Attendance policy

by Carl Dyke

I used to work in a gym. That gym and all the other ones I’ve been around had an interesting business model. They would actively sign up many more people than their facilities and services could handle if everyone fully availed themselves. They did this knowing that many of those people would not actually use the gym. They didn’t have to engineer this behavior – it just happened, and they operated accordingly. Across that whole industry, the margin of profit was created by people who paid not to use the service.

There are all sorts of things we could say about the psychological and social functions of unused gym memberships. But what we can’t say is that those folks improved their strength, flexibility, endurance, and general health in any of the ways paying for a gym is supposed to be for. Just paying for access to a gym does exactly zero for your physical development.

How to get those benefits from a gym is not exactly a mystery. You have to go to the gym, and you have to do the work. For example, getting strong involves picking up weights and putting them down. Over and over and over. It’s not an immediately productive or rewarding activity. In fact it’s tiring, and it hurts, and it works by tearing your muscle down so it can build back stronger. The immediate experience is literally degrading. The weights have to be heavy enough to present a challenge, and to build strength or any other kind of capability the challenge has to escalate through multiple sessions over a long period of time. But the weights themselves are boring, and taking an interest in them is beside the point. You can coat them in colorful texturized plastic and wear little outfits and play energizing tunes and call it a made up word starting with Z all you want, but it still comes down to picking up the dang weights and putting them back down, over and over and over.

For an extra fee you can hire a personal trainer, who will guide and encourage you through the workout process. They will get to know you and care about you and try on your behalf. But, it’s not their job to do the workouts for you. Sometimes they’re jerks, but when they’re jerks that’s not why. If they do the work for you, they get strong and you don’t. You have to do the work. Of course you could do that yourself without going to a gym; lots of people achieve good physical health without paying huge fees for access to equipment and services. But the people who pay for gym memberships in the first place are not those people. They need setting, and they need equipment, and they need guidance, and they have to pay for those things.

Since antiquity, we’ve known that what you work is what gets stronger. In this way you can get particular muscle groups big and strong by focusing all of the work on them. But all-around physical capability and good health require working the whole body in a wide variety of ways. Today, we call this ‘cross training’. In a university context where it’s minds that are being worked out and becoming more healthy and capable, the major is that one big muscle group while general education supplies the cross training. And if you don’t do the work it doesn’t matter how much you pay, you get none of it.

Gyms don’t have an attendance policy. Why would they? Obviously you have to show up and do the work if you want the benefit. Obviously paying not to use the service is pretty goofy. But until we understand how these things really work, “that’s your decision.”

(Cross posted on Facebook)


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