How America Became Addicted to Exercise

FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession, by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

This past June, just as swimming pools opened again for the summer season, the New York City Parks Department canceled all its eagerly awaited outdoor pool-fitness programs, because of a shortage of lifeguards. No swimming classes, no senior swim programs, no lap swimming hours. Eager lap swimmers who would have otherwise attended the canceled early-morning sessions now added themselves to the already bloated public pools, corralled into the shallow end as children and parents impassively looked on. People vented their frustration in snaking lines outside the pool gates and on Twitter. How could the city fail to support one of the rites of a New York summer?

In “Fit Nation,” the historian and fitness instructor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela explains why places like urban public pools are struggling. She traces how the United States simultaneously became obsessed with working out and failed to provide necessary resources for it. She follows the evolution of Americans’ attitudes toward working out over the past century, from skepticism to downright obsession: for those who can afford them, there are now dollar-a-minute workout classes, and personal trainers have become a common accessory for affluent professionals — something that was unthinkable for anyone but athletes or celebrities before 1990. “People were scrimping on essentials such as gas, rather than luxurious extras such as vacations or high fashion, in order to spend on boutique fitness,” she writes, citing a 2017 consumer-spending study. It wasn’t always this way, and Petrzela takes us on a whirlwind journey of how we got here. As late as 1936, when the early fitness celebrity Jack LaLanne first opened a gym in Oakland, Calif., people thought he was a “charlatan and a nut,” he once said. “The doctors were against me — they said that working out with weights would give people everything from heart attacks to hemorrhoids; that women would look like men.”

But mind-sets did change, and, as I got to Petrzela’s more recent history chapters, I was frequently ashamed of how predictable my physical aspirations were. She recaps the rise of the “strong is the new skinny” movement of the mid-90s, and how telegenic athletes like Anna Kournikova, Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm popularized athletic femininity with their visibly sculpted bodies. I was only a child then. It’s hardly surprising that I was primed to chase a sinewy figure over looking waifish. With time, I eschewed long hours of cardio for weight lifting, just as Instagram was beginning to flood with pictures of women chronicling their conversion, their weight gains, their bulging muscles. I also realized how much I had taken my participation in fitness as a woman’s birthright. I shuddered when I read that it was not until 1967 that a woman, Kathrine Switzer, completed the Boston Marathon — and was attacked by the race manager while doing so. And when I read about how, during the height of the aerobics boom — an activity dominated by women — Nike refused to make shoes for aerobics because, in the words of one of its vice presidents, it was beneath their standards to make products for “a bunch of fat ladies dancing to music.”

Petrzela explains that it was industrious entrepreneurs (Jane Fonda, Equinox, Peloton, LuluLemon, Bikram) who banked on that growing interest in exercise, cunningly capitalizing on its reputation as a “virtuous form of conspicuous consumption.” It’s easier to justify spending hundreds on your “health” than on an expensive handbag. She also tracks the decades of government divestments that led to cancellations such as that of the city’s cherished lap swim hours.

Petrzela’s book continued to haunt me after I put it down. I was embarrassed by the number of fitness brands that I recognized in it, and I winced at how much money I’ve forked out for them. But I wish I’d come out with a better understanding of how the United States compares with other countries in this regard. Petrzela makes several observations about America that could have benefited from more context. Gyms, she tells us, are a $40 billion industry, and yet “80 percent of Americans live in a ‘fitness desert,’ which is defined as an area without a public park in a half-mile radius.” I needed some contrast to fully understand the gravity of those numbers: How big is the gym industry in, say, Canada? What percentage of Germans live in a fitness desert? I couldn’t stop wondering: Is workout culture in America more commercial than it is in other countries? And are we any fitter because of it?

Yasmine AlSayyad is a writer and a member of the editorial staff at The New Yorker.

FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession | By Natalia Mehlman Petrzela | Illustrated | 443 pp. | The University of Chicago Press | $29

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