Do you want to exercise or get thin?

The best gym I ever saw was in a movie. Oddball comedy Dodgeball starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughan showed us the two metaphorical extremes possible in the world of gymnasiums _ one run by a fanatical former fat person played by Stiller and the other a loose assemblage of quirky ‘loser’ exercisers doing their own thing, run by the easy-going Vaughan character. Over here in real life, I would like to see something like the Vaughan gym, but in every neighbourhood I’ve ever lived in there has only ever been a Stiller gym. The Stiller gym is full of wanna-be model and actor types pumping away, sweating compulsively, trainers running around frantic with bathroom scales and tape measures. Sadly, the Vaughan gym is still a figment of the Hollywood screen writer’s imagination.

A couple of years ago, I joined a gym. Having been burnt once in another neighbourhood where a Stiller gym convinced me to pay up for a whole year (I had to fight to get my money back), I went in vowing I would ask for a one-month trial before agreeing to pay for a year. The manager reluctantly agreed. But just like in the other gym, she insisted that I meet their nutritionist. I tried telling the nutritionist that I couldn’t go on a whole wheat, milk-only, lentil diet. But this iron lady would have none of it. I managed to get a sentence in by saying that whole wheat was an irritant to my system and dairy gave me allergies, but she only looked at me incredulously. Then I made the mistake of saying I didn’t want to get obsessed with weight loss and wanted only exercise. The woman almost jumped out of her seat furious and ready to crush my weak attempt at verbal paradox. Just behind her was a poster that advertised her as the gym’s main draw to some very sad looking overweight people also featured in the said poster. She lectured me about the dangers of obesity, as I wriggled to remove myself from her firing line.

Upstairs in the gym, I continued repeating to trainers that I had come only for exercise not weight loss. They treated me as a crazy person, ignored my protestations and kept attacking me with a tape measure. They needed my measurements to chart the inches lost as the days progressed. They could not manage the business of getting thin without knowing the client’s vital stats. At this gym, I lasted exactly a week and a half. I felt tortured and bruised every day. The trainers reassured me that the pain would go away as my system got accustomed to machines, circuit training and the inches dropped away. All true but I just wanted to exercise not get thin. One day as I panted down a glass of water, I said to my trainer: “you know I used to walk around this building, and the only reason I decided to come in and join was because the traffic fumes got to me.” I had foolishly assumed that I could walk car-fume free on one of the gym’s treadmills and lift casual weights.

Thinness should be a side-effect of exercise. Neighbourhood gyms morph into weight loss businesses as it has become profitable to sell Greek-statue body sculpting and bloating lentil-diets to witless customers, some of whom like me were only looking for their daily fix of movement. When did weight loss become about getting thin? It should be about getting couch-bound people moving to get their blood circulating again. Surely weight loss will come when you start walking, running, swimming, gardening, playing tennis, doing yoga or whatever it is that you love to do. And of course eating flexible non-diet meals that include fibrous vegetables, fish, fruit, whole grains of your choice, lentils for those who can eat them and not to forget that weekly slice of pastry. But here in India, newspapers feature advertisements for ‘weight loss clinics’ that say ‘lose two kilos for 1,000 Rupees or 10 kilos for 10,000 Rupees’ _ where weight loss is proportional to wealth loss. To them overweight people are animated plump dollar signs that need to be pruned of their fat. Many of us are looking for a place where we can go spend an hour using the machines, treadmills, weights and not have drill sergeants fixate us on how much weight we lose. We don’t want to be treated like sheep on a farm going in for shearing.

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