We were made to walk. Our species excels at putting one foot in front of another over great distances, and since we evolved into walkers, poets and philosophers have used the act of walking to sort through their ideas, lovers to court, pilgrims to seek redemption, and mountaineers to do a lot of complicated things we can talk about later. But now most of us live in a world where the desire to walk is subdued or thwarted by design—by the layout of suburbs, by the speedup of expectations. And when we stop navigating the world by the strength and at the speed of our bodies, our bodies themselves start to become obsolete. I know people who have walked the length of a mountain range, but I come across a lot more people who believe that traveling farther than a Major League pro can hit a baseball requires mechanical intervention. Cars often become prosthetic devices for those handicapped only in their imagination of the world and their abilities to traverse it.
In ecological terms, walking is an indicator species for various kinds of freedoms and pleasures: free time, free and alluring space. Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings, between the driveway and the house, but as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, it is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination.
If walking is an endangered species, the gym has become a kind of wildlife preserve for bodily exertion. That muscles have become status symbols signifies that most jobs now no longer call upon physical strength; like suntans, muscles have become an aesthetic of the obsolete. Now that machines pump our water, for instance, we go to other machines to engage in the act of pumping, not for the sake of water but for the sake of our own bodies. Likewise, what used to be a sack of onions or a barrel of beer to be hoisted is now a metal ingot. So the body that used to have the status of a work animal now has the status of a pet. It does not provide real transport or real labor, as a horse might have; instead it is exercised as one might walk a dog.
The first exercise machine, in fact, was designed as a particularly tedious form of Sisyphean punishment. The treadmill was originally used in a British house of corrections in 1818 to rationalize prisoners' psyches. As one 19th-century penal expert observed, "It is its monotonous steadiness and not its severity, which constitutes its terror." It is still the most perverse of all the devices in the gym. Perverse, because I can understand simulating farm labor, since the activities of rural life are not often available, and I can understand climbing in a climbing gym when the weather is foul or when it is dark, but simulating walking suggests that space itself has disappeared. The treadmill is a corollary to suburban sprawl: a device with which to go nowhere in places where there is now nowhere to go.