Friday Group Ride #436

Friday Group Ride #436

A hundred years ago, folks didn’t bathe every day. The smell of human bodies was acceptable. We didn’t yet have a fear of germs, and in some ways we were better off. A simple reading of what happened includes two big ideas, the first that germs are real, and washing eliminates many of the harmful bacteria that cause common illnesses. The second idea, and the more insidious one, is that savvy marketers discovered that humans would buy more soap, shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, cleanser, masks, etc. if they thought they weren’t measuring up to cultural norms. You’re filthy. You stink. You need to bathe.

This Group Ride is not a meditation on more balanced social norms for hygiene. I bring it up merely as a way of understanding how our ideas of ourselves can be influenced in both helpful and more malign ways.

What we are interested in, of course, is cycling, or more broadly fitness. Fitness is a boring way of saying sports, which connote competition and  entertainment. By seeing cycling as fitness, it becomes more relevant to people who are maybe not likely to stand by the cobbles in the Forest of Arenberg in a state of rhapsodic ecstasy.

A hundred years ago our conception of cycling and its roll in daily life were different, too. We were still rapt with the transformative power of the bike as transportation, of not needing to own (and feed) a horse. When actually did cycling as fitness crack the mainstream? The 1960s? The ’70s? And since then we’ve seen boom and (not quite) bust, as modes of cycling have appeared, flourished, and then normalized themselves. Indoor cycling is maybe the latest growth segment, excepting eBikes as they are not, in most instances, fitness solutions.

Some number of us love to ride bikes. We love them for some or all of the reasons (freedom, fitness, transport, exploration, conservation, independence, mental health tool, et. al.). But not everyone has adopted a daily ride yet, as they once did the daily shower.

This week’s Group Ride asks, is there a plausible understanding of fitness as hygiene? In other words, is there ground to be made in cycling specifically, and fitness more generally, by fostering the understanding of movement as basic hygiene? In this scenario, it doesn’t matter if you’re not into sports or that you’re not naturally athletic. You need to do something, because not doing something isn’t in line with the overwhelming cultural moment. There are clearly both physical and mental benefits to be gained by most anyone who changes their lives from passive to active, right?

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  1. BB

    It’s a good question, and yes, I do think that cycling can have this function of hygiene, of doing right by your body. I cannot pinpoint the exact historical moment when athletic activity was first promoted for this reason, but it seems pretty plausible that it correlates somehow to the collectively increasing side-effects of sedentary, motor-assisted lifestyles in modern societies. That is to say, in the early 20th century cycling gained cultural currency without being tied to that function because people were still being plenty physically active in other ways. This is less true today, which is where spin classes and Zwift gain in appeal. Personally, while I enjoy the fitness benefits of cycling, taken on their own these would get me to ride only a small fraction of the (outdoor) miles that I do ride. Exploring my surroundings on two wheels while also reaping those benefits is what I enjoy the most. That’s probably why I never got the value out of my (since lapsed) gym membership.

  2. Michael

    I agree with BB and think the fitness as hygiene argument will get people to go to gyms, but not necessarily do much for outdoor sports. The cleanliness thing got people to take showers in little boxes, places that bring no joy to most people but accomplish the task. If the cleanliness kick had led to outdoor shower parks, where people frolicked in the sunny mist and sat around in the buff afterward, drinking coffee and celebrating their cleanliness and frolic, it would be a better analog for cycling. Actually, that DOES sound kinda fun, but I don’t think it is going mainstream any time soon.

  3. Tominalbany

    I think that 100 years ago, people didn’t bathe each day because indoor plumbing with hot water was a rarity.I think we bathe each day, mostly, due to the fact that it is far more convenient. And convenience, let me tell you, is was drives people!

    That analogy, I think, is why the indoor cycling thing is growing. It’s far more convenient to do it indoors where someone else is leading. You don’t necessarily have to maintain the bike. You don’t even need to buy one!

    Humans do the minimum to get what they need. Happily, I need to move and see stuff. Different stuff. So, I bike outdoors.

  4. Parker English

    “[I]s there a plausible understanding of fitness as hygiene?” Sure . . . for those of us who understand fitness this way.

    But how to persuade those for whom fitness is something other people do? They’ve heard about the love of cycling/running/rowing/skiing/canoeing many times without being drawn to it.

    That said, fitness as hygiene is sometimes the very thing gets me out on the bike.

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