We are a nation of couch people, complains Will Self, decreasingly capable of travelling short distances without mechanical help. The paradigm wasted journey he writes, is a car-ride to work. I equally dislike the car economy, but the problem isn’t only about the distances between people’s homes and their workplace. It’s also about what we do with our leisure time.
Capitalism delights in taking things which used to be free or nearly free and making us pay for them. Each year three million people in Britain join a gym; half a million never go again, and a further million visit no more than once or twice a month. Gyms duplicate the experiences of sports which either used to be free (running, swimming), or for which the costs of participation were minimal (rowing, cycling, etc). The treadmill itself was invented as a prison punishment in the early nineteenth century; long-term offenders were placed on a machine to process grain cheaply.
Gyms are marketed as clean and safe; but they deprive those doing the sport of air and light. Rather than taking people to places they’ve not been before, they repeat and diminish the familiar. Running outside, by contrast, sets you free.