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23 February 2022

The politics of working out

Two books explore how exercise has been shaped by science, culture and the quest for autonomy. But does keeping fit offer empowerment, or merely the feeling of it?

By Sophie McBain

The first exercise classes I attended religiously were Captain Mahmoud’s weekly aerobics lessons, to my knowledge the only group exercise class in Libya that permitted men and women to work out together. The gay bodybuilders, with narrow waists and backs like walnuts, always occupied the front row, closest to the mirrors. Dancing at the back were usually four or five beautiful Ethiopian women, who all worked as cabin crew for Afriqiyah Airways. I preferred to be inconspicuous in the middle row, which I shared with a few friends and a retired scientist who’d been senior in Libya’s recently suspended nuclear weapons programme. The scientist sweated so profusely that Mahmoud periodically mopped the floor around him to prevent falls.

In the UK, to work out is to conform to social expectations – women, especially, are supposed to “look after” themselves – but in Libya, then under the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, Mahmoud’s classes were playfully subversive. We never discussed politics (that would have spoiled the atmosphere), but it was political: we should not have been doing the grapevine together. Mahmoud and I barely spoke beyond the usual pleasantries and his barked catchphrase – “one, two, three, stretching!” – but when a few years ago I learned he’d died in a car accident, I wept. What a fragile, precious world he’d created for us.

In his latest book Sweat, the writer Bill Hayes invites his readers to think more deeply about gyms, and what they represent. The inspiration for Sweat came to him during a workout. He was pounding away on a StairMaster when the question struck him: how did we get here? Visiting a rare books library soon after, he came across a sumptuously illustrated edition of the 1573 book De Arte Gymnastica (The Art of Gymnastics) by Girolamo Mercuriale, an Italian physician who hoped to revive ancient Greek and Roman traditions of exercise. One of the earliest and most comprehensive texts on exercise, it discusses the merits of activities such as walking, running and swimming, as well as crying, laughing and holding one’s breath. Hayes subsequently travelled across the US and Europe in search of Mercuriale’s remaining manuscripts, and Sweat weaves together this hunt with a lively, broad-brush history of exercise, from antiquity to today, and a memoir of his own relationship to fitness.

[see also: The dark side of our age of fitness]

Hayes can be relied on to provide amusing anecdotes and interesting trivia, but I grew bored reading of his various encounters with librarians. His account of his efforts to track down Mercuriale felt like a distraction from the real reasons he set out to write Sweat. Lulled by the tedium of so many library trips, the sudden emotional force of his personal stories can hit you like a professional boxer’s left hook. He writes of taking up boxing soon after the death of his long-term partner and fellow gym rat Steve in 2006, who was HIV positive but otherwise healthy, and died of a heart attack while lying next to Hayes in bed. Steve and Hayes had met in Muscle System, a gym for gay men in San Francisco in the Nineties, when the community was in the grip of the Aids crisis. It was a time when gay men felt a new urgency to get in shape, whether to stave off the wasting effects of the disease or because bodybuilding was a way to feel in control. Hayes writes too of how, after the death in 2015 of his partner of six years, the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, he abandoned exercise (and Sweat) for years.

Our personal histories of exercising, or not exercising, are bound up with our emotional lives. Reading Sweat, I reflected on the role exercise has played in my own life, the beloved gyms and workouts I now associate with a certain mood or phase. The Pilates studio in Cairo that was a place of release and respite. The ridiculous and very New York baby-wearing barre class I attended when my eldest was still small enough to strap to my chest while I did pliés before a mirror. Or the half marathon I did soon after she turned one, when running felt like an act of reclamation, of my body and my identity, after the all-consuming experience of pregnancy and early motherhood.

The history of exercise has been shaped by our slowly unfolding scientific understanding of the body – it was only in the 1950s that researchers began to properly investigate the link between exercise and good health – as well as by culture and, most importantly, power. Hayes ascribes special significance to the invention in the 1890s of the women’s bike, seeing a direct link between the physical freedom this gave women and their demands for greater political participation. The American women’s rights activist Susan B Anthony observed in 1896 that “the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”.

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The connections between female power and fitness are explored in much greater depth by the US journalist Danielle Friedman, whose new book, Let’s Get Physical, is a history of female fitness told through the stories of the bold, pioneering, often troubled women who shaped it. Friedman charts how over the past seven decades women, relegated for so long to the “weaker sex”, developed a new relationship with their bodies, cultivating both physical strength and autonomy.

Friedman is aware that when women exercise they are often motivated less by the prospect of enhanced well-being than by elusive beauty ideals, to stay forever slim and youthful. From the outset, elements of the women’s fitness movement have exploited body insecurity. Yet despite the often toxic association fitness has with the beauty industry, Friedman is an exercise evangelist. She hopes the radical body-love movement, spearheaded by advocates such as the influential black yoga guru Jessamyn Stanley, will help to liberate fitness culture from restrictive beauty norms, and encourage more people to get moving. In Friedman’s view, the biggest problem with fitness culture is exclusion: health disparities are rising between the rich and poor, with too many lacking the time or money to stay fit.

Friedman’s book developed out of her viral 2018 piece, “The Secret Sexual History of the Barre Workout”, published in New York Magazine. It tells the story of Lotte Berk, a professional dancer forced to flee Nazi Germany for London, where in 1959 she leased a studio to teach a workout that combined elements of ballet and yoga, with a spicy emphasis on improving participants’ sex lives. “If you can’t tuck, you can’t fuck!” she’d tell her students as she guided them through exercises such as “the prostitute” and “naughty bottoms”. In the 1970s Prue Leith (!) invited her on to her TV show, on which – according to Leith’s memoirs – Berk “danced around like a demented teenager, exhorting us, ‘squeeze, squeeze, make like fucky-fucky’”. Berk’s workout was exported to the US, and now you can barely make it a few blocks in Manhattan without encountering a barre studio. Berk’s story might have been largely forgotten, but anyone who has done barre and lain on their backs thrusting their pelvis skywards in time to the music will know that her legacy lives on.

Let’s Get Physical begins with the story of Bonnie Prudden, the leotite-wearing, straight-talking dynamo who in the 1950s alerted Americans to the dangers of their sedentary lifestyles and encouraged housewives and children to start exercising. Together with Hans Kraus, a doctor, she conducted studies showing that American children were falling dangerously behind their European counterparts on fitness measures, producing a report that shocked President Eisenhower into creating a special council to improve young people’s health. Prudden developed fitness classes, churned out bestsellers, created the first real line of women’s exercise wear, and eventually sparked a revolution, as gyms sprang up around the country.

Friedman’s focus on individual personalities makes for an absorbing, pacy read – and her enthusiasm for exercise is contagious. After finishing Let’s Get Physical, I jumped on an exercise bike for the first time in months and felt reborn. But the book left me curious about the precise nature of the connection between physical power and political power. Friedman quotes Gloria Steinem: “An increase in our physical strength could have more impact on the everyday lives of most women than the occasional role model in the boardroom or the White House.” Boutique fitness brands and gyms often elide physical and political power in their pitches to customers. When I lived in New York, one of my local gyms released a series of ads with nonsensical, pseudo-political slogans such as “resistance bands not travel bans” and “warming up not global warming”. Does exercise offer empowerment, or merely the feeling of it?

When I lived in Egypt, post-Arab Spring, while the military regime was violently retrenching, I joined a group called Cairo Runners. The running club’s slogan was “We Run This Town”, and during organised races it would close down the traffic-choked streets of the capital for a few hours so that hundreds of us could pound the uneven roads together. It was unusual to be allowed to gather in such a crowd: protests were illegal and would be violently broken up, and even football spectating was banned for fear of unrest. On those early mornings it really did feel like we ran the city. But in no time the runners would disperse and the cars would return, and I still don’t know if our running together meant something – an exercise in political imagination, an expression of solidarity – or nothing at all.

Sweat: A History of Exercise
Bill Hayes
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £20

Let’s Get Physical
Danielle Friedman
Icon, 352pp, £16.99

[see also: Runner’s high: When exercise becomes an addiction]

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls