Nerds of Steel

That being said, most of the workout nerds are also painfully aware of the consequences of working out too much. “You don’t want to be one of those guys,” said the magazine editor. “You don’t want to wind up with the thick neck, like the bridge-and-tunnel guys you would see in the Flatiron district. I’m self-conscious enough about it where I intentionally try not to bulk up.

“You don’t want to be the guy in the gym with the 200-pound bench-press guy,” the editor continued. “Not just because those guys are generally assholes, but doing that kind of workout is going to make you look like one of those assholes. It’s maybe embarrassing to admit that degree of self-consciousness about it, but even in college I tailored my workouts to look like the guy who looks fit but doesn’t spend too much time in the gym.”

Indeed, there is something about the gym, in particular, that seems to raise the ire of the literary set. Their cri de coeur is a 2004 n+1 essay “The Fit and the Dead,” by Mark Greif, one of the magazine’s editors. “In the gym people engage in the kind of biological self-regulation that usually occurs in the private realm. … Exercisers make the faces associated with pain, with orgasm, with the sort of exertion that would call others to their immediate aid. … They appear in tight but shapeless Lycra costumes that reveal the shape of the penis, the labia, the mashed and bandaged breasts, all without allowing the lure of sex.” The gym, then, becomes a grotesque locale, a literal exercise in futility.

But for those who work out, going to the gym can be rationalized as a necessary evil, a means to an end. The same determination that allows nerds to excel at building their own computers is also at work here. “I just think it’s something pretty shitty to do,” said Mr. Stiles, who recently started going to the gym more regularly in order to get in better shape for cycling. “Saying ‘Oh, I’m gonna go to the gym for an hour today’ is boring. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have that additional motivation. I see people who just go in and they’re standing there and just going through the motions. I’m pretty sure they’re not training for a marathon. There’s no kind of end product! But they’re also not doing it with any intensity, which is a secondary effect of endorphins.” Mr. Stiles paused and laughed, almost sheepishly, as if to acknowledge the inherent nerdiness of his statement. “That is baffling to me.”