your own bed. And when it comes to the gym equipment itself, you generally find a similar sort of irony – row after row of machines allowing you to walk, run and climb the stairs. Surely it’s not that difficult to find a pavement or a park or an actual staircase somewhere, is it? Yes, I know there’s a convenience to these machines if you’re the sort of person who is always pushed for time; but for most of us, using this gear is all a bit backwards – a case of fixing what ain’t broke. What’s more, you’ll probably end up taking Vitamin D supplements because you’re spending so much time inside instead of getting out and enjoying a bit of natural light.

Deep down, I think we all know that building fitness and muscle is about hard graft. There are no shortcuts. You don’t need a load of special equipment to do it; what you need is will-power and commitment. Look at the SAS or Navy SEALs – elite soldiers who achieve extreme levels of fitness almost entirely through running, press-ups and body-weight exercises. And what about those freakishly ripped fellas in New York playgrounds who spend all their time doing calisthenics and variations of the humble pull-up? I’m not saying that injecting a bit of novelty into your exercise routines doesn’t help to make it all more exciting – it absolutely does. But the fact is that getting into any kind of decent shape and staying that way is essentially a monotonous process. We have to face this if we want to get fit. OK, look, now that I’ve let off a bit of steam, I will accept that there’s really nothing wrong with having a nice gym to go to or with having a pampering session after exercise. I just think that given the costs of gyms today, you should be clear on what you’re paying for and why. If you want strength and fitness, don’t let your money do all the heavy lifting – do it yourself.

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