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globe magazine | Perspective

Why is Boston so obsessed with exercise?

As symptoms of exercise obsession go, the Boston Marathon is just the beginning.

Illustration by Kali Ciesemier

4,792: Number of Massachusetts runners in Monday’s marathon, out of 26,500.

WINTER SUNDAY MORNINGS on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton are a blur of polypropylene and spandex. Legions of runners in fluorescent moisture-wicking fabrics labor up the hills; squadrons of cyclists in jerseys with exotic logos hurtle down them. While much of America is still in bed, this is rush hour in fitness-crazy Boston. “It’s cult-like,” says Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist and director of the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center. “If you step back, you would think this is a little insane.”

We not only run and bike, but row, swim, ski, lift, climb, blade, walk, spin, and play at levels that make the rest of the country look sluggish. Our cars are plastered with “26.2” and “13.1” stickers — and we know what they mean. When schools in other places need to raise money, they have a bake sale; around here, we hold a 5K.

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One in four of us belongs to a health club, the highest membership level in America. Our public-access rowing club, Community Rowing Inc., is the largest in the world. Our state is the 14th biggest by population, but a 2009 study found it’s fifth in the number of residents who finish marathons each year.             

This area’s relative affluence and high levels of education account for some of this, of course. “The educated wealthy are going to exercise more,” says Amy Baltzell, coordinator of the sport psychology specialty at BU’s School of Education and a former Olympic rower and America’s Cup sailor. “They understand that it’s important for their health and well-being. And we have a city filled with intense high achievers.”              

But somewhere along the line in Boston, fitness has become a virtuous cycle. After all, when an unending parade of runners is passing just outside your window, it’s tough to stay planted on the couch clutching a bag of Doritos and a greasy remote control.              

“People smile and they inspire you, and you see someone who’s thinner than you and that inspires you, and you see a cute guy ahead of you and that inspires you,” says Wellesley’s Julie Moore, 46, who runs 50 to 60 miles a week in between her gym visits. Baltzell is more clinical. “Your belief in your ability to do a task is strongly influenced by modeling,” she says. “In our culture, exercise is accepted and inspiring.”              

And that begins practically at birth. In Boston’s suburbs, there are so many sports leagues for children that there’s a shortage of courts and fields. Parents hire trainers for their 9-year-olds. By high school, 73.4 percent of our kids play interscholastic athletics, compared with the national average of 46 percent. Christian McGowan, 27, was one of them growing up in Westwood. He’s still playing basketball and spent the winter training for Monday’s Marathon. “People look for ways to keep competing,” he says. “I really missed it when I became — quote unquote — an adult.”              

This kind of thing makes exercise an unusually large part of our leisure time. “It’s what counts for social activity around here,” says Dan Gentile, 36, of Bridgewater, who’s running his fourth Boston Marathon. “It’s hardly even conscious.” During any given night, organizations like the Boston Ski and Sports Club — the fourth-largest organization of its kind in the country, after groups in vastly more populous Chicago and New York — field hundreds of members playing softball, soccer, volleyball, and ultimate Frisbee. “These people travel a lot and they’re in high-stress jobs,” says club director of marketing Nancy McGeoghegan. “They need an outlet, and the outlet isn’t just going to a bar and kicking back a couple of cocktails.”           

Even at work, Baltzell says, she and her colleagues forgo stuffy conference rooms to walk and talk along the Charles, sharing the river paths with hordes of runners, cyclists, and bladers. “I see that and I just think, this is great,” she says. “I’ve been here so long, I don’t immediately even notice it. But as I pause to think about it, yes, it is pretty amazing.”

Jon Marcus is a frequent Globe Magazine contributor. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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