Group fitness is taking the place of religion for many young people. But at what cost?
The numbers are in: church attendance is down, gym attendance is up. While organized religion has long served as a source of community and ritual, younger generations (Millennials, in particular) are finding alternative means of social connection and meaning—namely in the form of group exercise classes.
Why the shift from church pews to spin studios? As outlined by Zan Romanoff in this Atlantic article, group fitness promises self-improvement through rigorous exercise, practiced in an environment where intensity is celebrated and sweat is plentiful.
The belief that working harder and faster is the only way to personal improvement yields success for some—but Romanoff points to a dangerous fallacy within the group fitness community: the relentless pursuit can also be damaging.
Our culture celebrates obsessive work habits and activities pushed to the extreme (the premise of almost any reality TV show is evidence of this). When comes the reprieve? Americans are notoriously bad at taking vacation, and even when they do, a desire to be seen as a hard worker pulls vacationing employees to their phones or computers to stay connected to work.
Just like many exercise classes push participants to the limits of their physical capabilities, many vacations trend toward extreme ends of the “relaxation spectrum.” On one end is the customary week spent at an all-inclusive beachfront hotel, zoning out with a cocktail in hand. The other end of the spectrum might be a wellness retreat with silent meditation and minimized social interaction, or a fitness “excursion” with a multi-day trek leaving the vacationer utterly exhausted upon their return.
While there’s nothing particularly wrong with any of these vacations, the underlying issue is that, like our fitness regimens, we compartmentalize mental rejuvenation, physical fitness, and personal growth in a way that isn’t necessarily beneficial to overall wellbeing.
What type of personal evolution could we encourage if we combined our fitness endeavors with our vacation aspirations?
Imagine that all the time you spent in spin class was in preparation for a two-week bicycle tour through Vietnam, or that your hours on the stairmaster were building your fitness so you could hike through the mountains of Guatemala.
These adventures require physical fitness, but they also require emotional strength. It takes mental toughness to step outside your comfort zone, interact with cultures different than your own and experience new things. This experience of vulnerability in unfamiliar places is what strengthens us—emotionally and physically—and equips us to be better participants in our own lives and in our own communities. Sure, the gym can provide a sense of belonging. But have you ever connected with a community halfway across the world? Those are some of the most meaningful connections I’ve ever had.
I started Root Adventures in response to working in the travel and fitness industries and witnessing the disconnection between our mental and physical wellbeing. It was like watching a ping-pong match: clients would sweat for countless hours in the gym, preparing their physical bodies to look good on a vacation where they completely disconnected from their work life, indulged in week or two of fine food and cocktails, then returned to their offices, overwhelmed by their inbox, and frustrated by how crappy their bodies felt.
The intention behind Root Adventures is to use adventure travel to encourage people to connect with themselves—to feel more firmly rooted in who they are. To see how all their time toning muscles has actually been preparation to explore the world around them; that their mental toughness built in tough workouts also prepares them to be vulnerable in a new culture, opening the door to learn more about other people, in turn deepening their understanding of self.
I challenge everyone to reexamine the role of fitness in their lives. What new experiences could you have if your workout classes became a stepping stone to the world around you?
What would happen if we viewed our desire to build fitness as a means to prepare our bodies and minds for exploration and adventure? Rather than using sweat as an indicator of achievement, we could use our fitness to step outside our comfort zone, open ourselves to other cultures, and seize opportunities to grow and evolve.
Fitness is a requirement of a healthy life. It is certainly possible to live without exercise, but quality of life suffers—including quality of travel experiences. You can get by with little effort in foreign countries, but poor fitness limits your ability to explore beyond tourist centers and connect with local communities. Exhaustion from long days on your feet, often in heat and humidity, leaves little patience and willingness to be mindful and vulnerable to new experiences. We want to see and do it all. But what have we missed on prior trips because we were too tired to attempt retrieving our high-school Spanish from the depths of our memories and interacting with locals in a vulnerable, but forever memorable way? Or because all we craved after an exhausting day was a Coke and a hamburger, instead of venturing beyond the main tourist square and trying a traditional delicacy at the tucked-away locals’ restaurant?