I am not attracted to the men at the gym; I just want to look like them. As for my wife, she’s attracted to me; she just wants me to look like them, too. There they are, pulling and pushing and sweating. Committed, compulsive—lifting in lines, running in rows, spurred on by the programs they’re watching on their little TV screens (a chef breaks an egg over a mound of flour). Or madly pedaling on exercise bikes whose screens simulate “a country ride.” One woman works on a machine that seems to dislocate her shoulders and knees with every stride. Beside me is a chap on some kind of pulley so loaded with weight that, when he relaxes, the bar yanks him right off his seat.

Today I have come to join their number, the first day of my new ­regime.

What precipitated it was moving to a new place—in fact, a whole new country. Last year we resettled in Charlottesville, Virginia. The London life we left behind included three hours a day of standing on the subway unable to move, so squashed you couldn’t even hold a book to your face. At the end of that commute, there was scant chance of mustering up the will to exercise. But here in our new town, my office is but a five-minute drive away. So let’s get fit! my wife decided.

When we began in earnest to investigate gym options, we certainly didn’t plan on picking the plushest. But you’ve got to hand it to them: They lure you in brilliantly. When you first turn up—“we’re just looking, not that we’ve made a decision or anything”—they assign this guy (we’ll call him Adonis) to show you round and answer any questions you might have.

“Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!” Adonis is tanned and bright-eyed and has pearls for teeth. The name tag on his black air-tex vest reads “hot-blooded.” “James! Holly! Let’s get started!” From the bright squash courts to the dimly lit yoga studio, the frenetic cycling class to the lazy changing rooms—everywhere our guide goes, women and men sweat and puff and wilt. “And the swimming pool . . .” By this point, my wife and I don’t care about the swimming pool. We’ve fallen for both Adonis and the membership fee.

Before my first session even begins, reality intrudes. Getting up and into the weight room is treacherous. First, there are the stairs. No elevator in sight, I begin the ascent. By the top, my quads are killing me and I’m hauling in breath. I’m not used to this. Next, the gym is looped by an indoor rubber running track. Which I assume is for a gentle warm-up. By no means. It is on this track that you’re going to secure your Personal Best. So at the designated crossing-point labeled “yield!” you choose a moment and skip across before a sprinter hurtling round the bend mows you down.

The early days are intimidating. I knew they would be. I’m lying on a mat trying to eek out half a dozen push-ups while opposite a guy flips over, plants his feet against the wall for balance, and proceeds to do his push-ups upside-down. I resolve to run a whole mile, at a swift ten minutes, then peep across at the control panel on my neighbor’s machine. Her pace is double mine. She’s on mile four and has hardly broken a sweat.

Maybe all this will be easier if I do it with other people? Band of brothers, etc. So I look up the group activities and join an athletic conditioning class. An error. How am I supposed to know the class will consist of fifty-five minutes of sumo squats, burpees, dumbbell lifts, sprints, planks, bench hop-overs? The instructor, Marilyn, wears a headset mic and screeches commands above the thudding baseline of the accompanying hip-hop. She’s been trained by Torquemada himself: “Hold out that plank . . . aannnnndddd . . . walk in your feet. Yeah! Now bring it back to neutral. Drop your right hip to the floor. Yeah! Yeah, baby!” I’m demoralized—Marilyn is seventy-five. Drenched after seven minutes, I excuse myself for water and never look back.

I cope with the ignominy of all this by dismissing it as rampant narcissism. In 1979, Christopher Lasch wrote his famous book The Culture of Narcissism. In Western culture, he claimed, the pursuit of happiness had reached “the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.” As I wait in line at the water fountain, I look towards the free weights and watch all the men gazing at themselves in the mirrors. Bulging out of their brazen tank tops with deep armpit holes, they’re mesmerized by their muscles, bewitched by their biceps. With their broad weight belts, these prize peacocks strut, ostentatious and bold. And what’s the etiquette around the orgasmic grunting?

“A narcissistic preoccupation with the self”: Surely that’s what’s going on here. It definitely makes sense of the advertising. I mean, they’ve made me so many promises . . .

See your body’s potential!

Change your age!

Achieve a physical form that women find irrestistible and men will be jealous of! (“Of which men will be jealous” would have clinched it for me.)

Gym advertising has to be the Platonic form of marketing. A ­Gillette commercial shows a young guy with a ripped upper body holding a razor. A gym commercial dispenses with the razor. The basic building block of advertising—the half-naked white male—stands unadorned. He is himself the promise; he incarnates the theory of change undergirding “gym.”

Yes! I’m getting into this analysis now and it’s making me feel a lot better. Narcissism explains the mirrors, the ads, the guys coming in on Friday nights to buff up before going out on the town.

I have another self-consolatory move. It hits me when I descend to the changing rooms. Now I must confess, I had always thought changing rooms were supposed to be just that, changing rooms. Where you swap one set of clothes for another. Not here, however. Here the ­changing room is where you wander round naked, making slow circuits from the hairdryers to the sauna to the urinal to the weighing machine and back again.

Yet—the horror! the horror!—the men who are full of years are no ­shyer than anyone else. Uncovered they stand, unfazed; one foot planted on a bench, tackle out; naked and ­unashamed.

In Titian’s painting “The Three Ages of Man”—the most outstanding example of a famous Renaissance conceit—a pair of infants lies asleep across from a pair of lovers, while in the background an old man nurses two skulls. Titian invites us to meditate on the transience of life and the march of time. Gazing into each ­other’s eyes, the lovers remain ­oblivious to the fate that awaits them, to mortality.

In the changing room that scene is reenacted daily.

The peacocks remain oblivious to the march of time; to the seniors in front of their very eyes; oblivious to the fact that, no matter how many reps they reach today, tomorrow they will be them. After a lifetime of bodybuilding, this will be their fate: to be small and shriveled. Yet “change your age!” is a change in which they still seem to believe.

I brim with smug, cold self-­satisfaction, until a thought stops me in my tracks. It will already have occurred to you: If the gym is such a nadir of narcissism, why did I join? Or at least, why don’t I cancel my membership?

I scramble for an answer, a way out of my aporia. Well, I suppose there is the inexpungible issue of health.

When you join this gym, you get six free sessions with a personal ­trainer—again, to lure you in, to get you hooked on that bit of help. Not being a man of means, I’ve never had a personal trainer. Bernard “Buddy” Logan is 6’4”, spent twenty-two years in the Marines, has three kids, and ran fifty miles last weekend, at altitude. His mantra? “Shock the body.” Never do the same workout twice. “You have to keep it [the body] guessing.” Yet Buddy has no swagger about him. He is affable, engaging, encouraging. One son is a star quarterback on the middle-school team Buddy coaches. Another son has a rare congenital disease; Buddy left the Marines to spend more time with him.

We sit in his office and work through my goals. I say I want to lose weight. He asks why. Is it not ­obvious? (I wonder how obese you have to be before Buddy’s poker-face breaks into a smirk?) Recording my aims on his worksheet, Buddy proceeds to give a fresh, convincing account of how exercise changes our whole outlook; why a healthy body equals a healthy mind; and why, though the appeal to Aristotle is latent rather than explicit, health is a human good.

But this doesn’t seem to have sufficient explanatory power, either. For one, why dole out so much cash on a gym membership when you can exercise anywhere? What is the unique thing the gym enables you to do?

I think the clue lies in another promise I was made:

Sculpt your abs into a six-pack in six weeks!

The image is revealing. It turns your body into a project. ­Body­building. Sculpting your body—your whole body—requires some very precise tools. Thus the niche technologies the gym offers, a machine for every muscle. If you really want to isolate your glutes, you’re going to be hard-pressed to erect a makeshift “late leg press” in your garage.

My-body-as-project isn’t reducible to narcissism. Narcissism treats working out as a means to an end. You go to the gym on a Friday night in order to prove irresistible at the bar: The gym is instrumental to your real purposes. But taking on your body as a project can be an end in itself, an activity undertaken for its own sake.

Yes, on second thought, if working out were synonymous with self-love, then only the buff guys would display themselves in the mirrors. Or we’d have to dismiss the weedy guy riveted by his reflection as wildly deluded, blind to the gulf between himself and the adjacent he-man. Whereas if what’s going on is self-sculpting, then the weedy guy is merely gazing at a work in progress.

This has to be related to the world of work. There’s the obvious point that gyms are venues where modern man feigns manual labor. I have a friend who is a farmer. He lifts and hoists hay bales every day. He’s not a member of a gym.

But maybe there’s something else, too. Maybe bodybuilding will answer to my experience of so much of working life as disjointed and disempowering. In a world where the division of labor characterizes not only heavy industry, but also commerce and the historic professions, well, perhaps in the gym I’ll enjoy getting to oversee a whole project from beginning to end—my body! I won’t have to be dependent on so many moving parts, so many external factors. Maybe the gym will turn out to be one place where I’ll actually see for myself the fruit of my labor, incrementally, day by day. Best of all, in this setting no one else will be able to take credit for my efforts. Ever felt emasculated by your boss? Here among the weights I can be my own boss!

Most of the time I only become aware of my body when it breaks down—in fatigue or sickness. Until it stops working like I need it to, and like I assume it will, I take my body for granted. Thomas Carlyle said it two centuries ago: “The healthy know not of their health, but only the sick.”

Only when a stomach flu means I literally can’t get out of bed; only when my body has become an impediment to my getting what I need to get done—only then am I forced to meditate on my materiality, the fact that I am a man and not an angel (though my mother could have told you that long ago). That’s how I live out the mind-body dualism. I’ve always enjoyed sprinting, but only when I broke my ankle did I entertain the disconcerting thought that, even if I were being chased by a serial killer, I wouldn’t be able to escape.

How does the gym relate to this? It reverses that unconsciousness. We associate bodily self-awareness with a negative experience, illness, but while working out I experience my body in a positive, interesting way. Pushing my muscles to failure—“Nope,” my triceps declare, “not another set!”—brings into view the limits and possibilities of my body, yet not in a way that makes me love it (as in narcissism) or ignore or loathe it (as in dualism).

Which makes the gym a diverse community. For in addition to the sweaty peacocks, there are other people. There’s the hippie: ripped jeans, bandana keeping his long hair off his face, sunglasses on, flirting with the yoga teacher. And the gentleman in his eighties. He wears chinos, dress shoes, and a shirt complete with ­suspenders. Sometimes he braves the track with his walking stick while the athletic conditioning class races past. Or he’s on one of the bike machines reading a newspaper, legs resting still on the pedals. Yesterday he fell asleep on the shoulder press. He does a bit of exercise, sure. He takes pleasure in the activity of enervating his body. But mainly he’s here to clear his head. Now that’s something to which I can aspire.

James Mumford is an English writer and currently a postdoctoral research fellow at The University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.