The Victorians knew the meaning of punishment. Among their more arcane penalties was the treadmill – a large wheel turned by a captive human-cum-hamster, to no apparent end. It was designed to wear down prisoners through constant physical exertion and mind-numbing boredom. It was de-humanising, turning the person into part of a meaningless machine that turned only to turn. Across the world, sedentary office lackeys now willingly pay for a similar privilege.
Our forebears would be perplexed in the extreme by our need to contrive exercise. Our lives are such that physical activity might not happen at all in the normal course of things, and the most shocking part of that commonplace is that we do not dispute the fact that it is ‘normal’. Actually, the sedentary existence, broken only by a perceived need to eat enormous amounts of fat and salt, is unique among mammals – an astonishing testament to human conceit, as we have driven ourselves so far from animality that we have bypassed civilisation and emerged as mere automatons. In a last-ditch attempt to wrestle back our dignity, not to mention our waist lines, we mount moving belts and other stationary calorie eaters in order to extend our meaningless existence. It’s amazing to me that boredom is not a bigger killer in the decadent West.
I’m given to reflect on these things because I’ve just spent some time on a treadmill. I only ever go to the gym when I stay in hotels in winter. The street is otherwise my pounding place of choice, where to run is an end in itself, an essential human activity, and a central pillar of our distinctive evolution. Somehow, despite everything, the emptiness of hotel gyms appeals to me, notwithstanding the tedium of the punishment. No jocks; no posturing; no people at all, actually. In the interest of not losing the edge on my fitness, I resort to – become – the machine.