If you're a regular reader of mine you may have picked up on my admonitions to not use any gym machines that you sit on e.g. in my Five Secrets for Fitness After 50.
Very often I accompany my warning with the explanation that gym machines are designed to accentuate muscles and make you look great in a t-shirt, but you'll struggle to do up your shoelaces.
There's a reason that gym machines are not designed to help you be able to do up your shoelaces. And there is a much more important reason why that should concern you greatly. It might knock 5 years off your life. When I explain why I hope that you'll kick the habit of gym machines, and potentially live longer better.
Gym owners love gym machines
Gym machines were invented for gym owners, not gym patrons. In the 50s, local small-gym owners in the US were struggling to survive. Costs were high. Retention rates were low. You have to cast your mind back to those days to appreciate that there were no monthly subscriptions - clients paid per visit. When clients stopped coming the money gym owner could not feed his family.
Today, it is the opposite. Big gyms focus intensely on recruitment. Since your money arrives in their bank account each month they don’t give a toss if you come or not.
Back to the fantastic 50s - the gym owners mostly doubled as the trainer - accompanying each client on their rounds. The rounds were tough - real old-school boxing conditioning, free weights, and interval training. When business was good the owner had to employ more trainers to accompany the clients. This was all hellishly expensive. Worse still, most clients did not have the motivation or gumption to stick it out. It was too hard. The gym owner fell back to a subsistence existence.
Then arrived the California bungalow post-war 1955 convenience revolution. The Westinghouse refrigerator, the 2 car garage, the shopping mall, and what passed in the US as "colour" TV (NTSC standard was like watching TV through a vaseline layer!). But most miraculously, the radar that saved Britain from destruction by German bombers had been transformed into the Raytheon microwave - an incredible food revolution!
People demanded convenience, fast results, and the least effort. Several gym entrepreneurs including Jack LaLanne, Rudy Smith and Vic Tanny recognised the opportunity for commercial gyms to offer "convenience fitness" based on machines, not trainers. The gym owners went ga-ga for these things - they could see financial salvation for their families.
It worked to plan. In fact gym machines far exceeded the wildest expectations. They were convenient, rapidly accentuated muscles, encouraged chat and socialising, and people could not afford to have one in their garage. The latter being a crucial point.
Gym machines were built for gym owners. Savvy?
Millions more gym machines, millions more diabetics
We're much more aware of the need for fitness today. Yet ironically as a population we are much more out of shape than the 1950s, and face an obesity epidemic.
If gym machines worked then that could not be the outcome. Gym machines not only detract from your health they also contribute to the declining participation in fitness activities.
Overwhelmingly, the most common perception of what it means to be fit, and the primary motivation for exercising, is to look fit. To look good in a t-shirt. It is no longer about having a healthy body that can actually do stuff that is practical to real life - like being able to tie your shoelaces without straining.
How do you get to look good t-shirt easily, conveniently, and while catching up with Tik Tok and checking yourself and others out in the mirrors? With gym machines of course.
If they are so convenient then why are they the problem, you ask. There are many reasons but it boils down to three main causes:
1. They are dead boring and people simply lose interest in doing the same rounds of machines year after year. When they give up they have no idea of any alternatives and give up exercise;
2. People rarely use them in any way which could give them even minor benefits; 90-percent of people would get more benefit from doing the washing up;
3. Over time it dawns on people that the strain in doing up their shoelaces has continued in every other part of their health and fitness. They are not getting stronger, leaner, more active, or feeling better and yet they have been laboriously going to gym three times a week for three years.
Not only has exercise become a chore, but it has become a useless and demoralising chore.
This causes people to stop exercising, and without knowing what else they could be doing to stay healthy. The gym machines have sapped their natural expression of movement and the pleasure of the physical articulation of their body.
People stop going to gym, but ironically often do not stop their gym membership subscription - which is how gym machines serve gym owners not once, but twice! Once to suck you in, and twice to convert you to an inactive subscriber.
You now fully understand the meaning of "gym machines were built for gym owners". Gym owners and all the people dependent on gym owners e.g. personal trainers, have a vested interest in getting you hooked on the machines.
Failing balance and atrophied fast-twitch muscles
Everyone works from a position of vested interest. That in itself is not a problem, once you recognise it. Your responsibility is to make the right choices - knowing the vested interests.
The choice you make in continuing to depend on gym machines, especially after 50, is the choice between looking good in a t-shirt and potentially living 5 years longer.
Statistics from the US and Australia tell the same story. The majority of Emergency admissions for people over 65 are for falls. Patients who sustain hip or limb injuries from those falls then have a life expectancy five years shorter than those who have not fallen and been admitted.
The likelihood of falling is increased by failing balance and atrophied fast-twitch muscles. Using gym machines accelerates the degeneration of your balance and has absolutely no benefit for your remaining fast-twitch muscles.
Your muscles work in teams. The teams work by activating the neural pathways to and within your brain. This is called neuromuscular coordination. The more the nerve pathways are used the more efficient they become. Just by standing your brain has to coordinate 100s of muscles in your feet. If you add in motion and weights then your whole body has to work as a team to stabilise you. This is how you exercise for real life, to teach your brain how to keep you upright.
Make sense? Good.
When you sit on a machine you turn all this off. You may remember the sales person at the gym or your instructor referring to the machines as "isolation machines". They isolate your muscles, disconnect your brain, disconnect your feet, and disengage your total sense of how your body is articulated.
That wastes away your balance, because the machines deliberately turn off your ability to exercise your balance. Machines are also incapable of maintaining your remaining fast twitch muscles, let alone re-building the large percentage that has disappeared by the time you are 50.
The gym owners have made their choice - they are after your recurring monthly fees. The machines are by far their most important means to that end.
You need to make your choice, with this knowledge. Do you want to give them your monthly fees and five years off your life?
It's up to you.
Aim to lower your body age not your life-span
I made my choice on day one, 20 years ago. That's not quite true. I used various machines for about 2 years, until it dawned on me that I was being used for no benefit in return. Now, the only machines I use are cable machines, standing.
My body age is most often measured as about 15 years younger. So compared to me, if you are using the machines, I have the potential of living 20 years longer, and a whole lot more athletically fitter and healthier. I can play soccer with my grandkids until they are exhausted, run 5km trails twice a week, and am more fit and stronger than 99% of those over 50 at the gym. I'm 72 next year.
For those who do want to get off the machines, and recover their balance and fast-twitch muscles, the way forward is not always clear. I understand that it is difficult to know what to do.
You can get back in the swing of real exercise with Bodypump classes, bodyweight exercises, TRX exercises, rowing, free-standing weight exercises, and a whole lot of great cable-machine exercises - even boxing classes although they'd be my last choice. For fast-twitch muscles Google plyometrics and then get some help to find those exercises that suit your level of fitness and motivation.
Seek advice from your gym about ways to exercise without the machines. Make them earn your monthly fee and give you something beneficial in return.
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Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building body-shaping training for people our age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter