In search of pain, along with the gain

Why not just pop a pill for all our physical ailments? Because, at least in the gym, we like it when we hurt.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle Marathon 2009: Sometimes we like the pain of exercise

Why not just pop a pill for all our physical ailments? Because, at least in the gym, we like it when we hurt.

'ꀜYou know I do this to you because I love you.'ꀝ These words are spoken by Beth, an energetic trainer at a mid-city Seattle health club. Beth sits on a baroque-looking stationary bicycle, facing a large group also sitting close together on bikes in a former racquetball court now called a 'ꀜspinning studio.'ꀝ

The class has just finished a 30-second standing run, all-out crazy-legs pedaling that turns your thighs molten. A cheek mike amplifies her voice above crashing rock-and-roll that sounds like a heart attack you can dance to. Beth pretends to think for a moment, then gives a mischievous smile. 'ꀜMaybe love'ꀙs not exactly the right word.'ꀝ

To an outsider, these classes look manifestly miserable — cyclists slavishly hunched over their machines, spraying sweat and gasping like convicts laboring in a Soviet gulag. And they look wretched for good reason: they are. So why keep it up?

Against all reason, the exercise craze that began in the 1970s continues to gain momentum nearly 40 years later. The fad apparently isn'ꀙt a fad. Before the appearance of workout stars like Jane Fonda, Denise Austin and others, the importance of exercise — championed by as early a figure as the Greek physician and philosopher, Hippocrates — had by comparison little place in anyone'ꀙs health plan. Even for those who had suffered serious illness, a regimen of medication, rest and a proper diet was recommended much more vigorously than exercise.

Or at least 'ꀜexercise'ꀝ in the butt-kicking, high-stepping, sweat-flying, boot-camp way we have come to embrace it. An era in which we can so easily pop a pill for whatever ails us seems an unlikely one for the birth of what has become a veritable health revolution. Still, surprising numbers of us have shouldered the hard work of staying fit even though much of it causes us physical distress.

More surprising still, we'ꀙve actually started to like this kind of pain. We even love the less transient messages that pain leaves us: in locker rooms everywhere, men talk more tenderly about their pulled groins and torn Achilles than they do about newborn infants. Hippocrates must be turning over in his grave — he could never have imagined that we'ꀙd take good health to such excruciating extremes.

Even without exercise, we'ꀙd probably have a better than 50-50 chance of living longer than people even four or five decades ago. So why don'ꀙt we take the easy way out? Why not just ride out our time here as our forebears did, trusting to chance? Why on earth do we keep busting our asses at the gym?

Human beings are widely known for seeking out pain for other reasons than health. African tribes practice torturous rites of passage, and certain American Indians perform the Ghost Dance as a means of attaining enlightenment. But most of us who participate in triathlons are not looking to achieve spiritual insight. And those who play rugby after the age of 40 are more likely delaying some more sensible rite of passage from youth to middle age. It'ꀙs the pain we love. It can'ꀙt be anything else.

One of the biggest reasons we keep going to the gym is that we'ꀙre all egomaniacs. We'ꀙre in love not just with our looks and our outward vitality but with the very idea of ourselves which we want to prolong on this earth as far into the future as possible. Other eras have exhibited vanities at least as dramatic and stomach-turning as our own, but their response has been to heap pleasure, not pain, on their bodies. For us, pain has become the ultimate badge of honor, both in our quest to get fit and our desperate need to show off.

Hippocrates believed that nature had its way with us, heedless of our efforts. Fitness experts in the Western world might find this objectionable since it implies a kind of surrender. Today, we have deluded ourselves that nature is controllable and that surrendering to it (or to anything) is for losers. The willingness to undergo pain to prove our viability and worth is the ultimate sign of a true winner.

At no time in history has it been easier to deny the role of nature in our mortality. In every era except our own, illness and death rubbed themselves rudely in people'ꀙs faces, invading their homes, making an undeniable spectacle. Now, miracle cures, surgeries, drug therapies, and even hospitals themselves have helped us shield ourselves from disease and dying. Could it be that the pain we inflict on ourselves as part of our health routine is a kind of inoculation against oblivion, like taking small sips of poison to inure ourselves? Like the Flagellants, do we engage in this sort of self-punishment as a way of flogging the fear of death from our minds?

Perhaps instead, we love these controlled doses of pain — which is, after all, that most certain harbinger of death — for the sheer exhilaration we experience when we stop and the hurting yields to euphoria and a feeling of harmony and rightness. Little else in our lives can give us this palpable a sense of virtue.

Back in that spinning class, Beth counsels, 'ꀜGrab some water, everyone, you'ꀙre gonna need it.'ꀝ The suffering cyclists know they are about to engage in another fitful bout of pedaling. A middle aged man in the back row calls out, 'ꀜYou'ꀙre wicked today, Beth.'ꀝ

'ꀜReally?'ꀝ she says. 'ꀜCool.'ꀝ The smile again. 'ꀜOne day, you'ꀙll thank me.'ꀝ


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors