Why do Americans go to such extravagant lengths to stay in shape? The rise of the so-called physical culture movement in the late 1800s, along with its close cousin, “Muscular Christianity,” marked a new obsession with fitness in Western countries, especially the United States.
These movements were born out of a strange amalgamation of pseudoscience, theology and anxiety about the future of ethnic whites in the late 1800s. Huge numbers of immigrants were pouring into the United States and many of these whites expressed unease that the “Anglo-Saxons”, as they called themselves, had become “overcivilized” and soft.
Thus, ethnic whites increasingly embraced team sports, outdoor activities, and compulsory physical education in public schools. Private groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, also promoted exercise, opening a network of gyms that blended religion and fitness.
Yet most Americans had little interest in gyms and physical exercise. After all, they had little free time at that time and exercised a lot in their daily lives by walking or doing manual labor.
Also, some figures in the physical culture movement seemed, well, weird. Consider Bernard McFadden, a sickly child who renamed himself Bernarr because he evoked the roar of a lion. He made his fortune promoting a diet of weightlifting, calisthenics, restrictive diets and brisk walking. He also published a magazine called Physical Culture which became the unofficial voice of the movement. “Weakness is a crime,” he told potential readers. “Are you a criminal? »
The eccentric bodybuilder, who courted controversy by promoting exercise for both men and women, was eventually eclipsed by another fanatic with an all-male clientele: Italian immigrant Angelo Siciliano, better known as name of Charles Atlas. Both men achieved fame and fortune peddling their programs, but they would soon be overshadowed by post-World War II developments, when fitness became a lifelong white middle-class obsession.
The new philosophy owes much to the suburban ideal of the 1950s. Initially, everything about the suburbs was against fitness, from the growing reliance on the automobile, the use of buses to transport children to centralized schools and the advent of television. Even the one-story ranch houses that defined the era ended with the exercise provided by going up and down the stairs.
In her insightful account of this shift, historian Shelly McKenzie argues that much of the ensuing debate over physical fitness was framed by a new problem facing the white middle class: “How could they take advantage of fruits of post-war wealth while managing their bodies for optimal health? The solution, McKenzie observed, was “the invention of exercise.”
The movement arguably began with a report from the US National Institutes of Health in 1952 that drew attention to obesity as a serious health problem. A year later, a widely read study revealed an alarming gap between the fitness levels of American and European children, with 56% of American children failing a standard set of tests compared to just 8% of European children.
The reason, the author concludes, was simple: European children walked a lot, climbed the stairs instead of taking the elevator, and spent much of their free time playing outside; The Americans did not.
This article eventually caught the attention of Dwight Eisenhower, who responded by forming the Presidential Council on Youth Fitness. Its executives, in conjunction with advertising executives and other corporate allies, orchestrated an effective public relations campaign that harnessed physical fitness to Cold War imperatives, arguing that American boys and men had to get fit to fight if they were to defeat the Soviets.
But the campaign also targeted girls and mothers. A spokesperson for the program said it aimed not only to produce “healthy, vital and masculine men”, but also “active, healthy, vital and feminine women capable of mothering a vigorous generation”.
All of this marked a sea change in the number of Americans who considered exercise and fitness. What was once a subculture associated with eccentric impresarios like Bernarr MacFadden and Charles Atlas quickly became a mainstream concern.
It was also becoming a big business. One of the first to see the potential was fitness fanatic Jack LaLanne, who opened his first gym in the 1930s. In the 1950s, LaLanne launched several television programs in which he would perform exercises – he dubbed them “trimnastics” – with the audience following.
LaLanne, who wore a skin-tight jumpsuit to show off her sculpted body, worked on a set that resembled a suburban living room, much like those occupied by her mostly suburban female audience. He preached the virtues of exercise to maintain “zest” in the “marriage bed”. Long before the “Peloton wife” ad sparked controversy, LaLanne’s urgings openly linked a woman’s fitness to her sex appeal.
The 1950s also marked the time when commercial gymnasiums entered the mainstream. A new generation of entrepreneurs like Vic Tanny have opened sparkling temples filled with the latest exercise equipment. Tanny, who believed that “good health can be commodified like automobiles,” counted half a million men and women among its members by the end of the decade.
Other fitness chains have sought to overturn the age-old adage “no pain, no gain”. High-end salons like Slenderella, which had three million customers in 1956, promised women that their machines, which used vibrations or rollers, delivered on the promise of what McKenzie, the author and historian, called “the ‘effortless exercise’.
A paradox defines these developments. The ease of suburban living has left Americans out of shape. But if the modern consumer society caused the problem, it could also solve it. For a price, Americans could buy fitness through gyms, exercise programs, and other activities.
Some of them started small. The jogging craze, which required relatively little investment, quickly grew into an entire half-billion dollar industry by the late 1970s. , like the workout program founded by Jane Fonda, combined celebrity culture with the new technology of videotape to create mass audiences.
The fitness industry, which encompassed everything from books, tapes, equipment, clothing, and gym memberships, grew steadily through the 1970s and beyond. Everything from Jazzercise to Nautilus weight machines to Pilates gained traction in the following years.
In 2022, the fitness industry is bigger than it has ever been. In the United States, gyms and fitness clubs generate annual revenues of nearly $40 billion; home fitness equipment manufacturers generate nearly $5 billion more.
In that context, Peloton is nothing more than the latest entry in a decades-long quest of affluent Americans to stay fit, whatever the cost.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Peloton’s new strategy spins everywhere: Andrea Felsted
Peloton’s real rival does Central Park laps: Tim Culpan
Will New York’s fitness scene stay home? : Tara Lachapelle
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen Mihm, professor of history at the University of Georgia, is co-author of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion