Jeder soll nach seiner Fasson selig werden—everyone may find sacred bliss in their own way, in Frederick the Great of Prussia’s formulation of enlightened commitment to religious tolerance. Nowhere is this sentiment more evident today than at a community health club.
When you’re living in what is in some years the coldest city with more than 50,000 residents in the United States—including Alaska—staying physically active over the winter can be difficult. An indoor track is my second least favorite place to run, just ahead of running outside in the dark, on icy sidewalks, at 10 or -10 Fahrenheit. The indoor track is only possible as part of a community-supported facility for exercise of all kinds that requires thousands of people with diverse interests to support a facility that everyone can use.
Many observers have noted the similarity of physical exercise to religion, for example in the unwavering devotion of many runners to the Sunday long run. The similar diversity of religious experience and physical exercise struck me frequently while running laps on a 1/7-mile track, watching the rowers and the lifters and the tennis players and the swimmers and the basketball players and the step aerobists as I ran by each in turn. I have to remind myself often—Jeder soll nach seiner Fasson selig werden—as I try to imagine what could be the possible attraction, let alone the exercise potential, of what looks to me like extreme chair twirling, intense lying-on-one’s-stomach, and whatever it is that people do in the pool with balloons and swim noodles. I’m glad that all these people have a warm place to seek physical well-being in their own way, but I feel no sense of community with them just by sharing a facility.
It’s different with the other runners on the track, though (but not the power walkers with exaggerated arm-swings: they’re just obstacles in my path). If someone else seems to be serious about running, I feel like they’re on the same path I’m on, maybe faster or slower than me, but heading to the same place. I’ve even talked to a couple complete strangers who were running at the gym so that I could join the select congregation of local runners who were willing to attempt a 5K during a -45 F wind chill.
So those are the benefits and limits of physical fitness ecumenicalism. It’s nice that people of varying interests can pool their resources to support a facility that would otherwise not be possible in a small city. But now that it’s spring, it’s warm enough to run outside most days, and I’m tired of running in small circles. I’ve canceled the gym membership (for the next eight months, at least) and I’m heading outside so that I can get on with what I’m really interested in. As a general principle I support everyone’s right to seek the variety of athletic bliss of their own choosing, but as a practical matter I’m only seriously invested in the one form that I’ve chosen.