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Original Issue


Fitness fanatics should find better uses for their energy

It's almost midnight and I'm sitting at the kitchen table watching Peachy, the family hamster, crank out revolutions on an exercise wheel. I should go to bed, but I'm captivated. The squeaking of the wheel is like water torture, but the woman at the pet shop told me not to put ordinary motor oil on the shaft because Peachy might eat it and get sick. She said to use vegetable oil instead, which I have done, but apparently Peachy has licked this off, because the racket is greater than ever.

So I sit, contemplating an animal that eats the lubricant off its exercise machine. Does Peachy know that sprinting in a metal cylinder won't get her out of the cage? Probably not—Peachy's brain is smaller than a corn kernel.

But what about us humans? I see millions of Americans in Spandex outfits and gel-cushioned shoes trying desperately to get out of their cages. Something is wrong with the fitness mania that has swept the Western world. And from watching Peachy I know what it is: entropy.

Entropy is the measure of the amount of energy unavailable for useful work in a system—metaphorically speaking, it is a measure of waste. In our throwaway society we waste energy at a maddening pace. Coal is ignited to make a fire, which produces a great deal of carbon dioxide while heating a small amount of water to make a bit of steam, which produces a tiny amount of electricity, which lights an inefficient incandescent bulb in a room in a house where nobody's home. Basic waste.

It's no coincidence that we're running out of cheap, available energy at the same time that we're polluting the air, land and sea with the residue of our waste. According to the laws of physics, entropy always increases and available energy diminishes in a closed system, meaning that eventually everything will be reduced to an amorphous, undifferentiated blob. The universe is a closed system. There are some parallels to a hamster cage, and right now Peachy is creating entropy at a noisy rate.

In centuries past, people did not act like captive hamsters. If a person chopped wood or ran a long way, it was because he or she needed fuel or wanted to get somewhere. Now we do such things to fit into new pants or develop our lats. We have treadmills, rowing machines, Stairmasters and stationary bikes, and we labor at them while going nowhere. We do work that is beyond useless; we do wasteful work that takes energy and casts it to the wind like lint. We don't even enjoy the work. Look at people in a health club. See anybody smiling? No fair counting grimaces.

"There is nothing magical about the machines," says Steve Farrell of the Institute for Aerobic Research, in Dallas. "You can get the exact same benefit from just climbing stairs in the home or office." Take a look in the stairwell outside your office—anybody in sweats heading up or down? Ha! People take elevators all day, then drive to their fitness centers where they pay to walk up steps.

As I look at Peachy, still trotting, I think of Jane Fonda, the Queen of Entropy, who wants everybody to exercise all the time and has made bundles saying so. Constant workouts, says Fonda, have raised her metabolism so high that "I can eat more without gaining weight, which is good, because I like to eat." That's a double whammy: Working out to pig out creates entropy twice.

I have a solution for such gratuitous narcissism, and I think Fonda might find a video in it. Let the people on these machines create usable energy as they burn off their jodhpur thighs and spare tires. Hook up all these engines of pain to gears and cams and drive shafts that will rotate turbines and generate usable heat or electricity. Let exercisers light the health club itself. Let them air-condition it. Let the clubs store excess energy and sell it to nearby shop owners at low rates.

Better yet, create health clubs whose sole purpose is the generation of energy. Pipe the energy to housing projects. Have Energy Nights, where singles get together to pedal and chat and swap phone numbers. Build a giant wheel that operates a flour mill, a rock crusher, a drawbridge, a BMW repair shop. Have poles that protrude from the wheel with spots for a couple hundred joggers to push the damn thing around. Install magazine racks on the poles. Have Erg Hours and Calorie Collections and Wattage Wars. Make it cool to sweat for the betterment of mankind, not only for yourself.

We can't afford much more entropy. If we forget that, we might as well be rodents in cages, running into the night.