Review of “Fit Nation” by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

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Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s “Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession” contains one inconsequential detail that fully captured my attention: Luxurious mid-century gyms were famous for their plush carpets. Can you imagine the accumulation of sweat? The disgusting way the soaked fibers aged?

The primary concern of “Fit Nation” is the way that exercise culture has matured as badly as a carpeted gym floor. Petrzela’s cultural history combines an academic approach with an activist’s urgency, aiming to “strengthen us to fight for a better path forward, at the gym and in the world.” Her book is structured chronologically, with reminders of long-faded exercise fads (the ThighMaster) and the origins of exercise mainstays (running). All the while, it promises to work through the contradictions in America’s current relationship to fitness. Key among them: Why has fitness culture become so influential when, as the book reports, just 20 percent of people in America work out regularly?

Petrzela is fully credentialed for this project. A history professor at the New School and an activist for broadening access to exercise, she is also a fitness instructor who has taught at Equinox and served as a Lululemon brand ambassador. In her introduction to “Fit Nation,” Petrzela divulges that a huge poster of her pregnant body “swathed in expensive stretchy fabric” graced one of Lululemon’s store walls. Her previous work with Equinox and Lululemon clearly informs her criticism, and many passages carry an exciting turncoat vigor. She writes against the “lifestyle” that her former employers represent. As she argues, when “physical activity became elevated to a virtuous form of conspicuous consumption, what had been a ‘fitness craze’ had evolved into a newly all-encompassing ‘lifestyle,’ one embraced by the relatively affluent few and imposed on many others.”

“Fit Nation” unfurls the origins of American attitudes toward fitness, starting in the late 1800s, when exercising was for circus sideshow acts. She reminds us that, for a long time, respectability was hardly associated with working out. We cruise over to Muscle Beach in the late 1950s, when the highly concerned Santa Monica City Council feared these unemployed ne’er-do-wells (in their excitable terms: “sexual athletes” and “queers,” “drifters” and “perverts”). But around this time, images of John F. Kennedy and his brothers exercising, proud and shirtless, affirmed that a certain type of working out was a necessary habit of the wealthy and successful. The Kennedys, playing tennis and messing around in boats, demonstrated how to strike the “appropriate balance between discipline and leisure.”

A fitness industry satire weighed down by its own heavy-handedness

Petrzela shows that wealth and acceptable exercise have been inextricably associated from the beginning of American workout culture. Mid-century exercise pioneer Bonnie Prudden, for example, found that her classes were more popular when she charged money for them. For participants, paying was a literal investment in their health and strength. From the early days, fitness seemed worthier if it came with a price tag.

By the latter half of the 20th century, the private sector dominated the fitness market, outpacing public rec centers, parks, trails and other freely available sites. Petrzela traces the evolution of a privatized fitness environment that confers superiority on those who can afford to participate and prizes individual empowerment over collective, civic engagement. As she points out repeatedly, for something morally neutral, fitness has also managed to foist itself as a widely accepted signal of virtue — all the more so when it is expensive.

Petrzela’s primary argument is unobjectionable: Exercise shouldn’t be available to the wealthy alone. But to make this point, she focuses mostly on flashy, culture-defining examples from the private sector. Petrzela surely understands that programs such as SoulCycle aren’t the root cause of inequality in fitness. But in her preoccupation with them, she seems to blame the supply side for the shameful inaccessibility of exercise in this country. SoulCycle and its upscale ilk are symptoms of privatization, not the reason for it.

Despite its attempt to offer a broad view of exercise in America, “Fit Nation” is primarily a history of America’s fanciest gyms and trendiest programs, only punctuated with compact reminders that physical education programs are routinely underfunded and devalued. Petrzela demonstrates that chic, pricey gyms have an outsize influence on our collective mentality around fitness, and she does so effectively. Her analysis of elitist workout culture has a sharp edge.

But if these critical scissors are going to cut, she needs a second blade: a sustained critique of the failures of public infrastructure to provide options outside of exclusive gyms and expensive boutique classes. The book promises to explore the tension between the American fitness obsession and a culture where very few people participate. Yet it focuses overwhelmingly on the “obsession” half of this tension and only lightly grazes the neoliberal divestiture that made this privatization possible.

How running helped a young mother cope with grief

By way of example, there is a chapter about the “Let’s Move” public campaign and its admirable efforts to define “fitness as a social justice issue.” But there is no focused chapter on physical education in schools during the past 50 years, or on community-focused rec centers like YMCAs, or on public parks or bike paths. The two chapters on running focus on the smug attitude of many runners, but funny as it may be, critiquing their snotty superiority rather than the socioeconomic conditions that preclude people from one of the only ostensibly “free” exercises in the book seems like a missed opportunity. These chapters could have assessed failures to invest in park infrastructure, to talk about public safety or to address pollution that deters outdoor exercise for many.

Petrzela’s approach is understandable: It’s very difficult to report on what’s not there. Trendy fitness boutiques are much easier to analyze than the more equitable alternatives that couldn’t raise enough capital to get started. And I, too, am entranced by the active lifestyle of the weird and ritzy! But the book’s attempt to illustrate why people have a hard time accessing fitness remains unrealized.

“Fit Nation” is at its most exciting when it provocatively and firmly argues that fitness is not an unmitigated good in American culture. But even as Petrzela is circumspect about the resources, social and otherwise, that fitness demands from its participants, she hasn’t given up on a radical future for exercise. At one point, she offers an anecdote about Jane Fonda and her then-husband, activist-politician Tom Hayden. Hayden lamented the fitness lifestyle’s “culture of narcissism” that subsumed civic engagement. Fonda, of course, built her workout empire to fund her activism and financially support Hayden’s political ambitions. But Hayden “didn’t much appreciate the idea that his wife and a bunch of sweaty women in legwarmers held so much power over his political career, and he needled her about this activity he perceived as incommensurate with their serious activism.” Petrzela’s book proposes an idea that both contains and obliterates the limits of Hayden’s critique: Yes, Petrzela argues, exercise culture can cultivate our most consumeristic, myopic, individualistic and vain qualities. But it does not have to be that way. And as a source for fun, social engagement, play, power and health, exercise shouldn’t be that way.

Petrzela’s book makes a point that would blow Hayden’s mind: Exercise is a facet of American life that absolutely deserves activists’ attention and efforts. Petrzela highlights problems with exercise culture that expose America’s much larger social ills, such as allowing purchasing power to masquerade as social superiority, valuing entertainment over expertise and equating productivity with virtue. Though “Fit Nation” is often distracted by the shiny fitness pursuits of the wealthy, the book offers a valuable foundation for activism around fitness. Petrzela rips back the plush carpet of elite institutions to reveal the rotting foundation beneath. The fanciest elements of our culture do inform us about our aspirations, values and failures — and they’re usually irresistible to gawk at.

Maggie Lange writes about books for many publications. She also runs the weekly newsletter Purse Book, which publishes quick reviews of slim volumes.

The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession

By Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

University of Chicago Press. 443 pp. $29

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