SAN DIEGO — Sometimes things seem awfully peculiar inside my health club.
I see swarms of exercise bicyclists pedaling frantically to nowhere. Runners go in circles around their carpeted, air-conditioned track. We swimmers dispense with the sunscreen since nary a ray ever slips into our hermetically sealed indoor pool. No one ever breathes in deeply, pounds the chest and exalts about the fresh air. Nobody does this because there is no fresh air. This is hothouse fitness.
I don't mean to sound critical of us indoor exercisers. We are making ourselves strong, flexible and cardiovascularly sound. Healthy, in other words. (Oh, some of us may also be aiming for shapeliness, may sneak a peek at the omnipresent mirrors. Vanity cannot entirely be eliminated here.)
Indoors is where I have ended up while searching for fitness in the '80s. Indoors happens to have the most convenient pool hours.
But driving to work at dawn the other day, I saw a rumpled-looking middle-aged jogger chugging up the hill I was driving down. Shortly thereafter I passed the paperboy distributing papers from his bicycle. After the sights inside my mobbed health club, these two looked like strays from another, less with-it era. The boy, especially. He actually had purpose to his exercise. He might as well have been a farmer.
Then I found myself remembering the rare and splendid times in my own exercise past when I was able to exercise with purpose. I recalled early morning jogging trips to the grocery store for milk. Clutching the milk on the return trip, I felt so functional, like primitive hunters must have felt upon returning home with their catch. I've jogged back home after dropping off the car at the repair shop and have biked into hopelessly parked-up places.
And I remember once in San Francisco while waiting for a bus that had to be caught in order to make a flight, I realized I'd left my purse in a restaurant many blocks back. Maintaining a steady, if hasty, pace, I jogged to the restaurant, retrieved the purse and jogged back to the bus stop before the bus got there. I boarded that bus suffused with pride.
Such activities are the antithesis of the exercising at my health club. They possess a layer of pleasure that's missing there. In general, people don't seem to be having a wild amount of fun. I don't hear yelps or shrieks or whoops. It's as though the playfulness was sucked out of the building when the air-conditioning was pumped in.
The pool is set up so that as I swim backstroke I can watch the runners circling the pool one floor above me. As I stroke I ponder scenarios. In one, we'd all be outside if we could be. We're only in here because the rat race forced us in. We'd rather be jogging up hills, biking through valleys, swimming in the ocean and lifting timbers in the forest.
In another version we all work outdoors all day long--we're gardeners, meter-readers, mail carriers, zoo employees, power line repairers, lifeguards and surveyors. So who among us would need more fresh air?