Why are Americans obsessed with fitness? The answer: Neoliberalism

Historian Jürgen Martschukat argues we've lost the joy in moving our bodies

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 28, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)

"The Age of Fitness: How the Body Came to Symbolize Success and Achievement" by Jürgen Martschukat (Photo illustration by Salon/Erfurt University/Polity)
"The Age of Fitness: How the Body Came to Symbolize Success and Achievement" by Jürgen Martschukat (Photo illustration by Salon/Erfurt University/Polity)

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the United States was the world's largest fitness market with an estimated industry revenue of $96 billion in 2019. From spin to HIIT classes to pilates to hot yoga to commercial gyms, over the last 50 years America's obsession with working out has only grown. Author and historian Jürgen Martschukat calls time on the so-called "Age of Fitness," which he examines in depth in his new book, "The Age of Fitness: How the Body Came to Symbolize Success and Achievement."

What's especially peculiar about the West's fitness-mania is that it isn't tied to organized sport, nor to winning a medal, but rather the goal of "achieving a fit body." That goal has become a mechanism to perpetuate privilege, Martschukat writes. "This body, in turn, stands for an array of partially overlapping forces, abilities and ideals, which point far beyond the doing of the sport," he says. "These encompass one's health and performance in everyday life and at work, productivity and the ability to cope with challenging situations, potency, a slim figure, and a pleasing appearance according to the prevalent standards of beauty."

In other words, Martschukat argues that modern humans don't just work out to stay healthy, but instead they do it to achieve a body image standard set by society that isn't merely about beauty, but also a representation of how we function in our lives. This, he says, is a repercussion of life in a hyper-individualistic, neoliberal society.

"The last half-century may be considered the age of fitness, and it is no accident that it coincides with the age of neoliberalism," Martschukat writes. "Rather than a generalizing call to arms, here neoliberalism denotes an epoch that has modeled itself on the market, interprets every situation as a competitive struggle and enjoins people to make productive use of their freedom."

If you've ever been curious to think more critically about our culture's obsession with fitness and how it's tied to today's dominant ideology in public policy, this book is for you. I spoke with Martschukat by phone recently to learn more; as always, this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Let's start with why you wrote this book. What sparked your interest in the subject and looking at it through the lens that you did, which was examining the correlation between fitness and neoliberalism?

I have been, what you might call, a "historian of the body" for quite some time. So I'm interested in how bodies have changed in history, how the meaning has changed and also how the body practices have changed over the years, decades, and centuries. And so I've done some research on sports history before I embarked on this project and other kinds of projects related to the body. And then what has become more important for me in recent, let's say, in the last 10 years or so, is writing the history of the present.

This means that I'm interested in understanding phenomena in our present by exploring their past. And when you walk around with open eyes and follow the news, it's quite easy to see that we've quite obviously encountered a certain fitness hype. One one hand, you see all the shaped bodies and people working out, and then there is something that has been deemed the "obesity crisis."

At first glance, it might seem like it is two opposite forces, but when you look more closely, you see it's more like two sides of the same coin. Our society and culture are arranged around the idea of a successful self, with the body taken as its indicator. That's what kind of sparked my interest.

Your book made me rethink why I work out and how I'm contributing to something bigger. And it's really interesting. I'm wondering if you can just briefly explain to our readers what role fitness plays in neoliberalism?

Well it's no coincidence that the "Age of Neoliberalism" and the "Age of Fitness" overlap. In the last half-century we have lived in a society and culture that organizes itself very much through the idea of the market and through market practices, and our society and culture praises autonomy and self-government very much and maybe more than ever before in history. Of course the market and the idea of self-government have not been invented in the 1970s or 1980s, but their power has definitely increased. In this context, our body has become something that we might call a "bio-share," that we try to sell on the market; or, that is taken as representing our abilities on the market.

I've had the pleasure of working with colleagues from sociology who do stigma research. And stigma research very much tells us that fat people are heavily discriminated against based on their body shape; for instance on the job market or also in the education system from early age on. What I am interested in is how fitness produces privilege, because it is considered as an expression of our ability to have control over our life, to act autonomously, to achieve things, and to succeed in this market-driven society and culture that we live in.

I love that term bio-share, that's such an interesting way to think about it. In the book you keep coming back to this idea that fitness in our society right now is grounded in the principle of working on oneself, and like you said, you're interested in how fitness produces privilege. I definitely think that in America, and I'm sure in Germany too, Americans have become obsessed with this idea of self-care and wellness. It's kind of like an extension of the fitness craze. Would you agree with that?

Well, as you just said, one thing I'm really interested in is how fitness benefits some people more than others. Fitness is what I call a "regulatory ideal," meaning that fitness has an impact on who is recognized as a productive member of society and to what extent. Thus, the idea that we are all endowed with the right to pursue happiness, which I like to rephrase as "the pursuit of fitness," this idea puts a lot of pressure on many people, if not even on all of us, because the right to the pursuit of happiness is not only a promise and an opportunity, but also an obligation.

It's the obligation that comes along with freedom and that's the obligation to make the best of our lives. What we are told is that we can all achieve success and happiness, even though we are not so sure what that might be. Even back in the days, in the age of the Founding Fathers, happiness was very often interpreted as economic success and owning property.

We are told that we can achieve happiness and success in life if we only work hard enough. We all know that working hard helps in many cases, but we also all know that this is not true because some people work really hard all their lives and, nevertheless, success and happiness do not come to them, or at least not to the extent that they expect it to be. Therefore, fitness and the idea that we are responsible for our bodies, our success and happiness in life, creates a lot of disappointment and frustration that comes along with this system.

So if fitness trends in the Western societies are often a reaction to the market and economic situation, how can we break free of that pattern?

Breaking free of that pattern, I think, is really a tough challenge because this culture of fitness is so tightly interwoven with the basic principles of our society. One way of breaking free might be to move away from the idea that competition and the market are the most efficient ways to organize a society to the benefit of all. Instead, maybe more solidarity and mutual support would be beneficial to all of us. When it comes to the practice of exercise and fitness itself, approaching fitness in a less competitive manner would then again foreground the pleasure that comes along with it, the pleasure of movement, of experiencing and feeling a working and moving body, of breathing cold air on a nice morning. All the joy that comes along with practices of fitness. If we succeed in practicing fitness separate from this highly-competitive edge, hopefully the beauty and pleasure of fitness move to the foreground.

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I think there's a lot of joy that's been lost in fitness now.

And that's what I also try to stress in my book: it brings a lot of joy and pleasure. I think that's something that we should not forget.

I thought it was fascinating how you talked a little about how the hyper-focus on fitness lost its appeal in the New Deal era with the rise of work programs. There was a cultural shift from improving the individual to improving the collective. Can you explain the reason behind that shift in more depth?

Well, the Great Depression of the 1930s was a crisis of massive proportion, economic, political, cultural, and also psychological. Up to this point in history, the predominant socio-political philosophy was very much centered on individual responsibility and what was called "rugged individualism." However, the Great Depression showed that we all depend upon forces that are beyond our control. This led to a change in politics and also modifications in the philosophy of society, from individualism to more solidarity and to collective responsibility for the wellbeing of each and every person.

I do not want to idealize the New Deal policy here. There were many injustices and imbalances involved, but in general, that's a transformation that came along with the crisis of the 1930s and that affected the body politics of the 1930s. On one hand, strong and powerful bodies were still idealized in the 1930s. If you look, for instance, at 1930s photos depicting one of the major New Deal programs, which was called Civilian Conservation Corps, they endlessly show images of strong young, mostly male, white bodies who do hard work on nature. But, on the other hand and contrary to the notion of "rugged individualism," there was always this collectivist tone to it, which is the powerful subtext of the imagery and of the cultural and photographic icons of those days. And that's very different from the fitness and body hype that we experienced earlier around the turn of the century from the 19th to the 20th century, and also very different from today.

Do you think that fitness has been weaponized by capitalism?

I don't know if we should say weaponized. Weaponized sounds to me like it is kind of used by capitalism and employed in order to achieve a certain goal. I would argue that fitness is embedded in capitalism and incorporates the logic of competition and an individualized understanding of success. There is no capitalism that uses a tool called fitness, but fitness, so to speak, is and embodies capitalism and competition. Fitness is part of this notion of a society that organizes itself based on competition, exercise, achievement, and so on.

And corporate fitness, as you discuss in your book.

Yes, of course. Understanding fitness and capitalism as intertwined does not mean that people or corporations are not aware of the power of fitness and of the value of fitness. It does not mean that the fitness craze cannot be exploited. There is corporate fitness on one hand, thus companies trying to nudge their employees to work out and keep fit, and then there is of course the fitness market, which has gained massive proportions since the 1970s.

Where do you think we are right now in history? I mean, I know you can't predict the future, but where do you think we're headed in this Age of Fitness?

On one hand, the pandemic underlines that we live in the age of fitness. I don't know how it is in California, but over here on the streets right now, we see more people than ever before walking, hiking, jogging, and bike riding. After all, gyms are closed right now, but gyms are also very creative. They create outdoor training areas to compensate for the financial losses and to satisfy customers' demands. Quite obviously, many people feel a strong urge to stay in shape during the pandemic. This is, by the way, underlined by the booming exercise bike market. I recently read that American President Joe Biden takes his Peloton Bike to wherever he goes, which might help them to sell even more of them.

At the same time, according to all we can tell about the pandemic and how it affects different societies across the globe, it indicates that responding to a crisis of this proportion requires a somehow coordinated strategy. Or to put it differently, the pandemic shows that it affects people differently and that we cannot handle every problem by ourselves, or at least not everyone can, and that rugged individualism, autonomy and competition is obviously no adequate response to a crisis of this proportion. What we might be seeing now is the dawn of a new politics of solidarity. Who knows, but let's keep our fingers crossed.

Jürgen Martschukat's book, "The Age of Fitness: How the Body Came to Symbolize Success and Achievement," was released on March 22 from Polity.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Author Interview Fitness Jürgen Martschukat Neoliberalism