Last summer I joined the gym. After two years of living in Italy where I enjoyed all the benefits of a Mediterranean diet I thought it was time to do the right thing and start working out. I proudly went to the local gym next to my house in Amsterdam and waved my bank card to the front desk personnel to register for the yearly gym subscription and pinned the required amount. I returned back home feeling proud of myself and ready to embark on a getting-back-in-shape journey. That was the last time I visited the gym.

Once registered at the gym I struggled to find the ‘right moment’ to actually go and work out. I had the right outfit (more or less). I had my recyclable water bottle ready. I even had good earphones to listen to my favorite music as I run or cycle on one of the gym’s numerous cardio machines. Nevertheless, I always found something better to do with my time than actually go to the gym.

Contemplating on the initial reason to join the gym, I figured out a way to get in shape without actually going to the gym. As I had already made the decision to pay the required subscription fee of being a member at the gym, I felt it would be a waste of my money if I didn’t actually get more in shape. I then figured out (what everyone else trying to lose weight figures out) that if I limited my calorie intake I would also be able to get more in shape, without actually going to the gym. I then started to eat a more healthy diet and limit my fat and carbs intake. Within a few months I managed to reach my initial goal of losing weight and get more in shape without actually visiting the gym once.

Why am I saying all of this?

There seems to be a certain assumption that our bodies are empty containers that can be shaped and filled content in whatever way we please, which also my example of limiting my calorie intake testifies to. However, something more complex is the way both our mind and our body interact that allows our physical and material reality to change in a way which is not normative. Many of us in the corporate world have been to numerous workshops where you were required to jump up and down, pass a ball, or stretch back and forth in awkward yoga or feldenkrais postures because the corporate ‘feel-good’ literature said it is something good to do. We are told that eventually it will make your employees happier and in the bottom line more productive. I think this is a very reductive understanding of how our bodies and minds interact throughout life. In order to actually understand how the body comes to play out, and in a sense perform its necessary vital functions, we cannot simply try to put our bodies to work in a more ‘balanced’ or ‘healthy’ way. We also need to realize that each individual body is different and it alone feels or senses what is the right thing to do in order to sustain itself.

As a starting point for coming to understand how the body can perform differently in organizations we need to give it more space. We need to understand that conceiving ‘the body’ in a more spacious and inclusive way is the first step to being able to empower workers and their bodies differently. As not all bodies are the same, each body enacts, exhibits or performs its innate vitality differently. In that sense what is needed is a more nuanced understanding of the different ways bodies come to inhabit and affect the spaces they work in, and how these spaces impact differentially these bodies in return. An environment that works for one body, does not necessarily work for another. For example, if I join a zumba online or offline session, that will ofcourse increase my overall ‘feel-good’ feeling for the day. But is this really sustainable in my case? I remember joining a few online zumba dancing sessions when the pandemic hit in March. I was sure I figured out a way to outsmart the virus, remain at home and still keep my body fit and healthy enough. I got bored after 3 sessions in which I had to wake up half an hour prior to the morning session and rearrange my entire living room to make space for the session. Obviously I can be more self-critical and conclude that I was lazy and not motivated enough to sustain this practice. That might of course be one of the main reasons. However, another not less important reason might be that I just didn’t see the sense of it. I didn’t make up in my mind the right cognitive scheme to actually wake up in the morning, move the furniture in my living room around to make space for the various required movements and join the different zoom sessions on time. Not only was I not convinced, but the space my body was inhabiting for these sessions was not convinced either. My body, in that space or environment, within that time frame, did not make sense for me or my body. I dropped out of those zumba sessions and I stopped trying to convince all my friends to join those ‘wonderful’ and ‘rejuvenating’ dancing sessions. Instead of me not ‘doing the work’, I simply realized it (the zumba sessions) didn’t work for me. I stopped trying to force them or utilize them in an effective or efficient way so that I could benefit the most out of those sessions. I simply did something else, was satisfied with my decision and never looked back. Just as it was with the gym subscription.

In the overachieving and competitive corporate world of today admitting that you are not up to ‘the challenge’ of the zumba session or any other physical job requirement can be a scary thing to do. It might hint that you are not the right candidate or that you are a sort of ‘failure’. What might be seen as a weakness or vulnerability might be read as an incompetence to actually do the job. Not ‘doing’ the job or not putting your body ‘to work’ (at work, in the gym, at the zumba session) might be understood as an unwillingness or inability to work. However, such an understanding might miss a crucial point which is that not putting your body ‘to work’ does not mean that the work cannot be done. It just means that a different, more inclusive and spacious understanding of how our different and individual bodies come to act and interact in the complex working environments we are living in today needs to be imagined. Not joining the gym is one thing. Not being able to imagine a world in which joining the gym is not a mandatory condition for getting in shape is another.

Ohad Ben Shimon is a writer, researcher and educator with a background in cognitive sciences, psychology, cultural analysis and art. He is currently Senior Lecturer Critical Thinking/ Business Communication & Researcher of Change Management at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. His research focuses on how to affirmatively include, value, care for, and perform bodies in organizations.

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