- Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America by Mckenzie, Shelly
Getting Physical examines the emergence of fitness as a “national, middle-class obsession” in the United States between the 1950s and 1980s. While recognizing that similar interest also arose during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Shelly McKenzie argues that cultural trends between the administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan fostered a distinctive set of ideas, habits, and disputes related to fitness. Her case draws on published primary sources and several archival collections, supplemented by the work of cultural, medical, and sport historians.
Each chapter considers a particular decade’s version of “getting physical.” How did Americans typically define and measure “fitness”? Which experts, entrepreneurs, and media promoted fitness, while debating its meaning and complicating its pursuit? By what means and for which purposes did various Americans seek fitness, and which citizens were excluded by virtue of class and race? McKenzie’s examples are best characterized as purposive exercise, that is, deliberate, systematic activities undertaken for some explicit or assumed utility. In general, the book does not address sports or other leisure-time physical activities that also shaped American concepts and practices of “fitness” after mid-century.
During the 1950s, McKenzie begins, the federal government encouraged “total fitness” among children and youth, amid concerns that post-war affluence and consumerism might “soften” Americans’ bodies, with dire implications for gender roles and Cold War rivalries. In the 1960s, the belief that the physical self-reflected one’s social status directed attention to the lifestyles of adults. As the country’s fitness industry prospered and scientific arguments over diet and exercise intensified, doctors and popular media urged white, middle-class men to relieve job-related stress and prevent heart attacks (a signifier of masculine ambition). Stay-at-home wives were expected to protect their husbands’ health, while exercising to become slim and beautiful. The 1970s replaced the vague exercise plans of earlier times with jogging—a clear-cut, more vigorous activity that captured the decade’s preoccupation with personal responsibility and self-improvement. Despite questions about the safety and benefits of jogging, its accessibility and flexible meanings had wide appeal. Middle-aged white Americans, McKenzie concludes, jogged to enhance health and sense of self; for a younger generation, jogging expressed authentic, non-mechanized, environmentally-friendly living. The final chapter describes the proliferation of commercial health clubs, exclusive salons, and workplace gyms during the 1980s. While building community [End Page 522] among gay and straight patrons alike, these facilities represented an individualistic, competitive style of fitness that valued “sculpted muscles” and perfect physique as emblems of discipline and competence.
Whereas some analyses of modern American fitness concentrate on one or two historical factors, McKenzie’s wide-ranging narrative considers the changing influence of government, business, science, and culture. Her treatment of political conditions and ideologies, the commercialization of health and exercise, and popular anxieties over gender roles are especially informative. For some readers, the discussion of fitness science will seem less rigorous or consistent. The book’s cast of characters is appropriately eclectic, including government leaders, fitness gurus and capitalists, clinical physicians, and some exercise researchers. The analysis pays less attention to professional physical educators, public health authorities, and the nascent sports medicine community.
As a cultural history, Getting Physical uses America’s fluid concepts, practices, and arguments over fitness to uncover popular attitudes about body and health and, more generally, to critique modern identity, culture, and society. The book’s strongest observation is that American fitness has been exclusionary. The cultural representation of exercise as the “province of a certain demographic group” and fitness as a “marker of difference or even superiority” contributed to manifest disparities in health and in rates of physical activity across lines of gender, race, and class (pp. 180–181). Second, McKenzie concludes that Americans typically regard exercise as an individual responsibility, with moralistic and competitive overtones. This telling statement about American values holds true, although the book also hints that...