Natalia Mehlman PetrzelaJan 20, 2024
The Gains and Pains of America's Exercise Obsession
University of Chicago Press 2023
Today we are joined by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Associate Professor of History at The New School, and author of Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession (University of Chicago Press, 2023). In our conversation, we discussed the beginnings of fitness in the United States, how fitness both offered the state a way to shape bodies and liberatory possibilities for counter-cultural communities, and the future of exercise in a post-covid world.
In Fit Nation, Petrzela investigates the long history of fitness in the United States to better understand how fitness became such an important part of American life. She notes that the number of people who think fitness is essential for a full life has expanded dramatically since the 1890s and fitness shape our understandings of national community, industry, security, wealth, and wellness.
Her comprehensive and readable account begins with the immigration of European fitness fanatics to the United States in the 19th century and illustrates how fitness became one of the most proto-typically American pursuits. The book is divided into seven sections; the first, “When Sweating Was Strange,” shows how American entrepreneurs translated European practices to a sceptical audience. Muscle Beach in Venice, California played a special role in promoting bodybuilding but it also alarmed ordinary Americans who worried about the time participants spent on what many thought were narcissistic and vain habits.
One of the major themes of Petrzela’s work is the role of the government in promoting physical fitness and in the Cold War world the state opened the door to mass fitness. In the second section, “Slimming the Soft American,” she demonstrates how presidents starting with Eisenhower put fitness at the centre of their Cold War educational programs. The most notable example of government interventions into fitness was the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (now the President’s Council on Sport, Fitness, and Nutrition.)
The third and fourth sections – “From the Margins to the Mainstream” and Movement Culture, Redefined” illustrate how fitness became a central part of the American experience and the limits to that experience in the 1960s and 1970s. Television brought fitness into American houses but gyms remained largely male spaces (although often associated with latent homosexuality.) Yoga and jogging made fitness accessible and linked fitness culture with counter-culture. Women were both the targets of most fitness programs – although not necessarily for liberatory reasons - and excluded from large sections of it.
In the 1980s and 1990s, fitness changed further, moving away from the state-led efforts and counter-cultural currents of the 1950s and 1960s. Fitness became big business. In her fifth part, “Feel the Burn,” Petrzela shows how a new gospel of fitness emerged that made gyms, workout classes, and sweating accessible and desirable to growing numbers of Americans. In her sixth section, “Hard Bodies and Soulful Selves”, Petrzela shows how fitness shifted from an obligation imposed by the state for geo-political reasons to a more intrinsic requirement of people living in the neo-liberal era, but not everyone always fulfilled those obligations and many people resisted them.
In the final section, “It’s Not Working Out,” Petrzela looks at the present and the future of the Fit Nation. Americans are by some measures less fit than ever before, but Petrzela raises real questions about the potential of any narrow definition of fitness to fix persistent health problems. 9/11, the Global Financial Crisis, and Covid-19 changed the way people worked out – cross-fit, home gyms, and Peloton became more popular than ever but fitness was also politicized into the left/right dynamic that dominates American cultural life.
Petrzela brings the knowledge of an insider and the incisive, critical approach of an historian to the question of why Americans spend billions of dollars a year in a quest to keep fit. Fit Nation will be of broad interest to American and sports historians, scholars interested in exercise science and education, and general readers with an interest in fitness, health, and wellness.
Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history.