Review of “Fit Nation” by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela


Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s “Fit Country: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercising Obsession” contains one inconsequential detail that thoroughly captured my focus: Magnificent mid-century gyms have been famous for their plush carpets. Can you picture the accumulation of sweat? The disgusting way the soaked fibers aged?

The major issue of “Fit Nation” is the way that training tradition has matured as badly as a carpeted fitness center ground. Petrzela’s cultural history combines an educational approach with an activist’s urgency, aiming to “strengthen us to combat for a better path ahead, at the health club and in the world.” Her book is structured chronologically, with reminders of extended-light physical exercise fads (the ThighMaster) and the origins of physical exercise mainstays (running). All the though, it claims to work through the contradictions in America’s existing relationship to exercise. Essential amongst them: Why has fitness lifestyle turn out to be so influential when, as the ebook experiences, just 20 {fc1509ea675b3874d16a3203a98b9a1bd8da61315181db431b4a7ea1394b614e} of people today in The us work out frequently?

Petrzela is entirely credentialed for this venture. A historical past professor at the New Faculty and an activist for broadening access to physical exercise, she is also a exercise teacher who has taught at Equinox and served as a Lululemon brand name ambassador. In her introduction to “Fit Country,” Petrzela divulges that a large poster of her expecting physique “swathed in high-priced stretchy fabric” graced 1 of Lululemon’s shop walls. Her former perform with Equinox and Lululemon plainly informs her criticism, and many passages carry an remarkable turncoat vigor. She writes from the “lifestyle” that her former employers stand for. As she argues, when “physical exercise became elevated to a virtuous type of conspicuous use, what experienced been a ‘fitness craze’ had developed into a newly all-encompassing ‘lifestyle,’ one embraced by the fairly affluent couple and imposed on several other individuals.”

“Fit Nation” unfurls the origins of American attitudes towards fitness, starting up in the late 1800s, when performing exercises was for circus sideshow acts. She reminds us that, for a very long time, respectability was hardly connected with functioning out. We cruise in excess of to Muscle mass Beach front in the late 1950s, when the highly anxious Santa Monica Town Council feared these unemployed ne’er-do-wells (in their excitable terms: “sexual athletes” and “queers,” “drifters” and “perverts”). But all around this time, photos of John F. Kennedy and his brothers training, happy and shirtless, affirmed that a sure type of functioning out was a vital behavior of the rich and thriving. The Kennedys, enjoying tennis and messing around in boats, demonstrated how to strike the “appropriate harmony in between self-control and leisure.”

A conditioning sector satire weighed down by its very own significant-handedness

Petrzela shows that prosperity and acceptable exercise have been inextricably related from the commencing of American training lifestyle. Mid-century work out pioneer Bonnie Prudden, for instance, uncovered that her classes have been much more common when she billed revenue for them. For contributors, having to pay was a literal expenditure in their health and fitness and toughness. From the early days, health and fitness seemed worthier if it arrived with a price tag tag.

By the latter 50 percent of the 20th century, the private sector dominated the health and fitness industry, outpacing general public rec facilities, parks, trails and other freely obtainable websites. Petrzela traces the evolution of a privatized health natural environment that confers superiority on those who can pay for to take part and prizes individual empowerment around collective, civic engagement. As she details out frequently, for a thing morally neutral, health and fitness has also managed to foist by itself as a commonly acknowledged sign of virtue — all the extra so when it is expensive.

Petrzela’s most important argument is unobjectionable: Physical exercise shouldn’t be accessible to the rich on your own. But to make this level, she focuses mainly on flashy, lifestyle-defining illustrations from the non-public sector. Petrzela certainly understands that systems these as SoulCycle are not the root result in of inequality in fitness. But in her preoccupation with them, she would seem to blame the provide aspect for the shameful inaccessibility of exercising in this state. SoulCycle and its upscale ilk are symptoms of privatization, not the cause for it.

Irrespective of its endeavor to offer you a broad look at of training in America, “Fit Nation” is primarily a record of America’s fanciest gyms and trendiest packages, only punctuated with compact reminders that physical education and learning programs are routinely underfunded and devalued. Petrzela demonstrates that chic, dear fitness centers have an outsize influence on our collective mentality all around physical fitness, and she does so effectively. Her examination of elitist work out society has a sharp edge.

But if these important scissors are likely to slash, she requires a second blade: a sustained critique of the failures of general public infrastructure to provide possibilities exterior of exceptional fitness centers and costly boutique lessons. The e-book promises to take a look at the pressure involving the American health obsession and a society the place extremely several people today take part. Yet it focuses overwhelmingly on the “obsession” 50 {fc1509ea675b3874d16a3203a98b9a1bd8da61315181db431b4a7ea1394b614e} of this pressure and only lightly grazes the neoliberal divestiture that created this privatization feasible.

How functioning assisted a youthful mother cope with grief

By way of case in point, there is a chapter about the “Let’s Move” public marketing campaign and its admirable endeavours to determine “fitness as a social justice issue.” But there is no centered chapter on bodily education and learning in faculties all through the past 50 yrs, or on neighborhood-focused rec facilities like YMCAs, or on general public parks or bicycle paths. The two chapters on jogging target on the smug mindset of quite a few runners, but amusing as it may perhaps be, critiquing their snotty superiority alternatively than the socioeconomic conditions that preclude men and women from a person of the only ostensibly “free” workout routines in the ebook appears like a skipped prospect. These chapters could have assessed failures to make investments in park infrastructure, to speak about community basic safety or to handle pollution that deters outside exercising for many.

Petrzela’s solution is easy to understand: It’s incredibly tough to report on what is not there. Stylish physical fitness boutiques are substantially less complicated to review than the extra equitable solutions that couldn’t raise sufficient funds to get commenced. And I, way too, am entranced by the active life-style of the odd and ritzy! But the book’s attempt to illustrate why folks have a tricky time accessing physical fitness stays unrealized.

“Fit Nation” is at its most remarkable when it provocatively and firmly argues that physical fitness is not an unmitigated great in American lifestyle. But even as Petrzela is circumspect about the assets, social and in any other case, that conditioning requires from its individuals, she hasn’t given up on a radical long term for workout. At just one level, she features an anecdote about Jane Fonda and her then-spouse, activist-politician Tom Hayden. Hayden lamented the health and fitness lifestyle’s “culture of narcissism” that subsumed civic engagement. Fonda, of system, designed her exercise session empire to fund her activism and financially assistance Hayden’s political ambitions. But Hayden “didn’t much appreciate the plan that his spouse and a bunch of sweaty females in legwarmers held so a great deal power about his political job, and he needled her about this exercise he perceived as incommensurate with their serious activism.” Petrzela’s reserve proposes an idea that the two is made up of and obliterates the restrictions of Hayden’s critique: Of course, Petrzela argues, exercising society can cultivate our most consumeristic, myopic, individualistic and vain characteristics. But it does not have to be that way. And as a source for fun, social engagement, engage in, energy and health, physical exercise should not be that way.

Petrzela’s e book will make a position that would blow Hayden’s thoughts: Physical exercise is a aspect of American lifetime that unquestionably deserves activists’ consideration and efforts. Petrzela highlights problems with physical exercise tradition that expose America’s much more substantial social ills, these types of as enabling getting electric power to masquerade as social superiority, valuing amusement in excess of knowledge and equating efficiency with advantage. Nevertheless “Fit Nation” is often distracted by the shiny fitness pursuits of the rich, the book offers a useful foundation for activism around health and fitness. Petrzela rips again the plush carpet of elite institutions to reveal the rotting foundation beneath. The fanciest aspects of our lifestyle do advise us about our aspirations, values and failures — and they are typically irresistible to gawk at.

Maggie Lange writes about publications for numerous publications. She also operates the weekly e-newsletter Purse Guide, which publishes brief testimonials of slender volumes.

The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercising Obsession

By Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

University of Chicago Push. 443 pp. $29

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