What motivates us to exercise?

For the last few years, I’ve been walking into the gym, putting on earphones, and exercising methodically without even thinking twice about it. One day, as I went into the gym, I looked around me, I realized that every machine was a simulation of some activity that human beings do outside: the treadmill was for running, the bike for cycling in place. The gym even had a machine for climbing stairs! The only difference was that these machines were in a constructed environment and gave you information on the exact effect of your work out on your body. This made me wonder, would I be as motivated to exercise if I didn’t have this information? Would this change the relationship between my mind, my physical body and the environment that it was in? For this reason, I decided to take it in turns to exercise at the gym and outside for a week, to understand the impact of a change in my environment both personally and ecologically. The difference that I felt in the two environments was astonishing.


Every time I went to the gym, I started with my routine stretches and then either ‘ran’ on the treadmill or elliptical. Here is an image of what I looked like before I started running:

All plugged in and ready to go!
All plugged in and ready to go!

While using these machines, I knew exactly what was happening in my body biologically; I knew my heart rate, the speed at which I was going, amount of calories burned and the time I was running for. Every time I saw my speed drop, I would run faster, telling myself that I only had to go for a few more minutes (because I knew exactly how much time had elapsed). I also used music to distract myself so that I didn’t have to think of how tired the exercise was making me. I had so many signs guiding my workout and so much information on what was going on in my body; yet I felt disconnected from it. I treated my body almost as if it were a part of the machine; to be worked at a constant pace; without slowing down. The signs I saw disconnected me from my body as a whole and motivated me to separate it into different, workable parts. This reminded me of the scene in the novel White Noise by Don DeLillo, where Jack and Murray were on their way to see the ‘Most Photographed Barn in America’. The presence of an overwhelming number of signs, even in this case disconnected the viewers from the barn and encouraged them to view it through the signs preceding it, as is visible from the line, “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”[1] This feeling of disconnection made me question the idea that information is always good because clearly the more I knew about how my body was working, the more disconnected I felt from it. This is what the screen showed me while I was running:

On the treadmill
On the treadmill
On the elliptical machine
On the elliptical machine

Another thing that I noticed while running in the gym was that I was always listening to music. I didn’t feel ready to run without being plugged into my phone so that I could distract my mind while my body worked. I remember the feeling when I plugged my earbuds in and put my favorite Bollywood music on. It felt so good. It felt comfortable. It felt right. I realized that I had become so accustomed to being in cyberspace while my body worked physically that being mentally absent from my physical location while exercising had become my reality. Was I becoming like Case the data thief, in William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer? I could definitely relate to the way Case felt when he plugged into cyberspace for the first time after his nervous system had been repaired. He too felt a sense of belonging in his state of virtual reality as can be seen from the lines, “And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3d chessboard extending to infinity.”[2]. I was surprised at how much I already had in common with a cyborg! I realized that being a cyborg could well be a state of mind; I wasn’t physically altered but I still needed to be in cyberspace to feel comfortable with exercising. I remember being dismissive towards the characters in Neuromancer and even judging them for being so dependent on technology but this experiment made me realize that I really wasn’t much different from them.

For the next stage of my experiment, I exercised outside to see how my relationship with my body changed. I didn’t listen to music and I had no access to cyberspace. I ran beside the river for a little while but it wasn’t long before I stopped. I restarted only to stop after a couple of minutes. I realized that I didn’t want to work my body hard. I wanted to play. I wanted to walk slow and take in the pastoral landscape around me; I wanted to walk around the area inquisitively and go down the slope leading down to the river. I realized how little time I spend outside despite living on the residence quad, which is a five-minute walk from the river. My reaction to being outdoors reminded me of the protagonist in the movie Avatar, Jake Sully. He’d spent most of his life in the constructed environment of the military, surrounded with machines and when he was put in an environment full of flora (although in Avatar form), he reacted to it with child-like wonder[3]. I enjoyed looking around me and being in my physical place and there was no need for me to escape into cyberspace. Time had slowed down and for the moment that was just fine. Here are some pictures from when I was ‘exercising’ outside:

Clearly not working nearly as hard ad iI would have, had I been in the gym!
Clearly not working nearly as hard as I would have, had I been in the gym!
I sat and stared at the river for a while and it felt so relaxing!
Not the best picture but I sat and stared at the river for a while and it felt so relaxing!

The feeling of time slowing down reminded me of Rebecca Solnit’s article, The Annihilation of Time and Space. In her article she talks about how “Annihilating time and space is what all technologies aspire to do: technology regards the very terms of our bodily existence as burdensome.”[4] . Once I was out of the simulated environment of the gym it was easy to see the truth in this statement: the technology that I was using to exercise was treating my body as if it was something to be maintained. To overcome the stress that I felt in my body I could plug into another machine: my phone, so that I didn’t think of stopping my strenuous bodily movements. This was something that I couldn’t do outside; I found that when I was conscious of my bodily movements and its effects on my body, I stopped sooner than I had intended to because I felt like I had run a longer distance than I actually had. This made me think of how I was ‘packaged’ in a certain way when I was at the gym, so that I could use it in the first place. As said by Adey, in his article titled Mediations, “the traveler is squeezed into his upholstered mantle in the arms of his armchair and the image of a mummified body that moves.”[5]. Although he said this with regard to passengers in airplanes I think it holds true even for people at the gym because the machines only let you move a certain way, restricting your form of exercise. Due to this packaging of my body and the fact that my physical location wasn’t changing, I didn’t know how far I’d run on the treadmill and needed the machine to tell me. However, while exercising outside, I actually moved forward with every step I took which was something that I wasn’t used to. Going to the gym had warped my perception of distance and I thought I’d moved further than I actually had. It took me some time to get used to that.

When I left to go back to my room, I felt like I was missing something. I had run until I got tired, and I felt relaxed but I realized that I was missing the sense of accomplishment that I usually felt when I went to the gym. I usually left the gym knowing the exact scientific impact of the exercise: the calories I’d burnt, the speed at which I’d run and whether or not I’d improved from my previous workout. I realized that simply feeling energized wasn’t enough; I needed validation in a way that was quantifiable and scientifically verifiable. I was looking at my body through the lens of the signs that I was used to seeing at the gym and not how I was actually feeling. This reminded me of the time in the novel White Noise when Jack went to receive his niece, Bee at the airport. While he was there he heard that the passengers from another plane had just experienced an emergency landing. When he met Bee, her first inquiry regarding the emergency landing was whether it had been covered by the media. On being told that there was no media in Iron City, she exclaimed, “They went through all that for nothing?”[6]. This shows the extent to which signs given by both communications media and technology play a role in our perception of events, even when they happen in our immediate surroundings.

As I finished up my experiment, I wondered about the ecological consequences of what I had just experienced. I had changed my behavior for a week, by removing myself from the gym, but what was its impact? I thought of the machines I used and the information that it gave me. While I got an overwhelming amount of scientific information about exactly what my work out had accomplished, I didn’t know where the machine itself had come from. Where was it built? Who built it? Where would it go after its condition deteriorated beyond repair? Was it made and dismantled within the U.S. or sent to a developing country like China, or Bangladesh, because of the cheap labor available there? This thought seemed believable, especially after watching the documentary film Manufactured Landscapes by Ed Burtynsky. In this documentary, Burtynsky talks about how approximately 50% of the e-waste produced in the U.S. is sent to China, to be ‘recycled’[7]. By working out outside, I wasn’t using any machines and so didn’t have to worry about who bore the potential toxic effects of dismantling the machinery. Despite the fact that the environment was still pastoral and therefore constructed, I wasn’t surrounded by machines and so I didn’t have to think about their source of production, maintenance and their place of disposal.

I also think that the fact that I didn’t want to work my body in nature also says something about my perception of it. I realized that I thought of nature as a place to relax, to unwind from the stress of modern life. Through this experiment I discovered that I had an unintended romantic dichotomy of modernity versus nature in my head and I needed to be in a modern, mass mediated environment in order to really work and be efficient. This reminds me of Mick Gold’s essay on the History of Nature where he explains how industrialization evoked a form of romantic nostalgia of the past in people. This can be seen from the lines, “Today, a common meaning for nature is simply an escape from the man-made world: an Eden which we look forward to regaining at the weekend or on holiday.”[8]. I didn’t have to work with nature and so it was a peaceful haven for me. I realized how problematic this ideology could be; nature wasn’t something separate from everyday life, it was a part of it, and by creating this binary in my head, I failed to acknowledge it.

While performing the experiment, I also thought of similarities between what I was doing and Chico Paco’s pilgrimages to the Matacao, in the novel Through the Arc of the Rainforest, by Karen Tei Yamashita. On his first pilgrimage he walked “1,500 miles barefoot over burning sands, cracked clay oil, slimy mud, streaming pavement and sizzling asphalt”[9] (page 45). he was connected to the earth he walked on, without any media interfering with his journey and experienced the pain the earth had to offer. There was no overcoming the body in this case. However, on his second trip, he wore shoes and was followed by journalists who were recording his journey. When I was in nature, I wanted to be in my physical surroundings and take it all in. I felt a connection to the earth, but it was in the form of romanticism and I had no idea of the history of the land, or the local ecosystem surrounding it. This loss of connection is what Gary Snyder says, in his essay Bioregional Perspectives is one of the causes for environmental destruction.

What were the consequences of extending my body and, as a result, having no sense of awareness of what was happening in my immediate environment? As Marshall McLuhan said, in Media is the Message, “Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area…. becomes invisible.”[10]. A part of my nervous system had been numbed and it took me a while before I regained my perception of what running a mile felt like when I actually had to run outside. I wondered: if I constantly take myself out of the here and now, and “sacrifice the near to get to the far” (source) as put by Rebecca Solnit, will I eventually become oblivious to environmental destruction even when it’s right in front of me? Will I start to live in the “desert of the real”[11] as explained in the movie Matrix, where virtual reality becomes more real to me than my geographical location? The credibility of this thought scares me.

As I worked through this project I realized the broader implications of purposely putting myself outside for a week. Not only did I realize how little time I usually spent outdoors, I took the time to consider the environmental implications of going to the gym, something that I definitely would not have done otherwise. I learned how differently I treat my body in different environments and the effects of that on my nervous system. More importantly, I learned that globalization isn’t just a physical process of movement, it can happen in our minds too. As I moved my body on the treadmill, listening to Indian music, that was created halfway across the world from the US, I thought of the implications of globalization and hyper connectivity and what it meant for society in the near future. Will we continue to operate under the assumption that more information is necessarily good? Or will we start to think critically about its consequences? Either way, I think being self-aware of our own body is a good place to start and I’m glad for what I learnt through the experiment I undertook.

Works cited:

[1] DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Viking, Page 12, 1985. Print

[2] Gibson, William. Neuromancer. Penguin, Page 52, 1984. Print

[3] Avatar. Dir. James Cameron. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2010.

[4] Solnit, Rebecca. River of Shadows: Edward Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. The Annihilation of Time and Space, Page 11, New York: Viking, 2003. Print.

[5] Adey, Peter. “Mediations.” Page 205, Print.

[6] DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Viking, Page 93, 1985. Print

[7] Manufactured Landscapes. Dir. Jennifer Beichwal. Perf. Ed Burtynsky

[8] Gold, Mick. History of Nature. Page 24. Print

[9] Yamashita, Karen Tei. Through the Arc of the Rain Forest. London: Scribners, Page 23,1991. Print

[10] McLuhan, Marshall. Media is the Message. Print

[11] Matrix. Dir. Lily Wachowshi and Lana Wachowski. Warner Home Video, 1999

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