The Sunday Magazine21:57How fitness became a cultural obsession – and who it leaves behind
Despite a societal obsession with being in shape, fitness is less accessible than ever, given expensive gym memberships, pricey equipment and costly clothing, says an author and academic who studies contemporary culture.
“You have all of these gyms and all of these brands and all of this exercise messaging in your face, but we have not kept up with that in terms of funding robust physical education,” said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, who wrote Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession.
“We haven’t kept up with creating green spaces or lighting streets well, and making it accessible for people to [exercise].”
Looking at the history of fitness in the U.S. — from a circus act in the 1800s to what she calls the “conspicuous consumption” of modern exercise, with gym selfies and Peloton pictures taking over social media — Petrzela has studied how it went from a sideshow to a status symbol.
Though exercise feels “kind of everywhere” right now, she says, that wasn’t always the case. As recently as the early 20th century, people who exercised regularly — and not for sport — “were really considered freaks,” said Petrzela, who is also an associate professor of history at The New School, a university in New York City.
Petrzela argues that after the financial crash of 2008 and the advent of Instagram in 2010, exercise began to take on a very different meaning, and the industry became about fitness as a lifestyle — something you bought rather than something you did.
“The conspicuous consumption piece really takes off with the financial crisis,” she says. While it was suddenly uncouth to show off luxury items like expensive cars and pricey bags, in comparison, posting about gym routines and smoothie recipes felt like less controversial humble brags.
Barriers to fitness
Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy and a professor in the faculty of law and the school of public health at the University of Alberta, said fitness is often framed as something necessary for external improvement, rather than something that can better one’s health.
“It’s framed as something that you need to do in order to achieve extrinsic goals — you need to look a certain way — as opposed to intrinsic goals,” he said. “When it really should be inviting people to just move. You know, do something that you love. It doesn’t require special clothes, it doesn’t require you to be part of this extreme community.”
Yet according to Statistics Canada, only about half of Canadians regularly get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per week. Clearly, a fitness-crazed culture hasn’t added up to routine exercise for all.
Petrzela says the story of fitness culture is one of “expansion, expansion, expansion,” but that expansion has not improved access for the less affluent.
She says while the idea that all you need is a pair of running shoes might seem simple, “even shoes are not that cheap.”
Petrzela also argues that it’s more complicated than just getting out for a run, pointing to systemic barriers.
“We have ample evidence now that to be a person of colour, and going for a run through the streets, is not the same experience as being a white person,” she said. She also shares that as a woman, she feels less safe being outside during certain hours, which limits her ability to exercise during the winter.
“Add to that, the fact that lots of people live in neighborhoods without safe streets, or without well-lit streets, or tree cover, and that is another obstacle.”
Environment must be conducive to exercise
Caulfield said the fitness industry’s “hyper-commercialized” view of exercise contributes to some of these barriers by discouraging a broader conversation on how communities can shape their environment to make it easier to exercise.
“How do we make movement part of our daily lives? That’s about the built environment. Those things matter, but the fitness industry isn’t built to convey those messages, because they want products to be sold, ” he said.
Petrzela hopes to draw attention to the disconnect and “light a fire” under policymakers who have the power to create more bike lanes, green spaces and affordable fitness programs.
For Petrzela, the answer to improving access to exercise starts in schools.
“P.E. is the moment when most kids are going to encounter structured exercise,” she said. That’s why it’s critical to make it “a joyous, meaningful, amazing experience” that encourages life-long exercise, rather than an alienating one.
It’s a full-circle moment for Petrzela, who once dropped out of a high school gym class because she felt intimidated and uncomfortable.
“Oh, I absolutely hated it,” she laughed. “But I eventually really fell in love with it. And I realized there was something called fitness that was very different from sport. And I have basically never looked back in terms of immersing myself in that world.”