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Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2002/ 21 Teves, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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Body worship in the temples of secularism | 'Tis the season to be merry and miserable. After the cocktail parties, the buffets of excess, and all the anxiety eating and compulsive drinking, comes the penitence. After the spiritual message of the rabbi, priests, pastors and mullahs of Chanukah, Christmas and Ramadan, comes the need to atone for the fleshly sins of overindulgence.

The new shrines of worship have no steeples, spires or domes, but (stationary) bicycles and treadmills. These are the gyms where the penitents wear workout suits instead of hair shirts. In these worldly temples the craving is physical rather than spiritual, and the sacred icons are barbells, leg curls and chest presses. The flock is made up of men and women who want to change the shape of their lives by changing the shape of their bodies. You might say they're trying to sweat their way to salvation.

Personal trainers and yoga masters are the leaders in this counter-reformation. An abstract mantra replaces personal contrition and faith in prayer as pushups and pull-downs give new life to rituals of self-flagellation. Purification through fitness focuses on acts of humiliation commensurate with stress and flab.

"Like Christian salvation, the holy grails for gym-goers may be distant and unattainable, and the paths towards them painful, but the rules and routines that their pursuit involves seem to provide comfort to a new and growing breed of secular puritans," declares the Economist, the British newsweekly, analyzing the expanding market of gym franchises and health clubs both here and in Britain, whose sponsors promise deliverance through body-building and body worship.

Forget the pulls of virtue and sin, yin and yang, karma and nirvana, the polarization after the physical fall from grace is between the fat and the fit.

The hucksters for the gyms say their busiest season arrives immediately after the Christmas excess of gluttony and sloth, but it's not merely a seasonal phenomenon. The growth of the gym business offers a few lean insights into our changing sociology and psychology.

A visit to any gym, for example, reveals that the majority of those working out don't necessarily have "bad" bodies. The obese avoid public display of their bodies impolitic, and most gyms are lined with mirrors, suggesting a high-order of narcissism for svelte bodies. Those most dissatisfied with body shape are not seniors with sags but men and women in their 20s. So why are so many people working so hard for hard bodies? Some suggestions why:

Changes in male-female relations. Many single men and women busy with careers live in big cities and go to gyms to socialize. It's a place where they feel safe, no alcohol is served, and they can get acquainted during the breaks while their endorphins are expanding and they feel naturally high on themselves.

Male perspiration may not be an aphrodisiac, but it's not exactly a deterrent. (Ask any of the girl groupies reaching out for athletes on and off the field.) Women in shorts and see-through sweaty T-shirts feel they're dressed for a higher purpose than if they were wearing scanty bikinis at the beach. Therefore, the ogling is of a higher order, isn't it? (Sure it is.)

Changes in male-male-relations. Homosexuals have always had their own clubs, but there's much more freedom for gays to meet in coed gyms today. The body-building magazines characterize them as models of fitness and the gay "muscle Marys" are more easily accepted in public places as part of a growing acceptance of mountainous biceps and triceps among heterosexuals. (Think Arnold Schwarzenegger. Definitely heterosexual.)

Changes in perceptions over fitness and long life. Exercise has been documented to be good for your health. Walking and running have cardiovascular benefits and treadmills don't depend on the weather. You can run and watch television news or movies and believe that you're staving off death, though it's never been documented that the treadmill adds even five minutes to your life. Some people who run on two treadmills (one is called life) might think again about the quality of the life they're living outside the gym.

Changes in the formula of the Fountain of Youth anti-aging advertisements mix exercise with hormones for growth in muscle, bone and mind. Men and women are experimenting with testosterone shots for sexual energy and body strength, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness and the side effects of these concoctions and contortions.

So beware of the New Age snake oil in the Gymnasiums of Eden. Satan can find Eve on a Stairmaster or in a rowing machine and Adam will drink the forbidden fruit juice wherever it's offered. Fitness may be just another fig leaf to hide from our inner selves. It might be better to eat, drink and be merry than to be miserable on the exercise machine. Happy holidays.

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