Muscular Intellectualism

Against ‘Against Exercise’

Stephen Cox

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Mark Greif is ‘Against Exercise’, as suggested by the title of his essay, which was first published in n+1 magazine in 2004 and later included in his 2016 collection, Against Everything. The way we work out in the modern world disgusts him, from the apparent disingenuousness of exercising to prolong youth and cheat death—‘the gym-goer believes himself to be an agent of health…whereas he makes himself a more perfect patient’—to our supposed willingness to take throbbing veins and emaciated female forms as new ideals of physical beauty. Yet, by targeting exercise in and of itself, rather than focusing on more vapid aspects of gym culture, he ends up with a piece that comes across as being contrarian merely for the sake of being contrarian, rather than following up on the potential for probing critique that a more disciplined examination would have afforded.

A quick leaf through Against Everything shows Greif’s taste for provocative takes on the small trials and everyday insanities of 21st-century life. Contrary to appearances, the book’s title is not the refuge of a nihilistic teenager, nor that of an ornery, world-weary old man. Rather, as the author notes in his preface:

To wish to be against everything is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop, while an ocean of possibility rolls around us. No matter what you are supposed to do, you can prove the supposition wrong, just by doing something else. 

This quiet optimism comes after Greif’s admission that ‘this is not a book of critique of things I don’t do. It’s a book of critique of things I do.’ Another writer—more specifically, I suspect, a non-American writer—might toy with such self-contradiction, wink at the reader, let them know he’s in on the joke. But Greif’s essays come across as rather too sincere to allow for the kind of playfulness barely hinted at in the book’s preface, as he makes too big a show of striving towards an absolutism he has already dismissed as beyond reach. Perhaps his devotion to Henry David Thoreau has something to do with this disconnect: criticism of the Walden author frequently points to his apparent hypocrisy and insincerity, while defenders scorn such literal interpretations, believing Thoreau to be much funnier and more self-aware than he is often credited for being. [1]

Whatever Greif really thinks, I doubt that in the case of ‘Against Exercise’ he is guilty of a kind of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ doctrine. In an interview with Literary Hub, he confessed that he hasn’t visited a gym since writing that essay, even going on to say that the piece ‘came from a horrible visionary experience of damnation that rose before me when I was on a treadmill.’ The poor soul evidently drew on this scarring experience for his opening paragraph: 

Were ‘In the Penal Colony’ to be written today, Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine. Instead of the sentence to be tattooed on its victims, the machine would inscribe lines of numbers. So many calories, so many miles, so many watts, so many laps.

I will leave aside my irritation at anyone even alluding to something being Kafkaesque, that most overused of referential adjectives, and instead put forward what I believe are more prescient alternatives to Kafka’s torture machine. They could include a computer that scraped how much time you’ve wasted on Facebook onto your thumb, on whose blue and white avatar you’ve clicked so many times; or a TV that burned your total hours spent watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians—a programme Greif treats in trite detail in his addendum to ‘The Reality of Reality Television’—on, fittingly, your backside. But rather than dwell on personal visions of Hell, I might also suggest that Greif would have done better to examine the parallels between gym-goers and a separate Kafka reference, this time coming via Primo Levi. Kafka’s worldview, governed by guilt and theological conflict, did not appeal to Levi, who noted that the author ‘fears punishment, and at the same time desires it…a sickness within Kafka himself.’ This dichotomy will ring true for anyone who has tried to lift their way through a hangover, run off that extra bar of chocolate, or even thought about joining a gym in January. Whatever pleasure there is in exercise could, perhaps, be argued as working in completely contrary fashion to binging on food, alcohol or drugs: something that feels horrible while you’re doing it, that you suffer for first and enjoy the benefits of after.

Will a strenuous workout cancel out the pizza you ate last night? Greif seems to pine for a time when such a question wouldn’t have occurred to the average person, without recognising the changes in eating habits that have taken place since the latter half of the 20th century. He makes the point that being overweight was reported as being the ‘second leading cause of death’ on American news in spring 2004, as opposed to ‘a correlation, a relative measure, which positively covaries’ with the sicknesses ‘that were formerly our killers.’ He certainly has points in saying that gym culture has played a significant part in body image issues, fat-shaming, and—as he notes in the 2008 essay, ‘On Food’—the fact that the poles of fad dieters and the obese are practically the only groups it is still socially acceptable to dislike. However, ‘Against Exercise’, unlike ‘On Food’’s examination of socioeconomic patterns behind American diets, does not examine the links between exercise, gym use and class, in the United States, or, indeed, anywhere else. Such an undertaking would be enough for a whole book, let alone an essay. But, nonetheless, how can you belittle the health benefits of exercise in a country where 36 per cent of citizens are obese?[2]  Where the current president—himself no model of physical fitness—thinks, as New Yorker writer Evan Osnos puts it, that ‘a person, like a battery, is born with a finite amount of energy’?  

Maybe if I was American I would better understand the issue Greif takes with exercise. For, despite the hard-to-shake stereotype of Fat America, sports and physical fitness pervade stateside culture in ways foreign to this Irish scribbler. Reading Rabbit, Run, at 21, I remember being baffled at Harry Angstrom’s constant reminiscing on his high school basketball glories: he’s in his mid-twenties now, big deal, it was years ago, can he not just let it go? I am now closer to the age Rabbit was when he fled Janice and Mount Judge, and accept that, in the callowness of undergraduate life, I missed the point of the book. Even alpha male supreme Tony Soprano appears unable get over his youthful sporting career, playing down any obsequious mention of his talent at baseball, yet unable to control his rage when Uncle Junior reminds him that he ‘never had the makings of a varsity athlete’. Greif, however, is determined to differentiate modern exercise from sport by asking ‘whether it could be done meaningfully without counting or measuring it’; for him, sport is a ‘social encounter’, where numbers are needed to keep score. I’d like to know where and how he came up with the ad-hoc definition of a gym as being, by default, antisocial: step into any health club and you’ll find people there together, talking and providing support for each other both in classes and on the gym floor. As for the idea of counting or measuring, others will find inspiration and challenges where Greif chooses to see Kafka-worthy torture.

Whatever about the American emphasis placed on being active, none of this is to say that the fitness boom has passed Ireland by. David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, executive producers and scriptwriters of HBO series Game of Thrones, met as postgraduate students at Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1990s, united by a passion for Irish literature and the desire to find a decent gym—‘not something,’ as Weiss told the Irish Independent, ‘that most Irish people in 1995 were all that preoccupied with.’ 20-odd years later, and I’m sure the pair would not have any trouble finding somewhere to work out even in many smaller Irish towns, let alone in the capital. 

Something else that may or may not have changed over time is just who are a gym’s main patrons. Greif’s claim that young women fresh out of college are the modern gymnasium’s ‘shock troops’ surprises, and strikes one as not being true in 2017. Gym-goers will agree that there is not, generally, a great gender disparity among members—in mixed clubs, that is—but a definite divide in terms of where, what and how patrons work out. A 2015 study undertaken at the University of North Georgia confirmed something clear to gym rats everywhere: that men predominantly work out by lifting weights, while women more commonly tread the cardio machines and avoid anaerobic exercise. [3] A balance of different exercise methods is generally recommended, even allowing for differences in body types and individual fitness goals; yet these binary workout regimes square with Greif’s observations on swollen male muscles and skinny female bodies as being the utmost in physical beauty among worshipers at the temple of the gym. The idea of society being ‘hot now for the annihilation by exercise and dieting of once voluptuous feminine flesh, watching it be…selectively replaced replaced with breast implants, collagen injections, buttock lifts’, certainly sounds alarming, not to mention a generation of men who have resorted to chugging protein shakes to compensate for their emasculating desk jobs. But 4 how accurate are such claims, and is Greif guilty here of the kind of false moral outrage about the body not dissimilar to the kind he criticises ‘the prudish Victorians’ for having had about sex? 

Throughout his essay, Greif exhibits a blinkered view of exercise as vanity in extremis at best, and toxic acquiescence to modern life’s beauty standards at worst. His simplistic willingness to tar all gym-goers with the same barbell deliberately overlooks the positives of methodic exercise—discipline, health, stress relief, quite apart from the very human desire to look and feel better—while sensationalising attitudes and practises that by no means represent a majority of those who actually visit gyms. ‘The exerciser conforms, in a most virulent practice of conformism,’ Greif writes. But what is more contrived, more obvious, than the intellectual disavowal of exercise? As if there was something exalted in denying the physical, or in taking pride in being unfit?

This is not to suggest that I am one of those musclebound pen pushers Greif describes in ‘Against Exercise’. I played several sports from primary school through college, though never particularly excelling at any. Nonetheless, during my undergraduate years, I found working out to be an enjoyable supplement to other athletic endeavours, and frequently went to the college gym. Since joining the working world, I have found it much harder to hold a regular exercise routine. Sometimes I work out a lot; at others, I go several weeks without taking exercise more strenuous than walking. Going to the gym, as an end in and of itself, is less enjoyable than working out as part of a larger vision or interest. But what motivates many to exercise is that it can, and should, be a highly personal pursuit. 

Greif bemoans the soullessness of the modern gym, which ‘moves biology into the nonsocial company of strangers’, and wonders why exercise can’t be done purely in the home, alone. To entertain this argument, you could—and might have to—counter with wondering where such an analogy might end. Practically any activity or interest can be performed alone; to deny the instinct for contact, company and support, however minimal, is to deny an essential facet of human existence. In ‘The Concept of Experience’, one of ‘Against Everything’’s more engaging, reasoned essays (and subtitled—not without some hubris, you feel—‘The Meaning of Life, Part I’), Greif counters a description of the kind of dissatisfaction that today might be called FOMO (‘Fear of Missing Out’) thus: ‘I am bored by Casanovas, inveterate travelers, nature lovers, and the drug-obsessed, as they speak from the narrowness of their exhaustive experience of one thing.’ Most of us, comfortable on our middle ground, don’t take things to such extremes, and will thus, when it comes to exercise, be left cold by fad diets, 6am workouts and incessant talk of PBs—not to mention the ubiquitous, half-serious question: ‘Do you even lift?’ 

In her 1989 short story ‘The Jewish Hunter’, Lorrie Moore describes a mid-western American town where ‘there were gyms but no irony’. But things have moved on since then. Who says, nowadays, that you can’t have both? 



[1] Kathryn Schulz wrote a vicious takedown of Thoreau, ‘Pond Scum’, in the October 19, 2015 issue of the 1 New Yorker. Nonetheless, Thoreau still has more than a few admirers: see Donovan Hohn’s New Republic essay ‘Everybody Hates Henry’, as well as M. Allen Cunningham’s glibly-titled response to Schulz, ‘Thoreau Was Actually Funny as Hell’, on Literary Hub. Greif, for his part, puts the Schulz piece down not to ‘the state of criticism in 2016,’ as he told Literary Hub, but, rather, to ‘a New Yorker tradition’; even E. B. White, a fan, didn’t understand Thoreau, Greif argues, ‘turning him into a sentimental Disney figure of trees and stuff.’

[2] National Center for Health Statistics, 2015.

[3] I once overheard a young woman berating her boyfriend for referring to the free weights area of my college gym as ‘the lads’s section’, though she did little to suggest that this description was largely inaccurate, as opposed to merely crass.