The first time I came across and properly registered the word “workout” was in 2013, the summer before my first year at college. The varsity cross-country and track coach had sent the incoming freshmen runners a preseason training programme for the summer, with a heavy emphasis on aerobic base-building and working up towards some faster, more intense running by mid-August.

The weekly schedule included generic runs (which meant running by feel), long runs, tempo runs, steady-state runs, and recovery runs. And “workouts”.

The word was a new one to me, even though the underlying concept was not. I intuitively grasped what “workout” meant – a specific, vigorous session of training.

Workoutsare used to target factors such as aerobic and anaerobic thresholds, speed, and power, and could take the form of say, five repetitions of 1,500m, or a pyramid of one-two-three-four-five-four-three-two-one minutes of hard running, or 15 one-minute sprints up a hill. I had run workouts before seeing them described as such; it was just that I was accustomed to calling them “programmes” or “training sessions”. Among the Hong Kong road running community that I had been training with, running a workout was called “running a programme”.

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Over the years, I have taken to using the word workout to refer to my once- or twice-weekly harder running sessions. The website Flotrack has a great “Workout Wednesday” series, in which they feature weekly videos of workouts by different runners. These days, my workouts tend to fall on Wednesdays, and I always look forward to my Workout Wednesdays. It certainly sounds catchier than Workout Tuesday.

But there’s also a part of me that bristles at the word. Why, after all, does running (and exercising in general) have to be associated with work? The overwhelming majority of us are not professional athletes, and the time that we devote to physical pursuits is time outside the work day. Marathon crowds prove perfect place to study hydrodynamic theory as crowd flows as one

Running, for most of us, is a recreational pursuit. It is decidedly not work.

The use of the word “workout” started picking up steam in the early 70s, spiking in the 80s, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which measures the appearance in books of a given phrase or word over time.

No doubt Jane Fonda, the American Oscar-winning actress who released the highly popular 1982 VHS tape, Jane Fonda’s Workout, helped to drive the ready adoption of the word in our everyday

lexicon. Her books and tapes launched a fitness revolution and working out became an integral part of American culture.

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Still, the use of the word to describe something that I fundamentally do for fun is irksome. Yes, sometimes training runs are a bore. Sometimes the burning sensation in my lungs and legs make me second-guess whether what I’m doing is actually any fun. But it never feels like work.

But maybe it is the work part of working out that people are obsessed with. After all, there is a generation of people today who are seemingly obsessed with work – or, as a New York Times headline put it this week, “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?”

“Welcome to hustle culture,” writes the author of the article, Erin Griffith, a business correspondent.

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“It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humour, and – once you notice it – impossible to escape.”

She notes that “Rise and Grind” is the theme of a Nike ad campaign and the title of a bestselling self-help book. Performative workaholism has become a lifestyle, and we have reached a point where “not only does one never stop hustling – one never exits a kind of work rapture, in which the chief purpose of exercising or attending a concert is to get inspiration that leads back to the desk”.

Working out, it seems, is so called and embraced because we worship work – or, gasp, overwork – with an electric, unwavering devotion.

“This conflation of the work of our bodies with the work of our lives can feel insidiously prosperity gospel-ish,” writes Zan Romanoff in a 2017 piece for The Atlantic titled “The Consumerist Church of Fitness Classes”.

“The idea that better, harder, faster, and more are all concepts that are inextricably linked can certainly be motivating, but it can also be dangerous and damaging to equate them entirely.”
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Across different fitness trends like CrossFit and SoulCycle, he adds, “a single promise resonates: your body will get smaller, your world will get bigger, and your life will get better, but only through rigorous, sweaty work”.

Is this the kind of ideology I’m signing myself up for when I call my harder runs workouts? Perhaps I may be better off calling them funouts, but somehow I don’t think that will stick.