Have you been to the gym or pool recently? It’s summertime here in the Northern Hemisphere, and my guess is that you or someone you know has spent time in the gym, getting in some sort of shape, so that trips to the pool or beach aren’t quite as embarrassing. Of course, a good dose of exercise and sunshine are really healthy things that all of us need and ought to enjoy, but my own recent trip to a snazzy gym and pool complex in a trendy Baltimore neighborhood made me realize that there is a lot more going on at these facilities.
To understand the exercise revolution that has taken place, consider that as little as thirty years ago your local gym had not seen a StairMaster. Today’s gym, by contrast, is packed with different varieties of StairMasters, Elliptical trainers, and stationary bikes that monitor your heart rate, calculate your mileage, and track your RPMs. Beyond the cardio, sundry weightlifting machines target everything from your abs and biceps to your pecks and traps. Want a full-body workout? Just take your pick among the sea of exercise options available: Fitness Made Simple, P90X, CrossFit, Pilates, Bikram Yoga, and others are all vying for your endorsement and devotion. The last decade has witnessed a veritable explosion of exercise programs designed to give you a perfectly sculpted body, and the gyms which house these workout routines both reveal and shape the zeitgeist of our culture.
In many ways the rituals and practices we see at the outdoor pool or beach are intimately related to those of the modern gym. The pool I recently visited in Baltimore, for example, was equipped with the Poolheaterworld heater and could only be accessed by passing through the gym, as if to suggest that chiseled abs were a prerequisite to denuding oneself poolside. The difference, however, is that while the gym proves to the training ground for a peculiar secular asceticism, the pool tends to be the arena where one shows off the fruit of his or her physical labors. Early morning workouts and late night exercise routines are the means to the eventual pool party, where people congregate to check out each other’s bodies, bathing suits, and perhaps some freshly emblazoned neo-tribal tattoos all for fun and relaxation.
The point of all this is to show that the gym and pool are not neutral territories. They demand a certain mentality and encourage a distinct way of living. As philosopher James K.A. Smith writes:
exercising every day could be a mundane, thin practice that actually serves a thicker matter of identity formation. And this could cut different ways: on the one hand, I might be doing this because I ‘want to look good naked’ (as Lester Burnham put it in American Beauty), and I want that because being a hedonistic playboy is a central, meaningful aspect of who I am. Wanton pursuit of physical pleasure is my vision of the good life… and so my thinner practice of daily exercise is actually taken up by my thicker desire to be that kind of person. On the other hand, I might engage in regular exercise because I want to stay healthy so that I can enjoy myself, see my children grow, spend many years of friendship with my wife, and so on. Here the thin practice of exercise serves the thick end of finding meaning in the sacrament of marriage and family.
Our “thin” and “thick” practices, Smith contends, tell us a lot about our ultimate desires and the places we find meaning. Whether we’re dealing with schools and churches or gyms and pools, the rituals and practices that govern these institutions shape us into the people we desire to be. And so, we should examine these places and practices and see whether they offer a way to the good life we all seek. Is the pool party as good as it gets? Or is there a different kingdom that is more substantial, more beautiful, and perhaps more godly and eternal for which we should all train?
 This quotation and the inspiration behind this essay are to be found in James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 83.
Acknowledgements: Thanks also to friends Janina Mobach and Dan Porter for their helpful conversations on this topic.