Spawn of sci-fi at the gym

April 9, 2009 at 7:07 pm | In health, just_so | 3 Comments

I joined the downtown Y a few months ago and now work out regularly on all those contraptions I used to make fun of. (…It’s all part of denial – I am not getting older, I am getting better, etc etc etc.)

I’m sure it’s doing me a lot of good, although it certainly is hard work. It’s a lot easier to slouch through the neighborhoods at a leisurely pace with my terrier, or to sit around with a glass of wine dreaming of days when I could pack away thousands of calories without gaining weight. But at some point you realize that, yes, gravity doesn’t exempt anyone, and every inch of extra flesh moves inexorably toward the ground.

We denialists don’t want that. We are tits forward and head high type people, and we’ll go into the grave vertically, goddammit. So off I go, to the Y. I walk there, I change, I get on the damn machine for an aerobic workout. Usually it’s the elliptical trainer (except when I do the torture workout, i.e., weights, which involves all those nasty machines that target specific muscle groups).

Quite a few of the machines for aerobic exercise (including all the elliptical trainers) are lined up in rows facing three very big TV screens. In the first two rows are the bikes (upright and recumbent), followed by two rows of elliptical trainers, with a final row of stairmasters behind. Rowing machines and treadmills are on either side of the room.

The rows are considerably longer than the wall space for the TVs, so there are optimal spots on the machines if you’re a TV watcher. If you’re not, then you’ll move toward the other ends of the rows, from where you can still see the TV screens, albeit at an angle. The spots that provide the best views of the TVs are usually taken up faster than the spots that don’t offer clear TV screen sightlines.

I’m nearsighted, which means I need glasses to see distance clearly. But I don’t wear them at the gym: they’d slide off my face, since I really work up a sweat. When I’m at the Y, I walk around in this nearsighted fuzzy world, unable to recognize faces until they’re ~20 feet away from me. The TVs, with their closed captioning (the sound is turned off), are of no interest to me, in other words, because I really can’t see the images very clearly, and I can’t read the closed captioning at all.

But I can see the facial expressions of the other people on the machines near me. What stories they tell, what worlds they exude… What they reveal about TV

Everyone who knows me knows that I don’t get TV at home. We have a TV (although not a flat screen, alas), and we watch DVDs and such, but we don’t have cable (and antennas don’t work here). I’m a total virgin when it comes to reality television, I’ve become completely and utterly oblivious to network news (haven’t watched for well over six years), and I never watched sports to begin with.

But it’s “reality” TV, news, and sports (including weird shows of people playing poker for sport) that are on the Y’s three screens at all times.

The “reality” shows soften up your limbic system, and you can see this so very clearly in people’s facial expressions as they watch the programs. One popular show has to do with home renovation – some “unfortunate” family is chosen (how?, why?) to receive some kind of surprise make-over, perhaps a reprieve from foreclosure, or some special help for a child with a particularly horrible disease. There are invariably segments involving lots of emotion, tears, and close-up shots of faces as the participants speak. I’m guessing they’re explaining their situation and feelings, their plight, what they’ve learned – all of this is closed captioned, but I can’t decipher it, so I never catch the rationalizing. All I see (somewhat out of focus) is the emotion on their faces – including the coaching (what else to call it?) provided by the show’s host, at times egregious when he’s talking to children. But it’s the faces of the people watching the shows that fascinate me: they absolutely mirror the emotional spectacle they’re viewing. It’s uncanny.

All this is in the middle screen. To its left are the news. If something particularly disastrous or scandalous or plain worrisome has happened, the same images and snippets appear at length, looping over and over. The news mimic in many ways the limbic stimulus dished out by the middle screen. Meanwhile, on the right screen, there’s sports, which maybe appeal a bit more to our reptilian sensibilities: cunning, strategy, skill, win!, …or defeat. And then the emotional release in the group hug, or the group despair. (I’m referring to the presentation of the sports spectacle, not to what sport is for the participants, or what it represents as an ideal.)

We’re like those monkeys deprived of their mothers, who are given surrogates (tic-toc clocks wrapped in blankets). And boy, do we respond.

On all three screens, the limbic stimulus calls the shots, except it’s the money shots. Because when push comes to shove – i.e., when it’s time for a commercial break – the ads expertly appeal to all those emotional synapses already firing away in your brain. Quite good, really. Clever. I can see it working on people’s faces. I’m sure that if I could read the texts (or hear the audio), I’d “see” the limbic/ emotional stuff far less prominently, because the words provide a rationale for the emotions, corralling them into a “place” where they can’t overflow and inundate the brain (and our perception of the world). Yet that’s where the words, our love of rationalizing, fools us – it’s clear that the emotional stuff rules completely.

You have to wonder if that’s such a good thing when it comes to news – or to making decisions about what to buy.

You also have to wonder whether the creators of The Matrix got their ideas at the gym. There we all are, pumping away like maniacs on stationary machines, producing loads of energy (where does it go?, why is it not harnessed and used?), our eyes glued to a screen “reality” that’s utterly orchestrated and manipulative of our limbic system (maybe that also produces energy?). If that’s not fertile ground for the sci-fi imagination, what is?

We are such aliens.


  1. That sounds a lot like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. A particularly sickening example as it posits that the solution to life’s curveballs is an extravagantly large suburban home, complete with energy-sucking appliances and presumably a massive property tax bill courtesy of the fact that these previously destitute folks now own the fanciest house on the block.

    The phenomenon of televised poker escapes me. Why are we watching *other* people’s time-killers? I fear the paint-drying channel is not far off.

    However, Shannon and I have just started watching HBO’s acclaimed series Six Feet Under. Television fiction at its best.

    Comment by Robert Randall — April 9, 2009 #

  2. Hey Yule,

    Oddly enough I just did a 2 hour presentation on management strategy for the YMCA of Western Ontario tonight. Funny to read this here. TVs did not come up as important items to the target market in our (very limited) research.

    I had a Y membership downtown for about a year. I left it behind because there was a gym in the building I was living at – but in the building am I in now, there is no gym and I miss it. In that year that I went to the Y, I never noticed those TVs. I spent most of my time running, stretching, then weight lifting. I never started up again because – between working full time, running two businesses part time, classes at night and trying to have a life – well, there’s just no time to go to the gym, honestly.

    Comment by Davin Greenwell — April 9, 2009 #

  3. @Rob: “Extreme Makeover” – that sounds like the show alright. Re. the poker show: it occurs to me that this is kind of interesting, seen next to the “limbic systems” issue. The whole point of the other shows (and the news, in many respects) is the social aspect, the limbic or emotional connection. But in poker, it’s all about “the poker face,” where no emotional clues escape, and no information is given by the face. Hmm.
    @Davin: Too funny about the Y synchronicity! What are you doing giving presentations to the Y in Western Ontario? You really keep busy, don’t you!
    I should add that the TVs aren’t a major deal at the Downtown Y, either. It’s not surprising that they didn’t jump out at you (although, as a recent member, I’m not sure when they were installed – maybe they weren’t there when you used to go). They are located in only part of the Y, one of the upstairs rooms that houses all the brand new equipment (I understand that about a year ago or so, the Y had a major upgrade in terms of equipment and such). There are no TVs in the room adjoining that one, none in the several gyms on the same floor, and none downstairs, where the other free weights, weight machines, exercise machines, stretching room, and boxing studio are.
    Whew, the Y is actually pretty big, innit? 🙂 (And I haven’t even mentioned the pool yet!) Looks small from the outside, but packs a punch inside.
    I also should add that I’m not making disparaging comments about people looking at the TV screens when they’re on the bikes or ellipticals. I do it, too (insofar as I can, with my fuzzy vision), and I find myself as sucked into the “limbic soup” as the next guy. What I’m interested in is how that whole thing works, and why it works so well, and why there are some things about it that become apparent when you can’t read or hear the words that accompany all that emotional face spiel, but you can see the faces of people affected by what they’re seeing. Odd thing.
    As for finding the time to go – tell me about it. Aside from an effort, it’s really like some kind of part-time job. Takes a lot of commitment …and time. But at my age, I figure it’s an investment!

    Comment by Yule — April 10, 2009 #

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