The present study draws on Scott’s (2011) notion of the Re-Inventive Institution and explores how gym members make sense and give meaning to their exercise regime. Overall, it is argued that for many participants gym exercise is more than physical training; it is also training for life. Based on a thematic analysis of 32 semi-structured interviews, it is argued that gym workout is a means to create better versions of the self on mainly three levels.
Whether in the basement of a commercial complex, half-hidden between two corner stores or on a wide green field in the suburbs, gyms have conquered urban space. Every European and North American city, and even small towns, seem to have a fitness gym. Gyms are one of the most pursued leisure places in Western societies and can be said to have established themselves as part of a white, middle-class culture.
In UK, almost 13% of the UK population is registered as members of a private health and fitness gym or a publicly-owned fitness facility, with London having the most registered users.
Fitness gyms vary in location, membership fees and serve different social and economic milieus. Most urban gyms are located in the city centre and are at their busiest during lunch time and after work hours. In order to attract customers, most gyms present themselves as lifestyle or family oriented places. Depending on the size and the target group, multi-purpose amenities encourage pre- or post-training activities, for example at their spas and beauty centres or they organize social activities at the weekend.
The body building gym especially promoted and celebrated characteristics associated with male-ness, such as strength, power, competition and aggression, so that one could argue that through cultivating a muscular physical exterior, men were able to re-emphasize their superiority and dominance. Whilst this still may be true for bodybuilding gyms, contemporary fitness gyms seem to work in more complex ways. Women’s participation in gyms has widely increased and women entering the weight training area have become more common. Nonetheless empirical studies show that men and women tend to have very different objectives and motives for attending the gym. Whilst male gym goers seem to be disproportionally concerned with arm, back and chest strength in contrast to lower body strength female participants are primarily interested in weight loss, and thus engaging more in cardio-vascular exercises. In contemporary Western societies, the body is understood as a reflection of one’s inner self so that one may argue that body modification technologies and body enhancement regimes can be understood as attempts to construct not only a beautiful, strong and fit appearance but also a beautiful, strong and fit self. One may then ask if people work out at gyms for more than body-related reasons, that is to say, if gyms also function as places in which people seek to alter and “re-invent” themselves in a more general sense.
Examples of Re-Inventive institutions range from therapeutic clinics to spiritual retreats, academic hothouses, secret societies and virtual communities. Those institutions are characterized by members’ active engagement, by self-regulation and a desire to undergo deep personal change. In contrast to Total Institutions, they are often permeable, have flattened hierarchies and a cohesive inmate culture. As they are voluntary, and often costly there tends to be lack of overt resistance.
As stated above, members undergo re-inventive regimes not only because they regard it as a positive opportunity to boost self-esteem but also partly because they believe they have a moral responsibility to be healthy or to feel better.
This research project followed the recommended ethical guidelines of the Birkbeck School of Social Science, History and Philosophy Ethics Committee. All interviewees were afforded the right to anonymity and confidentiality. Whilst participants’ actual age and occupation are provided throughout the research report, every participant is given a pseudonym so that their responses cannot be matched to their personal details by anyone other than the researcher.
Initially an interview schedule was constructed in accordance with the research questions, the literature on gyms and the theoretical concerns of this project. After conducting three pilot interviews, some questions and issues were narrowed or expanded while others were changed substantially or abandoned altogether. Each participant was interviewed once; the shortest interview lasted 24 minutes and the longest 110 minutes. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim.
In addition, there was also a group of respondents who displayed (self-) critical sentiments towards the gym. The advantages are:
As my interviews revealed, being disciplined during training is considered to be helping gym participants to be more disciplined outside the gym, as well.
The majority of the interviewees mentioned a general quest for better health and fitness as their primary motivation to join a gym. However, there was a wide range of other issues participants expect to resolve, or tackle, with their gym regimen that go beyond fitness concerns.
An IT Manager and part-time PhD student, for example, described the gym’s benefits as follows: