SPEVAK: Finding the spirit of fitness

john.spevak@gmail.com November 2, 2013 

I’m not used to gyms – at least not fitness gyms. Basketball gyms I understand; I grew up playing pickup games in them.

But since I am not a “workout” person, fitness gyms are another story. My workouts over the past four decades have been mainly extended naps, or – when I’m really energetic – 30-minute jogs with some stretching. I don’t need a gym for those activities.

But recently I’ve found myself in fitness gyms as the result of a knee injured quite randomly. Late for a theater performance, walking quickly on a San Francisco sidewalk, I felt my right knee “give.”

It was painful to put weight on it, so I limped very gingerly into the theater. In seven seconds, I went from feeling 67 years old to feeling 87. The next day (a Saturday) the doctor I saw in urgent care thought I had a torn meniscus and predicted I would need surgery.

On Sunday, however, when I talked to my son Mike, a physical therapist in Reno, I was presented with a different course of action. “Dad,” Mike said, “before you see a doctor and way before surgery, try doing some knee-strengthening exercises.

“Get your knee gradually moving into a ‘full range of motion,’ starting with some repetitions of bending then extending your leg. When your knee feels a little stronger, begin riding a stationery bike.”

Let me fast forward a bit, dear reader, and then return to the chronology of the story. For me, Mike’s advice worked. After I followed his directions and without any surgery, my knee, which was almost useless six months ago, is now about 99percent normal, or at least back to the way it used to be when I walked and jogged regularly.

Back to the story. Since I don’t have a stationery bike and wasn’t inclined to buy one, I had no recourse but to visit a fitness gym. I began in southern California, where I was visiting my daughter. I discovered that I could get a seven-day free trial at a local chain-run gym; I went there for seven days.

When I was back in Southern California I found another large fitness gym which also offered a seven-day free trial; I tried that.

Finally, I tried the Los Banos Racquet and Fitness Club for a third free trial. After 21 days I was out of free workouts.

After some thought, I decided to join the racquet and fitness club, owned by friends I’ve known for years.

What I’ve noticed after working out in several gyms (if you can call riding a stationery bike a “workout”) is that fitness gyms are a lot like churches. In some ways, gym folks are more religious about their activities than churchgoers.

Gym folks go regularly. I would venture their frequency of attendance in gyms is much higher than that of churchgoers in churches.

Like churchgoers, gym folks usually are silent, seldom talking to people around them. Gym folks, like churchgoers, use music playing in the background to help them focus and meditate on their well-being.

Like churchgoers, gym folks are ascetics, willing to make great sacrifices in pursuit of goodness and perfection. And gym folks, like churchgoers, often leave their building and go out preaching to friends and family about the value and importance of their beliefs.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at the devotion of gym folks. In many ways it’s easier to pursue physical, rather than spiritual, advancement.

And yet I worry a little. I believe within each of us is a yearning for the spiritual and the transcendent, a yearning which in the long run is more important than the pursuit of physical achievement.

There is no doubt that physical fitness is important; we should take good care of the bodies our creator has given us.

But we should spend at least as much time advancing our spiritual development as we do our physical improvement. In so doing we become well-rounded, purposeful individuals.

I don’t remember, for example, reading on any gravestone, “This person had a great body.” But I do remember seeing on more than one gravestone an inscription like, “This person had a good heart.”

And the “heart” in that inscription refers not to blood vessels and valves but to kindness, compassion and love.

Comments on the writings of John Speak, an Enterprise columnist for 30 years, are encouraged and can be sent to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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