Running on the road to nowhere

Should doctors prescribe exercise? Jim White, a bored gym-goer, thinks not

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This morning began as most mornings do. After scraping the evening's accumulation of mould from the perma-dampness of my training shoes, slipping on a T-shirt effused with the fine odour of yesterday's armpit, squeezing into a pair of 1985 vintage Manchester United away shorts - I started up the running machine in the office gym and began to creak. I then ran, on the spot, as the treadmill beneath my feet span slowly away.

Seventeen minutes later, when I stopped the machine, four things had happened. A thick and unattractive medallion of sweat had colonised my T-shirt; four tracks of Oasis's (What's the Story) Morning Glory had played on the gym's CD machine; nine Docklands Light Railway trains had stuttered out of Canary Wharf station; and, through the pain and nausea, I had a recurring vision of a caged hamster running, pointlessly, in its wheel.

This is what we have come to in the convenience age. Nothing requires any physical effort any more: television channels can be altered from the prone position; lawn mowers don't need to be rope-cranked; with a deluxe smooth-glide corkscrew there isn't even a struggle opening a bottle of claret. Thanks to this easy life we are developing into a nation of lardies and wheezers, who can't climb the stairs unless attached to a canister of oxygen. What we are facing is nothing less than the gradual Americanisation of our hips. And the only way to fight the descent to the inevitable moment when you lose all visual connection with your toes is to work at it. We must all start behaving, in short, like caged rodents.

This was certainly the view propounded this week by Murdo Wallace, the chairman and founder of the Wright Foundation. At about the time I quit the machine of pain, Mr Wallace was launching a scheme that sought to empty the nation's doctor's waiting- rooms and fill the nation's gyms. His view was that if we were all encouraged on to the treadmill by doctors, the benefits would be immense: less sickness, less stress, less drug dependency, greater self-esteem, acres of cellulite wiped from the human landscape at a stroke. Free gym membership on the NHS, he called for; expensive in the short term, but cost-effective in the long. And since most doctors appear to be set on smoking, drinking and stressing themselves into casualty, it might not be a bad idea if the first gym prescriptions they scribbled were their own.

There is indeed much to suggest that gyms work better at preventing illness than doctors' surgeries. For a start, unlike any doctor's waiting- room I have visited, gyms tend to be full of fit, healthy people (though the Independent's staff facility may be an exception). Also, if you have a heart attack in a gym, you are likely to be attended to by staff immediately, whereas keel over at your local NHS facility and you'd have to wait an hour before service is market prioritised. And - though again this depends on the gym you frequent - gym staff rarely offer drugs as a first resort.

But there is one significant problem in this idea of Wallace's: the nature of gym exercise itself. Any visitor from another planet happening upon the Canary Wharf fitness centre would set the co-ordinates for home straight away. Everywhere you look, all you see is madness: people rowing nowhere, people climbing stairs to nowhere, people squatting with a large weight between their thighs and lifting it rhythmically to an M People track while indicating extreme pain: in short, as sharp a metaphor for the pointlessness of human existence as you can find.

At the end of every running-on-the-spot session, wasting hours that could be more profitably employed, say, twiddling my thumbs, the thing that invariably springs to my mind is that old Frank Sinatra tale. Told by his doctor that if he stopped drinking, smoking and chasing women he would live longer, Sinatra replied that, no, it would only feel like he lived longer.

Perhaps, now that Mr Wallace has made the first move in a closer liaison between the medical and the exercise establishments, what is required is further co-operation: the use of selective anaesthetic to dull the pain. Knock you out before you start, wake you up when you've finished - with an offer like that, the country's gyms would be fuller than a body- builder's G-string.

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