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21 April 2021updated 23 Apr 2021 12:17pm

The dark side of our age of fitness

A new book explores the link between neoliberalism and working out.   

By Lola Seaton

In Martin Scorsese’s new documentary series Pretend It’s a City, starring the author and raconteur Fran Lebowitz, there is an amusing shot of Lebowitz, a lifelong chain-smoker who detests sport (but walks everywhere), staring bemusedly as she passes a group of women heaving tyres along the street, evidently participating in a form of communal exercise. “Why do people do these things?” Lebowitz asks.

People want to “challenge” themselves… These challenges are fake… A challenge is something you have to do, not something you make up. . . I always think, what kind of life do you have? I find real life challenging enough… I do not need to seek out these completely fantastical challenges.

Part of what seems awry with contemporary fitness culture is its artifice, symptomatic of the wrongness of modernity, prior to which, one imagines, real life was excessively challenging and exercise blissfully inadvertent. Condemned to an “active” lifestyle, pre-modern humans would surely never have dreamed of inventing excuses to expend extra energy for the sake of it. Like the ubiquitous food products that advertise how little calorific sustenance they supply, confecting occasions for physical exertion seems to symbolise our alienation from a more natural, integrated, rational way of living.

But even in a more recent historical perspective, it seems plain that people used to move more in the course of daily life. Technology has now brought such advanced convenience that it has immobilised us. We have become sedentary victims of the efficiencies of our own innovations, paper-pushers who have to discipline ourselves into moving for movement’s sake. Especially for those in the white-collar world now able to work remotely, there are vanishingly few occasions for necessary motion.

That we are, as the title of the historian Jürgen Martschukat’s new book suggests, living in “the Age of Fitness” is self-evident. Perhaps fitness’s modernness feels intuitive because it seems postmodern, distinctively late-capitalist and post-industrial. This is the drift of the critic Mark Greif’s iconic polemical essay about modern gym-going, “Against Exercise”:

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Nothing can make you believe we harbour nostalgia for factory work but a modern gym. . . with the gym we import vestiges of the leftover equipment of industry to our leisure… A farmer once used a pulley, cable, and bar to lift his roof beam; you now use the same means to work your lats.

Socially necessary effort has degenerated into a kind of fake toil, exertion into mere exercise, work into a workout; alienated from its productive public purpose, fitness’s only end is personal self-betterment.

***

I’ve always felt vaguely sheepish about my own running habit. Smugness is difficult to avoid. Returning from a run obnoxiously exhausted, the glow of your endorphin rush seems to pass gloating comment on your less energetic cohabitants. “Keeping fit” has long struck me as a bit uncool, evoking a disciplined, competitive and perhaps slightly masochistic personality.  The evident solicitude for one’s health and appearance seems a betrayal of the spirit of youth, which is supposed to be spent finding glamorous ways to insouciantly embrace the death drive.

Harbouring such suspicions, I wasn’t expecting Martschukat’s “history of fitness” to be a paean to spin classes, and I wasn’t disappointed. Martschukat, who is professor of North American History at the University of Erfurt, dates the rise of fitness to the 1970s and helpfully supplies a conceptual framework for understanding it – neoliberalism: “an epoch that… interprets every situation as a competitive struggle and enjoins people to make productive use of their freedom.” Martschukat’s personification of neoliberalism is a little unstable, and though I was grateful for a concept on which to pin my suspicions, the word can sometimes seem a catch-all political villain.

But the quite literal connections he draws between bodily discipline and one’s capacity to survive contemporary capitalism are convincing: “Concern for one’s body and its potential is, more than ever, regarded as an indication of our willingness to perform at work.” The penalisation and stigmatisation of fatness is the other face of our obsession with fitness: fear of the former and obsessive pursuit of the latter are “part of a single social formation, centred on the self-responsible, committed and productive individual”. Martschukat suggests fitness is not merely one of many epiphenomena of neoliberalism, but that “the fitness athlete is the ideal type of self-regulated motivation and thus of the neoliberal self”.

Martschukat regards the modern obsession with fitness – with improving, measuring, disciplining, slimming, hardening, elasticising, preserving the body – as related to the retreat of welfarism and the increased “flexibility” of the workforce. Sometimes he presses too hard on the connection –“lean people in lean companies, flexible bodies for a flexible capitalism” – but in general the thesis is completely plausible, and has the bonus of allowing people like me, eager to externalise the masochism and competitiveness implied by their exercise habits, to lay the blame at the door of a malign socio-political order.

Fitness was not invented in the 1970s, of course. As Martschukat notes: “The desire to enable the working body to perform better through the use of exercise and sport… is evident in the organised or welfare capitalism of the 19th and 20th centuries, company sports programmes and industrial recreation, and the relationship between sport and work under the Nazi regime.” But today, when “the paternalistic programmes of welfare capitalism” are, at best, “in remnant form”, “it is more common to nudge the ‘workers-as-entrepreneurs’ of the present to pursue voluntary self-care”.

[see also: Is this the moment for a flexible work revolution?]

***

Martschukat’s book isn’t as interesting as its subject, and the prose, translated from the German by Alex Skinner, can be repetitive and inelegant. My main issue with the book, however, is its neglect of the question that brewed as I read: So what? Meaning not so much, “What are you suggesting we do about this sinister regime of self-discipline?” But, “Does it matter that fitness is a neoliberal pursuit?” After all, people get a kick out of it – and these kicks can be profound and real, not false consolations like so much else neoliberalism provides. Habitual exercise can make people feel happier, better about themselves, in control of their lives, more capable – and not only of joining the ranks of the precariat, but of dealing with life’s trials (perennial, not just neoliberal).

Even if the benefits of keeping fit are oversold (just as the risks of obesity are often overstated or oversimplified), and even though being fit obviously should not be a tacit requirement for excelling in the labour market, routine exercise is objectively benign. The book’s failure to engage with the implications of its argument is partly a consequence of its being a study of a discursive phenomenon. It traces, for example, the way the meaning of the word “fitness” has evolved, and alludes to key texts in this evolution, from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) to Kenneth Cooper’s Aerobics (1968). For Martschukat the imperative to keep fit is a kind of false consciousness and, focused on the discourse, he is not much interested in exercise’s real pleasures and benefits.

The question of where exactly Martschukat’s analysis points is dealt with in the thinnest of terms in the book’s final paragraph: evading “the great power of fitness” could “mean eating burgers and cream cake” or “people laz[ing] around on the sofa simply because they feel like it”. Not only do plenty of us do enough of this already – including the fitness-crazed, for what else is white- collar fitness but the compartmentalising of physical activity into discrete episodes in a context of general inactivity? – but this form of resistance seems needlessly self-sabotaging.

The solutions to the more pernicious aspects of the age of fitness are surely the same as those offered to blunt the roughest edges of the age of neoliberalism. Redistributive measures, such as a minimum income guarantee and a four-day week with no loss of pay, would give more people more spare time and energy, so that the appetite for physical activity can more widely and equitably emerge, and so that people aren’t penalised by the job market if it doesn’t. By severing the link Martschukat draws so convincingly between keeping fit and keeping oneself employable, such policies might also dent the sinister ethos of fitness as individual self-optimisation in conditions of “omnipresent competition”.

As Martschukat points out, “healthy and unhealthy, fit and unfit has become a class distinction”: the pursuit of fitness, its accoutrements often absurdly expensive, is by and large the preserve of the affluent, both the high-powered and the idle. The rational response to contemporary fitness culture is not to dispense with fitness altogether but to democratise it, above all by redistributing access to free time. The revolution will not be sedentary.

The Age of Fitness: How the Body Came to Symbolise Success and Achievement
Jürgen Martschukat
Polity Press, 220pp, £20

This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical