IN the last few years I have given up on the many medical measures – cancer screenings, annual exams, Pap smears, for example – expected of a responsible person with health insurance. This was not based on any suicidal impulse. It was barely even a decision, more like an accumulation of micro-decisions: to meet a deadline or show up at the primary care office and submit to the latest test to gauge my biological sustainability; to spend the afternoon in the faux-cozy corporate environment of a medical facility or go for a walk.

At first I criticised myself as a slacker and procrastinator, falling behind on the simple, obvious stuff that could prolong my life. After all, this is the great promise of modern scientific medicine: You do not have to get sick and die (at least not for a while), because problems can be detected “early” when they are readily treatable. Better to catch a tumour when it’s the size of an olive than that of a cantaloupe.

I knew I was going against my own long-standing bias in favour of preventive medical care as opposed to expensive and invasive high-tech curative interventions. From a public health perspective, as well as a personal one, it makes far more sense to screen for preventable problems than to invest huge resources in the treatment of the very ill.

I also understood that I was going against the grain for my particular demographic. In the health-conscious mind-set that has prevailed among the world’s affluent people for decades now, health is indistinguishable from virtue, tasty foods are “sinfully delicious”, while healthful foods may taste good enough to be advertised as “guilt-free”.

I had a different reaction to ageing: I gradually came to realise that I was old enough to die, by which I am not suggesting that each of us bears an expiration date. There is of course no fixed age at which a person ceases to be worthy of further medical investment, whether aimed at prevention or cure. If we go by newspaper obituaries, however, we notice that there is an age at which death no longer requires much explanation. It is sad when anyone dies, but no-one can consider the death of a septuagenarian “tragic”, and there will be no demand for an investigation.

Once I realised I was old enough to die, I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life. I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fibre, and fats. I exercise – not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me.

If I seem to be rather cavalier about preventive medical care, it is in part because there are so many alternative pathways to health on offer in our thriving consumer culture. The very word “alternative” has acquired a certain zing, as in “alternative lifestyles”, and especially “alternative medicine”.

Consider the disorienting multitude of options, all seemingly compatible and equally respectable, facing anyone seeking help for even the most routine problem, like lower back pain, which almost everyone suffers from at some point in their lives. A conventionally minded person might start with a referral to an orthopedist, who will usually make an effort to localise the problem in particular vertebrae that can, at least in some cases, be corrected surgically. Or the patient might begin with an “alternative” healer such as a massage therapist or acupuncturist. Often these choices are available in the same setting, perhaps a major university hospital, where the menu includes reflexology, reiki, yoga, acupuncture, and “micronutrient infusions”, as well as “physician care”.

I had my own alternative – not “alternative medicine”, but an alternative to medicine. I had begun to work out, to systematically use my body in what could be described as fairly useless ways that had nothing to do with house-cleaning or getting myself from one place to another. Early in the 1980s, a friend got me going with her to an unchallenging women’s-only gym in a nearby shopping centre. She wanted to lose weight; my lower backaches had forced me to realise I could no longer treat my body as mere scaffolding for keeping my head upright. It needed some work.

And I needed some play. Except for brief bursts of housework, adult life, it turned out in my case, was conducted in the sitting position – in meetings or at a desk. The gym offered an enticing regressiveness, a chance, I wrote at the time, to reclaim “the lost muscular license of youth.” We waved our arms, crunched our abs, or lay on the floor and raised our legs to the beat of Billy Idol’s version of Mony Mony. After a day spent manipulating words and trying to coax paragraphs into an orderly sequence, 45 minutes of zoned-out, militaristic obedience to the fitness instructor seemed almost like freedom.

There is no single satisfying historical explanation for the surge of interest in physical fitness that hit the United States in the late 20th century and spread from there to other affluent parts of the world. One factor was simply the growing availability of fitness-inducing experiences, such as those offered by gyms. In the 1970s, the few gyms that existed tended to be no-frills weight rooms, not all of them even with showers. Today there are 186,000 health clubs worldwide, generating about $81 billion a year, of which about $26 billion is spent in the United States, with Germany and Brazil not far behind. Sometime in the 1980s, entrepreneurs discovered that after the initial investment in equipment, it did not take much effort to maintain a gym, only sufficient staff to keep the towels laundered and check clients’ membership status when they enter the facility.

But the demand, as well as the supply, was increasing. In some ways, it was part of a larger withdrawal into individual concerns after the briefly thrilling communal uplift some had experienced in the 1960s. Self-help books proliferated to the point where they became a separate literary genre, as if a fashionable segment of the society had taken up a new project – themselves. Pop psych self-help books advised one to treat relationships as market transactions, always asking whether you’re getting as much as you’re giving. And if that wasn’t working, you could always “be your own best friend”. To historian Christopher Lasch, the fitness obsession was just another aspect of the “culture of narcissism”, representing “a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past”.

Of course most of the young, educated people who started jogging and gym-going in the 1970s and ’80s had hoped for stable employment, preferably in jobs they found meaningful and creative, and in an age when the entire sociological map was being redrawn, there was little chance of that. There was not much security even for the most practical-minded, because in the 1980s corporations also began to downsize (or “right-size”) their white-collar workforces. General Electric was routinely culling out its bottom 15 per cent of performers decades before Amazon got the idea. There were no more “jobs for life,” no automatic promotions leading to a gold watch at retirement. Business gurus advised corporate employees to stop worrying about “who stole their cheese” and focus instead on “surfing the chaos”.

If you could not change the world or even chart your own career, you could still control your own body – what goes into it and how muscular energy is expended. Fitness pioneer Jim Fixx wrote in The Complete Book of Running, “Having lost faith in much of society, government, business, marriage, the church and so on – we seem to have turned to ourselves, putting what faith we can muster in our own minds and bodies”. He quoted one of his acolytes as saying that “running gives me a sense of controlling my own life”, and I would say the same of working out: I may not be able to do much about grievous injustice in the world, at least not by myself or in very short order, but I can decide to increase the weight on the leg press machine by 20lbs and achieve that within a few weeks.

To men of the left, like Lasch, fitness culture may have looked like a “retreat”. But for women, “control over one’s body” could be understood as a serious political goal. While you did not have to be a feminist to take up physical fitness, most women pouring into gyms had been through the punishing culture of female dieting and thinness, with its purging and fasts. They knew that women were supposed to focus on shrinking their bodies and becoming, as near as possible, invisible.

To Gloria Steinem, American feminist and activist, this was another instance of patriarchal control; we were meant to be not only small, but weak, and to flout this expectation was in itself a form of feminist activism. “Yes,” she wrote, “we need progress everywhere, but an increase in our physical strength could have more impact on the everyday lives of most women than the occasional role model in the boardroom or in the White House.”

Actor and activist Jane Fonda took up the challenge. She had been a victim of the misogynist thinness culture since the age of 12, maintaining her startlingly lean body by self-induced vomiting up to 20 times a day. At some point in the 1980s, she realised she was in danger of destroying her esophagus with these constant acid rinses, later saying, “I had a career, I was winning awards, I was supporting non-profits, I had a family. I had to make a choice: I live or I die.”

Her recovery hinged on a new zeal for physical exercise in the form of aerobic dancing, which she took to marketing through the then-cutting-edge technology of videos. Millions of women danced along with her videos, reassured by the glamorous Fonda that they could be both sexy and strong. And clearly women had to be strong, since few families could hope to achieve middle-class status – marked by home ownership and private schools for the kids – without two working parents. The old financially dependent, stay-at-home mom was going out of style, although ironically she had far more time for exercise than her counterparts in the workforce.

But if women are in a way “masculinised” by the fitness culture, one might equally well say that men are “feminised” by it. Before the 1970s, only women were obsessed with their bodies, although in a morbid, anorectic way. But in the brightly lit gyms, where walls are typically lined by mirrors, both sexes are invited to inspect their body images for any unwanted bulges or loose bits of flesh and plan their workouts accordingly. Gay men flocked to the gyms, creating a highly chiselled standard of male beauty. The big change, though, was that heterosexual men were also “objectified” by the fitness culture, encouraged to see themselves as the objects of other people’s appreciation – or, as the case may be, scorn. For both sexes in the endangered white-collar middle class, the body became an essential element of self-presentation.

Fitness, or the efforts to achieve it, quickly took on another function for the middle class – as an identifying signal or “class cue.” Unfit behaviour like smoking or reclining in front of the TV with a beer signified lower-class status, while a dedication to health, even if evidenced only by carrying a gym bag or yoga mat, advertised a loftier rank.

Working out is a form of conspicuous consumption: Affluent people do it and, especially if muscular exertion is already part of their job, lower-class people tend to avoid it. There are exceptions like the working-class male body builders – “meatballs” – who can be found in places like Gold’s Gym, as well as the lower-class women who attempt to shed pounds at Curves (a descendant of the women’s-only gym where I started my workout career). By and large, though, working out is a reliable indicator of social status.

Author and “sustainable living expert” Wanda Urbanska reported a conversation overheard between two women at a California gym, in which one complains about a new boyfriend, “The only thing wrong with him is he will not work out. He flat out refuses.” To which her friend replies, “So you’re going to have to let him go.” “Do I have a choice?” the first woman responds. The safest option for a single hoping to meet a partner who can pull his or her own weight is to restrict one’s romantic interests to fellow health club members.

There is something almost utopian about the social spaces created by the fitness culture. Forget about the people who don’t have the money or the time to participate. Just focus on the entitled inhabitants of the gym (or running or rowing group), who are encouraged to make themselves healthier and more attractive in a leisurely, carefully designed way, stopping for an occasional juice drink or chat.

But stay around a little longer – 30 years of attending various gyms around the country in my case – and the picture looks a little less idyllic. Despite the pulsing pop music and comfortable clothes, gyms are not sites of spontaneity and play. There are rules beamed out from video monitors, mostly innocuous ones, like no cursing, “staring” at others, or expressing effort in audible form such as grunts or panting. Once in a gym, I saw the manager chastise a young woman for moving too freely and rhythmically. “No dancing in the gym,” he announced, nonsensically, as if to underscore the seriousness of our undertaking. A regimented dancelike experience, as in aerobics or Zumba, is fine, but unsupervised dance moves reek of hedonism, and working out is supposed to be a form of work. Most people come with a plan like “legs and shoulders today” or “45 minutes of cardio and 15 minutes of abs,” usually preceded by a warm-up and topped off with several minutes of stretching on a mat.

Working out very much resembles work, or a curious blend of physical labour and office work. Members not only lift weights, for example, they often carry clipboards on which to record the number of reps and sets and the amount of weight lifted for each workout, like a supervisor monitoring a factory worker’s performance. Even socialising is rare, if only because gym members are increasingly plugged into their iPods and can be alerted to an attempted communication (such as “May I work in?” or “Are you done with this now?”) only by frantic waving and gestures.

The major interaction that goes on in gyms is not between members or between members and staff, but between the fitness devotee and his or her body. The body must be trained, disciplined, and put to ever more demanding tests, all administered and evaluated by the devotee’s conscious mind.

Compared to the mind, the body can be thought of as an animal, usually a domesticated or partially domesticated animal – capable of reflex and habit, though not of course conscious decision making. The poet Delmore Schwartz described his body as a “heavy bear.../ Breathing at my side, that heavy animal, / That heavy bear who sleeps with me.”

We learn from coaches and fitness class instructors that, like any other beast of burden, the body is always inclined to take the path of least resistance unless we can “trick” it with a sudden variation in the workout routine. Western philosophy has long separated body from mind; fitness culture takes this dualism further – to an adversarial relationship in which mind struggles for control over the lazy, recalcitrant body. I plan to work out today, but I will not tell you exactly what I’ll do, lest my body find out.

And why should the mind want to subdue the body systematically, repeatedly, day after day? Many gym-goers will tell you cheerfully that it makes them feel better, at least when the workout is over. But there’s a darker, more menacing side to the preoccupation with fitness, and this is the widespread suspicion that if you can’t control your own body, you’re not fit, in any sense, to control anyone else, and in their work lives that is a large part of what typical gymgoers do. We are talking here about a relative elite of people who are more likely to give orders than to take them – managers and professionals.

It’s tempting to invest one’s daily workout with a kind of dwarfish heroism. It may look like I’m just doggedly repeating the same routine with slight variations from day to day, but the real drama lies in the invisible confrontation between mind and muscle, in which I am the only conscious participant.

Can I increase the load on my quads, and by how much? Are the lats getting a little lazy, and what will it take to shake them up? In the course of my own fitness “journey” I have gone from being an embarrassed weakling to something of a show-off – taking over a machine from a young, strong man and ostentatiously increasing the weight on it, preferably while he is still watching. At my zenith, I could draw spectators for my leg presses at 270 pounds and lunges while holding a 20lb weight in each hand. None of this has had much effect on my daily life, other than to make me cackle contemptuously when a supermarket clerk asks if I need help getting my groceries to the car.

Then, in just the last few years, I began to hit a wall. I developed temporarily disabling knee problems, which X-rays showed were attributable to overexertion rather than, as was to be expected at my age, arthritis. My lower back easily clenched into knots. I had to try to develop a less adversarial stance toward my body, or at least learn how to “listen” to it. I adjusted my routine accordingly and expanded my menu of stretches. The ideology of fitness, which had so far encouraged me to treat my body as a recalcitrant mass I was required to carry around with me everywhere, showed a softer side, emphasizing the “wisdom of the body” and the need to develop some sort of détente with it. For a moment I even toyed with the idea of a yoga class, possibly including meditation, before deciding that I’m not quite old enough for that.

If anything, the culture of fitness has grown more combative than when I first got involved. It is no longer enough to “have a good workout,” as the receptionist at the gym advises every day; you should “crush your workout.” Health and strength are tedious goals compared to my gym’s new theme of “explosive strength,” achieved, as far as I can see, through repeated whole-body swinging of a kettlebell. If your gym isn’t sufficiently challenging, you might want to try an “ultra-extreme warrior workout” or buy a “home fitness system” from P90X, which recently tweeted a poster of an ultra-cut male upper body, head bowed as if in prayer, with the caption “A moment of silence please, for my body has no idea what I’m about to put it through.”

Or you could join CrossFit, the fastest-growing type of gym in the world and also allegedly the most physically punishing. “We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency,” the company boasts, “not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable,” and the latter category includes the zombie apocalypse. The mind’s struggle for mastery over the body has become a kind of mortal combat.

The South African runner Oscar Pistorius, who is now serving a sentence for the 2013 murder of his girlfriend, had more to overcome than most athletes: His legs had been amputated below the knees when he was a toddler. But he managed to become both a Paralympic and Olympic champion. Tattooed on his back is a modified verse from Corinthians:

I do not run like a man running aimlessly I do not fight like a man beating the air;

I execute each stride with intent;

I beat my body and make it my slave

I bring it under my complete subjection ...

Natural Causes – Life, Death And

The Illusion of Control by Barbara Ehrenreich, £16.99 Hardback –

available in all good bookshops