06/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gym v. Sport: How Fitness Centers Artificially Recreate Our Simplest Childhood Pursuits

You've heard the Fast Food Nation story about artificial beef flavoring, right? About how fast food burgers have been frozen, thawed, and processed so many times that by the time they get to your neighborhood McDonalds, they have to be injected with "beef flavoring" in order to taste like actual meat?

Well, it seems our fitness industry is headed down the same path, albeit in a more benign way.
Gyms are constantly innovating with new classes and high-tech equipment that looks increasingly like... middle school P.E.

Yes, you heard me. We're paying triple digits a month and struggling atop lunar looking equipment in order to emulate simple childhood pursuits like jumping rope, hula hooping and playing tag.

Gyms have made a business out of taking apart age-old activities, reconstructing them, injecting fancy packaging and presenting them to customers in a pretty studio.

Take Crunch Fitness, a hip downtown gym known for its plethora of cool classes:
"Boing with Kangoo": trampoline extract with a touch of jump rope flavor.
"Beaming": definitely Eau de Gymnastics.
"The Ride": bicycle concentrate.

Gyms have basically taken our most familiar exercises, analyzed which muscle groups are worked, what coordination is needed, and then constructed new routines that strategically maximize impact and effectiveness.

So are these classes like new and improved sports? Soccer 2.0 or Turbo Tennis? Or is this an example of scientific engineering gone to far?

Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that adults are the only ones doing Frankenstein versions of familiar sports: it seems like kids spend more time playing Wii basketball than actually hitting an outdoor court. So maybe for these kids, doing wind sprints and line drills down the halls of a sleek gym won't be such an adjustment. But for me, it's a little weird.

That's not to say I don't frequent the gym. On the contrary, I'm kind of a gym rat and even have a gymhopping blog. But every time I take an "ultimate workout" class that's eerily reminiscent of high school varsity practice, I get a little sad.

There's certainly a contingent of workout buffs who scoff at gym classes. Their main gripe is that there's no end game. Why run or jump in place, with no prospect of competing and winning? Why perfect isolated techniques that you'll never use to dunk a basketball, serve an ace or land a lutz? In short, what's the point?

So then why is do we go for these smartened up (or dumbed down) versions of the real thing?

Perhaps it's convenience. Group sports are hard to coordinate, and we're increasingly busy. But if you can get 20 people in the same room for a "fight club" class, then surely you can get them on the same court to play some ball?

Or maybe it's the cost: a good tennis racquet can run $200; a bike goes for a grand. But, how much do we spend per year on the gym?

My theory is that it's psychology: the gym is a non-confrontational, anti-social way to release aggression. You're in the same room as other people, but you're not really with them. You don't have to worry about offending or hurting them, and you don't have to deal with the complex feelings that come with winning and losing.

When we were kids, sports were must sports. You kicked a ball around in the dirt, you got pushed onto the floor, you got up, dusted yourself off, mom or dad picked you up from practice and you were home safe.

But now - at least for me - total uninhibited aggression is kind of awkward. You're not allowed to push your opponent into the dirt, even if you want to (this seems especially true for women, and might be one reason why gym classes are overwhelmingly devoid of men). Contact sports bring up the weirdness of personal space, and co-ed activities seem more like an excuse to hook up than to work out (see: Waka Kickball).

So perhaps the gyms, in their attempt to re-purpose familiar sports and lure us into their pricey confines, have actually hit on something. Perhaps the true re-engineering of childhood sports isn't so much in the muscle, but in the mind.