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BETSY HART: Paying to work up a sweat

on October 06, 2013 1:40 AM

My 14-year-old daughter is really into the gym-rat life. She works out regularly, and thoughtfully.

Upon picking Madi up the other day, she mentioned that it was odd we use machines to mimic the exertions people once probably did naturally in everyday life.

I’m not sure we ever did something resembling a bench press, but the irony of how we live now didn’t escape me.

Her comment really made me think: Many of us actually pay money, sometimes a lot, to hit an air-conditioned gym and get on machines that make us physically work hard, in order to have healthy bodies we find it difficult to get any other way.

To do all this, we have to have time and money to spare, and, apparently, more than 45 million Americans have done just that. At least, that’s one estimate of how many Americans belong to a gym or health club.

There’s a way in which gyms remind me of theme parks. In 2010, by an industry estimate, almost 300 million people visited American amusement parks. Perhaps it’s the ultimate expression of an indulged society: A huge swath of us Americans actually pay — a lot — to amuse ourselves.

What percentage of society could even think about amusement at all 150 years ago?

Look, I’m all for gyms and amusement parks. I love all the great things capitalism brings us. And yes, I also know that in the same country where we find a plethora of health clubs and roller coasters, there are still real pockets of poverty, despair and illness.

It’s just that most of us live with an ease and a length of life, along with a fair amount of certainty that we will have food and housing and free time to spare, that our great-grandparents couldn’t have imagined. And this is before we even discuss cellphones, computers and more.

But all that said, we hear more about stress and anxiety than ever before.

In 2011, the American Psychological Association released a study showing that “(m)ost Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress,” with 44 percent saying their stress levels had gone up over the previous five years.

Most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress? Really? Well, I admit this too often includes me, as well. The mental energy expended over my children’s well-being is excessive. And then I worry because I know I’m way too stressed out about my kids.

As the “Saturday Night Live” character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, would say: “It’s always something.”

Or, as my mother liked to put it, “Some people aren’t happy unless they have something to be miserable about.”

So it may just be a natural human condition to be in our comfortable cars, driving through a restaurant picking up inexpensive food (that will only make us feel like we absolutely must get to the gym later) before we get home to be entertained by countless movies and games at our fingertips, and maybe contemplate buying a season pass to the amusement park for next summer.

And, of course, to complain about the stress in our day along the way.

Again, to be transparent: When it comes to this habit, I am too often chief among sinners! But my daughter’s reflection on the irony of living in a time when we need to go to machines that will make us work hard (and to help relieve all that stress!) was a reminder of how good most of us have it on a day-to-day basis.

It may also be true of human nature that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is every bit as unnatural as climbing on machines that make us work hard. But I’m increasingly convinced that, in our ironic age, the effort is worth it: For thankfulness may be the best stress-reducer there is.

Reach Betsy Hart at

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