The Rise of Fitness Culture in America
John G. Cawelti Award
Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences Award
“In McKenzie’s account, it was the lifestyle of suburban consumerism that both encouraged fitness and produced the medical need for it. . . . [Goes] a long way toward helping us make sense of what it means to be “fit” in America while complicating the place of physical fitness within our culture of body surveillance and rigid beauty standards.”
“A compelling, cohesive, and easy to follow account of the evolution of fitness culture in the United States.”
—Journal of Interdisciplinary HistorySee all reviews...
“Early twenty-first century conceptions of physical fitness are often assumed to be scientific truths . . . Shelly McKenzie’s Getting Physical reveals that these truths have a specific cultural history encompassing a range of understandings and experiences of the fit body from the 1950s to the present.”
—Journal of American History
“McKenzie highlights two important moments in fitness and exercise, governmental support for children’s fitness and the rise of jogging culture.”
—Journal of American Culture
“[A] well-crafted study of fitness culture in America from the 1950s through the 1980s.”
—American Historical Review
“Shelly McKenzie’s Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America analyzes one of the most understudied aspects of American culture: the impact on the American body of the move to suburbia beginning after WWII. The fitness culture that we assume to be an integral part of what it means to be American in the 21st century turns out to be a response to the mass flight from the urban environment to the car culture of the suburbs. Fitness may be a contemporary commonplace but it is one with a complex and intriguing history. Clearly written and engaging, McKenzie’s account should be required reading for all the public health specialists wondering about the origins of our obesity epidemic.”
—Sander L. Gilman, author of Obesity: The Biography
“An interesting and ambitious book—based on diverse evidence and clear analysis—that effectively explains the origins of and reasons for many aspects of Americans’ continuing focus on physical fitness.”
—Peter Stearns, author of Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West
“McKenzie identifies and delineates a number of touchstone moments at which the relations among health, exercise, and cultural ideology changed in palpable ways. The result is an intriguing, well-written and compelling history that rings true, but also offers a number of new surprises. And it is a genuine pleasure to read!”
—Philip Deloria, author of Indians in Unexpected PlacesSee fewer reviews...
From Charles Atlas to Jane Fonda, the fitness movement has been a driving force in American culture for more than half a century. What started as a means of Cold War preparedness now sees 45 million Americans spend more than $20 billion a year on gym memberships, running shoes, and other fitness-related products.
In this first book on the modern history of exercise in America, Shelly McKenzie chronicles the governmental, scientific, commercial, and cultural forces that united—sometimes unintentionally—to make exercise an all-American habit. She tracks the development of a new industry that gentrified exercise and made the pursuit of fitness the hallmark of a middle-class lifestyle. Along the way she scrutinizes a number of widely held beliefs about Americans and their exercise routines, such as the link between diet and exercise and the importance of workplace fitness programs.
While Americans have always been keen on cultivating health and fitness, before the 1950s people who were preoccupied with their health or physique were often suspected of being homosexual or simply odd. As McKenzie reveals, it took a national panic about children's health to galvanize the populace and launch President Eisenhower's Council on Youth Fitness. She traces this newborn era through TV trailblazer Jack La Lanne's popularization of fitness in the '60s, the jogging craze of the '70s, and the transformation of the fitness movement in the '80s, when the emphasis shifted from the individual act of running to the shared health-club experience. She also considers the new popularity of yoga and Pilates, reflecting today's emphasis on leanness and flexibility in body image.
In providing the first real cultural history of the fitness movement, McKenzie goes beyond simply recounting exercise trends to reveal what these choices say about the people who embrace them. Her examination also encompasses battles over food politics, nutrition problems like our current obesity epidemic, and people left behind by the fitness movement because they are too poor to afford gym memberships or basic equipment.
In a country where most of us claim to be regular exercisers, McKenzie's study challenges us to look at why we exercise—or at least why we think we should—and shows how fitness has become a vitally important part of our American identity.