Friday, 22 July 2011

People Watching: The Gym

One of my favourite writers is a chap called Desmond Morris. For those not familiar with his work, he wrote the likes of 'the Naked Ape', 'the Human Zoo', 'Football Tribe' and 'People-Watching'. All of these books are about the study of Human Beings. Namely, what motivates us, what drives us to the heights of success and the depths of despair and ultimately why we really behave in the strange manner we often do.

The truth is, we all enjoy the art of people-watching. It's in our blood to be curious about others. Sometimes it's borne of our own anxieties and an inbuilt desire to conform to those around us, sometimes it's about the natural forces of attraction, and sometimes it's because we're just bloody nosy.

I am also a people-watcher. I don't own a pair of binoculars, nor do I (usually) spend my days hiding in poplar trees , but I do watch people as they come and go and wonder, "what's your story?" or "what's with the swagger? or more often, "what bloody bank did you rob in order to be driving that car?"

There are many good places to people watch where you may find individuals that are more quirky than the regular grey, formal commuters of our urban sprawl. For instance, sporting venues, music gigs, pubs, nightclubs and restaurants are all places where you will encounter the beast that is 'man'.

For the purpose of this post though, I am focusing my attentions on a place that has become a new addition to my own list of social venues; the Gym.

The Gym is such a perfect spot for people-watching because it is one of those rare places where the veil of respectability slips. Under the duress of physical strain and stress, the swarve, cool and well presented folk of the world soon become sweaty, grunting maniacs and a more natural state is revealed.

The Landscape

As Simon King and co will tell you, to be an effective nature watcher you must immerse yourself into the landscape. You must become as much a part of it as the rocks and the trees. In Gym terms, this means getting a membership.

Upon receiving your membership card, and before you can enter the gym on your own, you must participate in the humiliating ritual of 'induction'. This generally involves joining a small group of people and being guided round by an extremely smug looking person with a very loud voice who will explain the workings of the gym machines/weights etc in the most patronizing manner possible.

This is made all the more uncomfortable by the casual glances of seasoned gym veterans who eye you in a manner akin to a Lion observing the birth of a Thompson's Gazelle from afar. This analogy continues, as much like a newly born fawn you are thrown straight into the workings of the gym from then on.

Your average public multi-gym will be divided into specific territories. The remainder of this post will look more closely at each of these areas, and more specifically, the creatures that dwell there. The following map will give you some idea of what a typical gym might look like:


Upon entering a gym, apart from the stench of sweaty bodies, the first thing you will notice is the shockingly awful 'motivational' music that is being played. Usually of the dance/pop/r&b variety it is characterised by a high tempo, sexually gratuitous imagery and annoying lyrics about bitches, money, sex and/or grinding one's booty:

(TOP TIP - buy an MP3 player and load up the Rocky soundtrack before entering)

Once this auditory assault has passed, you're ready to explore the inner workings of the gym.

The cardio area

Occupying a large section of the terrain, the cardio area is a gathering point for most of the flora and fauna that occupy the gym. Exercise bikes, treadmills, cross trainers and rowing machines dot the landscape and are in constant use by a wide variety of gym-goers.

Exercise mats and funny coloured balls area (The EMFCBA)

Generally positioned out of the way of any thoroughfares/game trails, the EMFCBA is an area much used by some of the more seasoned gym goers. It is a place for lying down (sometimes on giant coloured bouncy balls) and contorting one's body into a variety of awkward and unnatural positions in order to attain maximum flexibility and durability in muscles that will soon become hideously overworked. It is an entirely necessary stop-off point for those wishing to engage in long gym sessions.

The complicated looking weightlifting equipment area (CLWEA)

Looking like a center for grotesque medical experiments, the CLWEA contains machinery that you need a degree in engineering to operate correctly. The CLWEA is more varied in its application to weight training than the more 'hardcore' freeweights area and it is another territory of the gym that attracts a wide variety of life.

The free-weights area

Truly, the gym's 'heart of darkness'. Few venture into this territory, unless in possession of a strong constituency and a ridiculously exaggerated pair of guns. In fact, many of the occupants of the free weights area spend little time elsewhere and as such, are deeply territorial. Not for the faint hearted.

The mirrored wall area

The Island of Borneo is home to the much photographed wildlife spectacles that are the Birds of Paradise. Male Birds of Paradise spend almost all their time pruning themselves and practicing their mating dances which define them and has made them a nature photographers dream. The mirrored wall area offers the gym-goer a chance to find their own inner 'bird of paradise' via the indulgence of self admiration through posing. Unsurprisingly it is dominated mainly by the males of the species.

Despite any wishes to, gurning and Hulk Hogan style flexing in this area is deeply frowned upon by those people who clearly have taken the art of posing to a whole new level.

The Wildlife

The Fawn (Newbius-patheticus)

As described above, fawns are the mainstay of the gymnasium ecosystem and can be readily identified by the looks of wonder and confusion in their eyes. A natural hesitancy displayed in their actions, coupled with an awkward gait and an unshapely figure are also some tell-tale signs of a fawn.

Starting out in gym life, a fawn will gravitate towards the cardio machines without much conscious thought, as the area is usually occupied by many other fawns, and a natural 'safety in numbers' principle applies. This territory also contains machines that are easy to operate, and as most people have either ran or ridden a bike before, it is the most accessible equipment for the environmentally overwhelmed fawn.

Once a sense of stability is attained, a fawn will venture further out from the cardio area and begin to explore the other territories. More often, this natural evolution extends firstly to the CLWEA where they will begin to mix more with more hardened gym lifeforms. The use of most equipment in this area will be attempted by fawns, with varying degrees of success. Some machines though will remain tantalisingly out of reach for many fawns due to their indecipherable operating procedures.

Very rarely a new-born fawn will mistakenly venture into the free weights area - which will generally be met with covert curiosity by the more permanent residents. However, as the fawn struggles to find anything to do than can match the hernia-inducing antics that are being showingly demonstrated around them, they will quickly retreat in the knowledge that they may need to be more patient and pace themselves before they can respectably re-apply their efforts to this area.

As the fawn will probably not have realised the necessity of using the exercise mats and funny balls (i.e. they haven't suffered any stress injury as yet) their gym odyssey will end at this point, at least for the time being. You will hardly ever see a fawn making use of the mirrored wall area, as cradling a beer-belly in full public view whilst making overstated lunging gestures probably isn't anyone's idea of fun.

Many gym goers remain as fawns for a protracted period of time, and are mostly culled from the gym as a result of injury, diminished motivation and/or cold weather. Those few that survive this stage will inevitably evolve into a more highly developed gym species.

The Antelope (Staminus-Ridiculus)

The Antelope is a perfectly evolved gym-creature. Sporting high quality clothing and all necessary accessories (stop watch, mp3 carrying arm band, towel and hydration unit), they are comfortably equipped for extended stays in the gym environment.

The cardio area is their territory of choice, with the Antelope demonstrating levels of stamina and endurance unparallelled by all other gym residents.

As a well defined and graceful creature, the Antelope, whilst lacking the overt swagger of some its rival gym goers, is defined by an air of focus and determination.

Antelopes, while predominantly found in the cardio area can also be found twisting their bodies into unnatural positions in the Exercise mats/funny coloured balls area as a precursor to their marathon length stints on the cardio equipment.

The Antelope is truly the most naturally suited, all-purpose inhabitant of the gym landscape and other gym residents should give them a wide berth whilst they are in full cardio exercise mode, for fear of inadvertently engaging them in a competition of treadmill endurance - which will always end in humiliation for the challenger.

The Silverback (Hairus-Maximus)

Born to a gym in full form, the Silverback is the true behemoth of the gym. The Silverback is as recognisable for their hulking frame as for their extraordinary volume of body hair, which is clearly displayed to the world thanks to their default gym wear - the vest.

Ill suited for cardio based exercise, or indeed any other stamina based activity, the Silverback tends to concentrate their efforts in the free weights and complicated weightlifting equipment areas.

Using a weightlifting machine immediately after a Silverback will reveal their freakish strength as you find it has been set to a weight that most people couldn't lift with a winch and pulley.

Despite their fearsome exteriors, Silverbacks are usually placid and friendly creatures who enjoy the social aspects of the gym having become bored with their more mundane routines of pulling planes with their ears and hurling oil barrels through flaming hoops.

The Chicken-Man (Girlius-Legelus)

Closely related to the Silverback in appearance, Chicken-men are also distinguishable by their hulking upper body frames. However, there are two major differences that set them apart from the their gym going cousins. Firstly, they possess less body hair than a Manx cat and are supported by legs that are less defined than those of an average 6 year old child.

The lack of body hair is clearly a self inflicted state for most Chicken-men and may be as a direct result of a chemical addiction to Veet. The grossly underdeveloped lower limbs are caused by a lack of exercise in the cardio areas which is further accentuated by their exaggerated torsos.

It also appears that Chicken-men have a natural dysfunction when it comes to selecting appropriately fitting clothing. A typical Chicken-man will sport vests and t-shirts that were designed for small Korean men and/or the under 12s.

The final discerning traits of the Chicken-man are firstly their permanent bright orange glow caused by regular exposure to high levels of ultra-violet radiation/sheila's tanning salon and secondly, their perfectly coiffured hairstyles which are held in place by means of an industrial adhesive.

The lesser spotted Chicken-woman can sometimes be found amongst their male counterparts and share certain characteristics such as a bright orange glow, tight fitting clothing and well defined arms and shoulders. It is their gravity defying breasts and platinum blonde locks that mark them out as the female of the species.

Chicken-men are most commonly found grunting and strutting around the free weights area and can also be found admiring their glowing orange torsos in the mirrored wall area.

On occasion, suitably endowed Chicken-men who lose their sense of vanity and amass a rug of body hair have been known to evolve into Silverbacks.

The Lioness (Poseus-Poutus)

Lionesses are female gym residents who occasionally amass in the presence of alpha-male gym goers such as experienced Chicken-men, Silverbacks and less commonly grazing Antelopes.

Readily identified by their graceful form and tittering outbursts of laughter, these groups are fiercely competitive within their own ranks as they vie for attention from the often overwhelmed (but always enamoured) males. In short, they do for post modern feminism what Adolf Hitler did for European race relations.

Despite their pouting nature and girlish disposition, be warned, they will happily scowl and snarl at any perceived lesser females who try to ingratiate themselves with their targeted males.

When they are not shamelessly flirting with Silverbacks and Chicken-men, Lionesses can usually be found exuding their physical superiority over female fawns in the cardio area or performing impossibly lithe bodily contortions in the exercise/funny balls area.

The Wise-Owl (informaticus-extensivus)

The final stage of the gym's evolutionary process (explained in more detail below) sees all gym goers change into Wise-Owls.

Wise-Owls are the elder statesmen/women of the gym. Coming in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on their genetic gym history, they are particularly difficult to identify. Sometimes, though not always, a more senior age is one giveaway, although as most Wise-Owls are in excellent physical condition, it can be sometimes be difficult to accurately guess their age. Most commonly, they can be identified through the observable reverence that is attributed to them.

Wise-Owls may sometimes adopt advisory roles and if identified, can assist fawns in their quest to become better acclimatised to the gym environment.

Despite sometimes being past their own peak of physical condition, they are still a force to be reckoned with and can provide an invaluable source of advice to any fawn fortunate enough to be taken 'under the wing' of a Wise-Owl.

The evolutionary gym tree

The evolutionary map of the gym is demonstrated above. A green tag indicates the early era of gym life – the fawn stage. All gym goers start life in this form and will later evolve into a more evolved/adapted creature. The exception to this is the Silverback, who arrives to the gym fully formed.

Given time and dedication, the fawn will inevitably adapt into a stage 2 animal (denoted above by a orange tag) dependent on sex. Both male and female fawns can evolve into an Antelope, but only females can evolve into Lionesses or Chicken-women. Some Chicken-men who lose their preoccupation with grooming and who are able to develop their feeble leg muscles will occasionally mutate into Silverbacks.

Ultimately though, after years of dedication, all regulars of the gym terrain will evolve into the final form (denoted in red), the Wise-Owl.

And finally, about me....

I would probably describe myself as an adolescent gazelle. I've managed to pass newborn fawn syndrome and now feel more comfortable in the surroundings but still have a lot to learn about the complexities of gym-going.

As far as my evolutionary future is concerned, it's touch and go. A cold winter coupled with a bout of man-flu may be enough to see me off. I'm certainly not going to develop into a Chicken Man (there's too much hair to remove without significant logistical issues) and a hulking Silverback is not how I, nor others would describe me. There is a small chance that I might evolve into an Antelope, but age is not on my side and I'm not sure I have the athletic mindset required for the job.

Nevertheless, for the time being I will persevere and will report back on any new and interesting species that I have not discovered thus far.

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