One month’s free personal training with my new gym membership and the need for structure in my life have turned me into something of an obsessive. The very helpful staff have shown me how to operate those strange torture machines I once mocked. I used to use the Genome Campus gym for one purpose: to pull an erg when I there wasn’t a boat for me to row in. The members there were mainly young scientists in a variety of shapes and sizes. Serious rowers—male and female—are the kind of shape I wish I could be all the time: lean, balanced, toned and, under normal clothing, completely unremarkable—admittedly “unremarkable” often means “unremarkable for someone who is also six feet five inches tall”.

As well as the “look”, boaties have the stamina and attitude of horses. A student in the institute I used to work in, Ella [front and centre in this photo], rowed for the Cambridge Women’s Lightweights. I saw her collect her Half Blue rowing against Oxford at Henley. Full Blues only go to the Amazons in the big boat. Despite having to live in an extreme dietary and physiological state for months, the Lightweight squad members are disparagingly referred to as “the Pretty Crew”. Ella’s friend Tamsin, also from the Campus, was stroke in the same boat and sat behind me in training on a couple of occasions to tell me in exactly what ways my technique was crap. (I get that from women.) Both of them are significantly shorter and lighter than me and both could comfortably outperform me on a rowing machine. Ella’s advice on improving my indoor rowing performance was simpler than Tamsin’s outdoors:

“You know that point in a session when you feel like your chest will burst and you’re going to die?”


“That’s when you start rowing harder.”

That’s why Ella has a Cambridge Blue and I don’t. That and my not having been a Cambridge student or been born with any natural talent for rowing.

Gym bunnies at a private club are a different matter. For many of them their “training” is driven not by the demands of competition but by aesthetics, of a sort. Some of the members are bright orange or leathery brown. At least one woman’s breasts have been overwhelmed by her pectorals. There is a 20-year-old man who has such freakishly pumped upper arms that he has to walk around like he’s carrying a stack of books on either side of his chest, but whose undertrained little-boy legs seem about to snap under the load of his cartoon shoulders.

Even before I joined this gym I had a heart monitor watch. Partly it’s the geek in me. Measuring an active subject’s heartrate in real time used to require laboratory equipment. Now anyone can do it. You wet a couple of contacts on an elasticated belt and strap it around your chest and it broadcasts every beat to a radio receiver on your wrist. It also broadcasts to any other receiver within range. What I’ve discovered using it in this shiny club is that most of the exercise machines there are also tuning in. Never mind CCTV cameras invading your privacy, imagine walking towards a row of occupied pedalling/running/skiing machines and seeing your vitals displayed on all of them. You’re in a room where everyone else present can glance down and see what’s happening inside your heart.