FUNNY BUSINESS: Why do 21st-century office workers get kicks from gruelling physical feats?

Harry Cockburn casts a sideways glance at some strange things going on in the dark

In the park, rain pummels the saturated ground. Wind roars through the trees and passing cars swish through black puddles. It’s cold, dark and wet, and though the conditions are dire, a platoon of people are face down in the soggy filth doing press ups.

Meanwhile, a burly man in combat trousers and a vest is marching up and down screaming commands at the rows of prostrate figures.

But this isn’t an outing for prisoners. This is optional after-work exercise. These are soft-handed office personnel out on Clapham Common on Wednesday night getting their fix of military brutality.

Across London’s countless parks, similar sights can be seen on a daily basis. The organisation British Military Fitness now claims over 400 classes a week in over 120 locations in the UK.

This is all part of a trend that has been developing across Britain in recent years. You may not have noticed its insidious creep, but across the country, men and women are getting their kicks through the bitter ecstasy of physical exhaustion.

Once upon a time it was enough to have a friend who’d once done the London Marathon for charity. And they were heroes. But not anymore.

More of us are running, more of us are in the gym, and more of us are outside in the rain, sweating into the dirt. We’re opting for far more gruelling challenges. Take the Iron Man competition – a life-shortening triathlon involving a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bicycle ride and then a full marathon. The best competitors complete the course in close to eight hours.

Accompanying the rise in popularity of events such as these, extreme exercise classes are going from strength to strength. One currently gaining a following in the UK is called Cross Fit, an activity which according to is in the business of “forging elite fitness”. An introductory video features the strained faces of men and women weight lifting, climbing ropes and hitting blocks of wood with hammers. One thoroughly indoctrinated convert is pleased to add that “they don’t let you quit, even if you want to quit”, which sounds illegal, frankly.

Other examples include the surge in interest in events such as Tough Mudder, an obstacle course in which contestants battle through fire, ice, mud, water and 10,000 volts of electricity to reach a pint of beer.

LondonlovesBusiness has also covered the soaring popularity of Chess Boxing in London – a sport that ingeniously combines chess and boxing – allowing contenders to showcase their mental aptitude as well as their ability to smack someone in the face.

Post and boast

So what’s driving these labours? There’s definitely something funky going on in a society that is producing record numbers of both obese individuals and Iron Man finishers.

Is it that those people naturally inclined to competitive pastimes now have greater opportunity, with the internet, to broadcast accomplishments and accept challenges?

In short, is it possible to not show-off about the stuff we’re doing? In my experience, the evidence suggests not.  

The business of getting healthy has perhaps never been in ruder health itself, and there have never been so many available channels through which to prove our feats. Consider the rise in technology that allows us to record our physical prowess. Smart phones, wearable devices, and online services such as MapMyRun and Strava, in collaboration with other social media platforms, allow users to chart, post and then boast about their epic run or bike ride online. Strava’s website introduces itself saying “Prove it. Chart your progress and challenge your friends.” It doesn’t say why. It’s a bit like a healthy exercise version of Neknominate.

Where will this appetite for masochism eventually lead? I was recently chatting to a couple who both turned out to be triathlon coaches. We got onto the subject of the Iron Man challenge, and I joked that perhaps I could become the founder of an even more challenging race. The Diamond Mortal – an epic that would see competitors run the length of England from Newcastle to Dover, then swim the channel, and finally cycle the length of France to the Mediterranean. The first part alone, a mere 360 mile run from Newcastle to Dover would take about two weeks if competitors ran a marathon a day, every day.

The triathletes thought it was a good plan. “People would definitely sign up for it,” one said.

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