Unipol: Opioid of the masses?

Unipol: Opioid of the masses?

There’s a reason it’s free, you fools!

It’s a Saturday night. You’ve decided to do scrumpy hands and are midway through the second bottle feeling at the top of your game. Then it strikes you: that ‘what the fuck am I doing’ sort of feeling that inevitably leaves you in tears. Everyone has moments like this, where life can feel hard to cope with. So where do you turn? For many, it’s the gym.

If this was the 15th century you’d get slapped on the back and sent to church, but in the spiritual wasteland of studentville there is really only one place to turn: Unipol. What strange and dark secrets lie in this bosom of repressed trauma? Importantly it must be questioned: does excessive exercise swallow up its victims into a sea of emotion and endorphins or is this compulsion merely a healthy vessel for scared students to liberate their ligaments? 

This wasn’t going to be an easy question to answer. Each breatha and beezy I saw that had committed to the gym for more than four days a week had assumed a mask of stoic resolution, meaning the questions of pesky journalists would fail to penetrate such a hard exterior. To truly infiltrate the gym, I was going to have to masquerade as a dedicated gym devotee. After strapping on my sexiest singlet, snorting a line of pre-workout, and arming myself with thoughts of Tyler Durden, I felt truly prepared to delve into the heart of darkness. While I only did the mahi for six consecutive days, this was a hard enough task for a gangly first year such as myself, and it made me appreciate the willpower that each gym shark must maintain. 

Feeling more confused than tired in the weights room on my first day, I bumped into Alex, who greeted me with a smile. It was a welcome change from the anguished scowls so many others had assumed. A passionate advocate of the Gym Life(™), Alex argued vehemently that working out was like a “personal science”. Continuing with vigour, he suggested “Everyone pretty much keeps to themselves [here], but that’s alright because the gym is all about personal growth”. Summing up his musings with a smile, Alex said “Going to the gym is like finding a perfect balance between the mind and the body”. 

Could Alex’s ramblings be deemed merely narcissistic or did working out day in and day out actually lead to enlightenment? Alex’s assessment also sounded strangely as if he was advocating for some form of arcane, musclebound religion. Though I was pretty sure the Buddha hadn’t been working on his bench press while trying to achieve nirvana, I nonetheless consulted Professor Benjamin Schonthal to see if his scholarly eye had ascertained a link.

Schonthal informed me that “physical challenges are part of many religious traditions, from fasting, to pilgrimage, to quite dramatic bodily trials such as walking over hot coals”. Schonthal also warned me to “Never skip leg day,” subtly implying his own faith in the Gym Life(™). Shocked by these statements, I wondered: Could Gym Life(™) be a new form of religion, one focused on excessive ritual and the pursuit of individual enlightenment? 

Venturing once more into the gym, I endeavoured to uncover the truth of this phenomenon. Speaking to the sage-like Samir, he felt the gym provided “A good excuse to get up early and let the frustration out.” Nodding with intent, he summed his speech by saying that “It really clears your head out, especially after exams”. One Unipol employee, who claimed to be a devout gym goer, reminisced that she “[Remembered] being injured a few months ago and thinking about how much I actually relied on the gym”. Sounds suspiciously like symptoms of withdrawal, no?

Perched on his throne of the weight machine, Josh* remarked that “It’s not just physical energy you use in the gym, I think it’s pretty equal between that and the mental aspect.” With a head full of questions, my exit from the gym was quickly impeded by the enormous presence of Callum who quickly cottoned onto my theory, commenting, “I don’t believe the gym is a religion if that’s what you’re suggesting, it’s more a practice of self-discipline”. After this prophetic wisdom, Callum ended his sermon by declaring “There are heaps of social and mental benefits [to working out] as well”. 

While each gym-goer explicitly denied Unipol’s religious role, they had all suggested that the ritual of the gym provided them with a greater sense of mental well-being. Speaking to the Unipol employee who had gone through withdrawals did make it pretty clear that while such intense devotion may seem positive from an insider’s perspective, an individual could attain a pretty severe dependance on the exercise endorphins, which may not become clear until taking a step back. Indeed, studies of actual gym addicts (not just gym enthusiasts) suggest that “15% of exercise addicts are also addicted to smoking, alcohol or illicit drugs”. But is this statistic reflected in the drops of sweat shed within the gym? Can we believe scientific studies showing “ratings of compulsive exercise associated with ratings of anxiety and depression”?

Reflecting back on my own experiences as an undercover devotee, I questioned if I could now empathise with the gym-sharks I had initially been so quick to scorn. While writing this article has given me a deep sense of satisfaction, images of perfectly sculpted human beings now linger within my mind. I find myself thinking about my body in a way which disturbs me. Additionally, the slow dawn of enlightenment was constantly staved away by embarrassment at my inability to work any of the complex machinery. Seriously, what the hell are you supposed to do with so many pulleys?

Despite a number of conflicting testimonies, I do believe it’s possible to compare regular exercise to something of a religious experience, making exercise addiction something of a cult  (not that anyone I talked to was an out-and-out addict). Though a religious experience it may be, what form of religion is free from violence, pain, and suffering? To the same degree, the amount of variety in the gym experience is what defines it. While some pious students such as Alex may be able to deal with the mental barrage that accompanies working out, others may find themselves plagued with the “perfectionism, neuroticism, narcissism and obsessive compulsive traits” suggested by the studies we read. So, while Unipol may be a quick way to feel like you’re back on top of your life, remember what the Buddhists say: pain is certain, suffering is optional. 

*Names changed.

This article first appeared in Issue 24, 2022.
Posted 1:52pm Saturday 24th September 2022 by Hugh Askerud.