Lack of exercise is a significant factor contributing to the obesity epidemic in the United States. It is estimated that in 2021, 37.9% of men and 41.1% of women in the United States are obese. At the same time, the fitness culture in America is growing and the number of Americans getting regular exercise has increased. Dieting, weight-loss pills, and fitness challenges are a huge part of American culture today. However, there is something clearly missing, as America has one of the highest rates of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health issues, such as depression. Fitness can have both positive and negative effects on individuals and society as a whole. It can improve people’s health and wellbeing, but it can also be toxic and ineffective. This article will explore fitness culture, its evolution, and its impact on American society.
A brief history of fitness
Fitness, as we know it today, is not a modern invention. Although the purposes of physical activity have changed, physical training has been present in human societies throughout history.
Physical activity has existed since the primal times and was mostly used for the practical demands of life. It was essential for mankind to physically move in order to survive and avoid threats. Physical activity was deeply ingrained in the daily lives of people at the time. Today, the hunter-gatherer tribes which still exist in some cultures around the world adopt similar practical physical activity, that is necessity-driven rather than structured around staying fit to look good (Le Corre, 2014).
The Agricultural Revolution
During the Agricultural Revolution between 10,000 and 8,000 BC, the demands for growing food and raising cattle led to the diminishing of various complex movements, like running, jumping, crawling, or climbing. This was the purpose of physical activity until the Ancient Times (Le Corre, 2014).
The Ancient Times and the rise in intentional physical training
Between 4,000 BC and the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, physical activity in the form of training was widely practiced by athletes in Ancient Greece. It was done as military preparation or for the purposes of preparing for physical competition or display. Running, jumping, wrestling, gymnastics, throwing heavy stones, or lifting them have been evidenced as some of the highly effective training methods used during the Ancient Times.
In addition to military training, populations of the Ancient Times valued sports and athletic competitions. These existed in ancient Egypt, as well as ancient Greece. Early sports were based on fighting, running, jumping, and throwing disks. Such sports have been evidenced to have been popular during the first Olympic games. Along with the idea of competing in sports of the time, there was a rise in a physical culture that was beyond the practical necessities, and the body’s beauty and strength began to be embraced by the Greeks and Romans (Le Corre, 2014).
The Medieval Times
In the Middle Ages, the body was seen as sinful. Thus, there was barely any focus on physical training, except for training for military service. The emphasis was mostly on the soul and the mind, as Christianity spread across medieval Europe, with the belief that exercise should come through hard labor (Le Corre, 2014).
The Renaissance and the first literature on the benefits of physical activity
In the Renaissance, the body, as well as human health and biology, began to be appreciated and focused on once again. Physical exercise and its benefits were studied and addressed in books. Physicians such as Girolamo Mercuriale, published literature that focused on diet, exercise, and hygiene as well as the use of natural remedies for disease (Le Corre).
The Industrial Revolution and its impact on physical training
The wave of physical education and training methods began to spread across Europe around 1760. Intentional physical activity started after the Industrial Revolution and the development of machine-based manufacturing and production. This had a significant impact on how people were taking care of their bodies and the desire to stay healthy and fit. Despite this, the necessity to stay prepared for the battle continued to be one of the main reasons for physical activity (Le Corre, 2014).
Victorian gym regimes
In 1861, a book written by Gustav Ernst described a series of exercises recommended for both males and females to perform at portable home gyms. The home gym was made of wooden boards and consisted of various weights and cords, for people who wished to train at home, as well as people with spinal problems. The portable home gym was available only to those who were rich enough to be able to afford it and have the luxury of free time. Nevertheless, the exercises were similar to the gym techniques popular today (Mundasad, 2014).
In America, the awareness of fitness began even earlier, around 1823. Catharine Beecher advocated for the inclusion of physical education in schools and developed a program of calisthenics that was performed to music. She established the first major U.S. educational institution for women to implement physical education, called Hartford Female Seminary (Le Corre, 2014).
American fitness in modern times
The fitness movement in the United States has changed considerably throughout history, but the fitness culture as we know it today is considered to be rooted in 20th-century Western culture.
Although prior to the 1970s, only about 25% of Americans claimed to exercise regularly, everything began to change over the next few decades. The idea of fitness culture was influenced by various reasons. One of the factors that played a significant part in the changes that occurred, was the “growing awareness of the deteriorating physical condition of most Americans”. Inactivity, obesity, heart, lung, and blood vessel disease started to rise with the globalization and modernization of Western cultures. Exercise has become a preventative remedy for Americans and a way of reducing disease and improving the life and health of the American population (Stern, 2008).
Part of the reasons for obesity and the sedentary lifestyle of Americans is the development of capitalism. In the 1950s, when America entered the golden age of capitalism, Americans began moving from the countryside to the suburbs and were pushed behind the wheel of cars. The walkable neighborhoods were removed and this is believed to be one of the significant factors that negatively impacted the physique of many Americans.
Fitness in America in the 1950s and 1960s
The 1950s and 1960s were important for women who began to turn to exercise as a means of maintaining their bodies in good shape. An increase in at-home mothers who owned television allowed for new ways of marketing fitness and the spread of guided fitness that could be done at home. Shows such as The Jack LaLanne Show offered such guided exercises and played a huge role in the spread of fitness culture across America. Men also began to see the importance of a healthy and muscular physique to maintain a healthy lifestyle and healthy body.
The 1970s and 1980s
In the 1970s and 1980s, jogging became one of the most popular ways of maintaining a healthy and fit body. The 1980s is considered “the fitness decade” as fitness became popular in American movie culture. Jane Fonda’s Workout was a popular VHS video of guided exercises to burn calories and stay fit. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, who played in many action movies of the time, have influenced American men and women to spend $5 billion a year on gym memberships in the 80s.
Dieting as part of the fitness culture
Diet culture is the pervasive belief that appearance and body shape are more important than physical, psychological, and general wellbeing. Dieting is believed by some to be a normal way of controlling the body through diet and by limiting what and how much you eat. “Earning” food after a workout, feeling guilt or shame for eating, and suppressing your appetite with water, caffeine, cigarettes, etc., are all examples of diet culture, that are linked to fitness culture. Diet culture, however, is not always beneficial and can be very harmful, not just for physical health but for mental wellbeing.
According to a survey conducted between 2015 and 2018, 17% of Americans reported that they were on diets, an increase of 14% since 2007-2008. Interestingly, at the same time, obesity rates also rose in the United States to 42% of Americans, an increase from 32%. However, diet is complex and therefore difficult to define. According to Nicole Avena, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and author of “Why Diet Fails”: “It’s hard to define what qualifies as a ‘diet’ anymore. People often adopt behaviors related to food, like not eating after 7 p.m., or not eating gluten, and do these things to varying degrees of strictness.” (Millard, 2020).
Thus, long-term changes in diets can be beneficial to people seeking to make healthy changes. However, it should not be seen as a temporary restrictive weight-loss method, as that creates an unhealthy relationship with food and only sets people up for failure (Milalrd, 2020).
Fitness culture in America and the mass media
Mass media plays a significant role in Western culture and various aspects of it, such as the fitness culture. Fitness culture and the ideas of the perfect body image are constantly shaped through media such as TV, magazines, books, and social media. Commercials promoting slimness or muscularity as the ideal body type are constantly influencing people, not only in America but all over the world, to engage in fitness.
Globalization and technological advancements have made it incredibly easy for people to track their workouts and diets, meanwhile improving their wellbeing. The advertisements for high-tech fitness equipment have brought tremendous growth in sales of dumbbells, benches, resistance bands, smart fitness trackers, and more. The move towards a more healthy lifestyle and fitness culture has been easier thanks to wearable devices that help to perform exercises with the correct posture and body formation, allowing people to achieve their goals and prevent injuries. In addition to this, wearable fitness devices help people to socialize (Bajaj, 2019).
However, mass media has also impacted society in some negative ways. Fitness and body image are some of the most harmful aspects that affect people’s lifestyles, eating, and fitness habits. This has been evidenced through studies focusing on negative body image. Women who view fitness content on a regular basis through mass media such as social media, tend to develop a more negative body image and compare their bodies to the bodies they view on social media. This, in turn, has negative consequences not only on their physical health but also on their psychological health. Regular exposure to social media content related to fitness has been linked to depression, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. Men, although less often than women, are also subject to this.
Fitspiration and its impact on society
Fitspiration or the ‘fitspo’ movement is defined as “a person or thing that serves as motivation for someone to sustain or improve health and fitness” (Oxford Dictionary). According to recent studies, the fitspiration movement has been proven harmful and damaging to people’s physical and mental health. Fitspiration is a growing online phenomenon aiming to motivate people to work out and stay fit. The movement is based on sharing images of athletic bodies overlaid with motivational quotes with the aim of inspiring people to become active. Fitspo has been growing in popularity in recent years and is extremely popular in Western cultures such as the United States and the United Kingdom. The fitspiration phenomenon has been proven to motivate to improve fitness and eat healthily. However, the problem with this phenomenon is that it promotes the damaging content of skinny bodies and messages stigmatizing fat, promoting body guilt and objectification. As a result, people who view such content tend to have increased body dissatisfaction and feel negative about their appearance (Holland, 2016).
Cultural significance of fitness in anthropology
The value of fitness can be found in many cultures across the globe. Nevertheless, fitness has played a significant role in shaping American culture throughout history. Fitness culture is significant for anthropologists because the insight into the fitness culture allows researchers to understand and explain how fitness culture is constructed and provides them with the various shared common values, beliefs, and practices unique to the fitness environment. In addition to this, it allows social scientists to study the importance of overall health and fitness and the impact it has on individuals and society as a whole.
Bajaj, S. (2019). “Why Wearable Technology is the Cornerstone for Fitness Culture?”. Available: medium.com
Holland, E. (2016). “Why the ‘Fitspo’ Movement is Damaging to Women”. Available: theconversation.com
Le Corre, E. (2014). “The History of Physical Fitness”. Available: artofmanliness.com
Millard, E. (2020). “More Americans on Diets Now Than a Decade Ago, CDC Reports”. Available: verywellfit.com
Mundasad, S. (2014). “Victorian Keep-Fit Exercises and Gym Regimes Revealed”. Available: bbc.co.uk
Stern, M. (2008). “The Fitness Movement and the Fitness Center Industry, 1960-2000”. Business and Economic History On-Line. Vol 6. Available: thebhc.org