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Sit-Ups for Start-Ups


In the co-working area of Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, a rock-climbing gym outside of Boston that has more in common with a start-up office than a Crunch, is a sign emblazoned with a manifesto: “Physicality stimulates innovation and creativity.” A café-like space with outlets, a long communal table, and a series of standing desks looks out over the gym’s main climbing area where lithe figures in various brands of neon-colored athletic clothing scale walls.

Another sign greets laborers in a pitch for the gym’s co-working space as a kind of miniature corporate retreat rather than just another spot to park a laptop: “Unleash yourself or your team in a space that celebrates spontaneity . . . and is built to accommodate high-octane brain jam sessions, spreadsheet marathons, and physical activity.” A TEDx event themed around “movement” will soon take place there. We have in this climbing gym a perfect demonstration of the Silicon Valley (or Silicon Alley, or Silicon Roundabout, or People’s Republic) approach to physical fitness. In the start-up era, exercise itself is framed as a capitalistic enterprise.

The physicality/innovation credo suggests that being physically fit is the same as being fit to compete for venture capital. Exercise prepares workers to aggressively innovate. Exercise allows us to be lean, to disrupt our bodies while we’re disrupting our industries. Exercise! Until you’re throwing up on your Macbook Air keyboard from running too fast on a treadmill desk (the Somerville gym has several) while pounding out some gnarly code. As Susan Orlean has noticed, the best thing about walking on a treadmill desk is telling people you’re on it, not actually thinking or writing. Those who use them at this gym look like ducks treading water on the surface of a pond, their eyes focused on the laptop in front of them and heads motionless while their legs churn ceaselessly below.

The conflation of physical fitness and entrepreneurial efficacy feels familiar. In 2011, Timothy Ferriss, the same superhuman serial entrepreneur who brought us The Four-Hour Workweek offered up to the world The Four-Hour Body, the result of “an obsessive quest . . . to hack the human body.” It’s a hands-on guide to losing weight, gaining muscle, and sleeping only two hours a day, while presumably working more (or is it less?) in the process. It’s all about efficiency. “You don’t need better genetics or more discipline,” the book’s jacket copy reads. “You need immediate results that compel you to continue.”

Entrepreneurs and their rock-climbing, wave-surfing brogrammers aren’t the only ones who have intermingled exercise with political economy. Mao Zedong, a man who staged a swim across the Yangtze at the age of 73 as proof of his longevity, designed a workout to help his comrades stay productive and competitive against the west.

“Physical education not only strengthens the body but also enhances our knowledge,” Mao wrote in a 1917 essay, long before the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution. “Both virtue and knowledge reside in the body.” Yet, he observed, “The physical condition of the population deteriorates daily. If our bodies are not strong . . . then how can we attain our goals and make ourselves respected?”

Mao remedied the situation in 1951 by introducing a four-minute-long exercise program that was broadcast over the radio each morning. Beginning and ending with jogging in place, the program includes lunges, punches, squats, and kicks (no leaps), and beats Ferriss’s total weekly time commitment by 3.5 hours. Worth a shot, right? He couldn’t have been wrong about everything.

Sure, the chairman was preparing for actual war with the KMT rather than Silicon Valley’s perceived battles over employees and real estate. But in both cases, exercise becomes a form of discipline to keep your guerrilla army (or product team, as the case may be) in line.

Start-ups have tried free health food, ergonomics consultants, and WiFi-enabled commuting buses in their ongoing mission to turn humans not into soldiers but 14-hour-a-day coding machines. The employee’s body is just the next logical step—when physical exercise is so closely tied to capitalist ability, the more you work out, the more you can work. There’s no room for the archetypal shlubby IT professional of the 1990s in the new regime of Fitbit-equipped ninjas who take walking meetings.

Silicon Valley has created a revised image of the ideal body. The New Man is represented in the ethereal figure of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, a wan nerd body-hacked over the past decade into a cybernetic, tight-shirted Adonis forever accessorized with Google Glass. Physical fitness is matched with the du-jour symbols of virtual aptitude. (Did we mention Brin’s rumored to be stuck in a steamy love-polygon?)

At Brooklyn Boulders, physical work is tied inextricably to the virtual. Exercise helps us become better competitors in the Internet economy, and we are constantly reminded so. Like medieval racks turned vertical, above the climbing gym’s standing desks are metal tubes designed for pull-ups, which workers are instructed to do five of every half-hour. Five lunges are also a possibility, or five sit-ups on the bouncy exercise-ball desks on the other side of the room. If nothing else, the communal table costs one random conversation with your neighbor. “Lethargy is prohibited,” we are warned. No room for creative idle in the new economy.

Revolt, compatriots! Embrace fat and sloth! They are the only rebellion we have left.