March 21 2022

Exercise is good for you. It’s a fact. Exercise Industry May Not Be

In the midst of the hype about unattainable fitness goals It’s simple to lose sight of what makes fitness enjoyable.

Children play while adults exercise. Something may be lost in the transition.Illustration by Sophy Hollington

The lucky ones are those who the benefits of exercising vigorously are in fact accidental effects of doing an activity they enjoy. I’m not one of them. My acquaintances have heard me say that I enjoy swimming but what I really like isn’t just moving in a way that is purposefully through the water but rather being submerged in it, as tea bags. I enjoy walking however, would I enjoy the same even if I hadn’t in self-sabotaging protest towards my Southern California car culture in which I was raised and resisted learning to drive? In the time of the pandemic I secretly adored the possibility the yoga class I was taking were changed to Zoom and at home, with my camera off, it was possible to glance at my smartphone or play with my dog while students were asking instructors to help them develop their asanas. (The dog was astonished by my attention to the “practice.”)

My husband is, however has a fervent love for basketball. At the age of 62, he’s played multiple times per every week for nearly two decades. He returned to the game after breaking his ankle during an individual game a few some time ago, and also after a basketball hit the eyeball of his and broke off the retina months back. Yes, he is aware that the cardio workout can be beneficial, but on days when the shot doesn’t go as planned and he’ll think, “Well, at least I was able to run around”–but it’s the sport that he is passionate about.

As opposed to him, I’ve generally required a convincing argument and explain my science to myself about exercising and exercising, regardless of the fact that I’ve observed that I feel more relaxed and more relaxed following the workout. (There are prolonged periods of my life where I did not even attempt.) This means that I’m aware of the debate about exercise as I am exercising itself. There’s no doubt that I’m not the only one. The story of fitness has been in major part the history of reminders to be fit, as well as of guidance about how and when to accomplish this.

We should all agree that exercising is beneficial for your health. Most medical professionals are in agreement with that idea, as do the majority of us in a time where a segment of the population refuses numerous other health-related knowledge including calls for vaccinations. Physical activity has been proven to lower the chance of developing cardiovascular diseases including diabetes, vascular disease, and cancers; reduce depression and anxiety; build muscles and bones; improve the brain; enhance sleep; and prolong the life span. The quality of exercise you get is not equal. My 20-minute walks in the afternoon aren’t as good as my husband’s two hours of basketball. A little bit is better than none, and it is a comforting thought to keep in mind. Making yourself off your desk every one hour or so is much better than not getting up. It’s even better than sitting in a solitary position. A bit of fidgeting around increases blood flow.

The practice of exercise hasn’t always been regarded as an unassailable benefit. In the early 20th century, as reporter Danielle Friedman writes in her insightful and entertaining novel “Let’s Take a Walk: How women discovered exercise and reshaped their World” (Putnam), intense exercise for women was viewed as not only unfeminine – women were believed to shine, not sweat, but harmful to reproductive organs in females. (My grandmother often advised me to stay away from lifting heavy objects so as not to hinder my childbearing capacity.) Men in the late nineteen-fifties and sixties might be questioned regarding their sexuality if they appeared to be too focused on building their body as per the 2013 book about American fitness culture written by scholar Shelly McKenzie. Engaging in exercising regularly was not generally viewed as a positive thing. The mid-century medical guidelines stressed the dangers of overexertion just in the same way as underexertion, particularly for those wearing gray flannel who was in the executive suite who was believed to be constantly stressed and consequently, always in danger of suffering an attack on the heart. (If there was a chance of surviving one the doctor was likely to advise him not to do any strenuous exercise ever again.) Friedman recounts a 1956 radio interview where Mike Wallace, later of “60 Minutes” fame, expresses his shock at the concept laid out by fitness pioneer Bonnie Prudden. “You believe there ought to be a formal workout as a kind of “joy through strength” period for the wife, husband and the family members when the father comes home from work at 6:30 in the evening, prior to having a Martinis?” he marvels. “You think we ought to be able to have a routine for everyone of us?” So many time-stamped assumptions are stuffed neatly into this response such as the idea that an average (male) breadwinner is in bed with his feet up before 6 p.m., that exercising “routine” could not possibly replace the routine of drinking a cocktail at night.

One of the reasons for this was the way that science began to provide evidence that supports the notion that Charles Atlas-inspired bodybuilders , enthusiastic weekend hikers as well as exuberant fans of vigorous calisthenics, and even brisker swim have been around for a long time. A few doctors knew about the advantages of exercising. In anecdotally they’d observed that fitness levels on the job can lead to different longevity. In the 16-nineties when it was the Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini, comparing the health of tradesmen from different professions, was able to observe that foot messengers who were professional had better health than cobblers and tailors. “Let tailors be advised to engage in regular exercise, even during the holidays,” Ramazzini counselled, in 1713. “Let them make the most effective possible use of one day, in order to prevent the damage caused by a long period of living a sedentary lifestyle.”

In the charming and fascinating novel “Sweat The Complete History of Exercise” (Bloomsbury) writer as well as photographer Bill Hayes tells the little-known tale about the “unassuming British epidemiologist” named Jeremy Morris, who, from the late nineteen-forties onwards introduced quantitative methods to the study of physical exercise. Morris is sometimes referred to as “the person that invented the concept of exercise.” This is somewhat of a stretch, Hayes says, but Morris is “the person who created the discipline in exercise sciences.” Morris and his research team studied thousands of London transit workers who were in pairs on double-decker buses and trams in the city. The drivers were seated for 90 percent of their shifts, whereas conductors took off and off the vehicles , and were able to climb up and down staircases of double-deckers, collecting tickets. In a study that was first presented in The Lancet, in 1953 Morris’s team demonstrated that conductors had lower risk of coronary heart disease than drivers. Furthermore, in the event that they had it they were diagnosed with it later. In addition, he was able to prove that the result was unrelated to body weight as The London transportation company was willing to provide him with the waistband measurements of its employees. As a result, the researcher could determine that conductors had an lower risk of suffering from heart attack , no matter how large. Morris was able to examine the relationship between postal workers who carried mail on walking to civil servants who have offices, and came out similar results. Morris’ findings weren’t immediately welcomed by the experts — many were skeptical that exercising alone could be so beneficial, but the research prompted a wave of research that confirmed and substantiated his findings.

Morris is one of the children of Jewish migrants from Poland was born in the year 1910 and was a poor child in Glasgow. He passed away in 2009 — when Morris, as he seemed to like to declare, he had reached ninety-nine-and-a-half. It could be pertinent that Morris was attentive to his own research, and continued swimming or jogging to older life. However, it is not clear if he seems to have considered fitness an indicator of individual worth, or considered health to be an independent state that was not influenced by social factors. According to Morris’s obituary in the Lancet stated that he was a self-confessed “radical” with an “lifelong enthusiasm” to study and address the issue of inequality.

It is not the case of the majority of contemporary fitness proselytizers , or of the fitness-industrial complex overall. Fitness is shaped today by the neoliberal notion of an optimal self, by the consumerism as well as race and class privilege, as well as by gender standards. Through my life I’ve witnessed the image of the slim but muscular body transformed from something appealing and perhaps athletic to a powerful symbol of ambition, wealth and self-respect. Both are ad-hoc however the second one is more sinister. “The fitness industry has a long history of exclusion that caters to middle and upper-class whites who have money to spend,” Friedman writes in “Let’s get Physical.” “Just when the rich become better off, the healthy tend to become fitter and often the sicker, the less fortunate. There’s also the unsettling reality that exercise has for a long time been associated with positive qualities, which has led to stigmas being imposed on those who don’t desire to, or don’t even appear like working out.” According to Mark Greif writes in his hilarious 2004 essay “Against Exercise,” the contemporary exercise routine places those who don’t exercise “with other people who we dismiss as a social group . . . The elderly, the slow or the helpless, weak.”

For women, sound fitness advice has been difficult to get away from the pressure to eat healthy and look attractive. Even the sensible climbing Bonnie Prudden had a fitness show on TV which featured a song with the theme, “Men love you / when you’re less.” Friedman’s story of women and exercise traces the rise of different fitness trends in the 1950s and the athletes, entrepreneurs, and people who created their own, never quite breaking free from the trap. There’s Lotte Berk the German-Jewish dancer, who’s family had moved to London in the wake of Nazism. In 1959, at a time when there were no free-standing exercise centers in the entire city, Berk, then forty-six had the brilliant idea of creating an exercise studio “not for dancers instead for ladies who would like to appear as dancing artists,” Friedman writes. Berk’s studio, once a Hat factory located in the Marylebone neighborhood, soon began attracted by trendy students, such as writers Edna O’Brien and the Bond girl Britt Ekland. Berk was gung ho about sex. “If you’re not able to get tucked, you’re not able to fiss,” she liked to describe one of her pelvic exercises. This was the beginning of the barre method, which is now the standard option of hundreds of successful studios that draw affluent ladies in expensive fitness attire and who are less concerned about the workout’s glamorous origins more about its capacity to strengthen their cores.

Friedman is also able to introduce us Judi Sheppard Missett–“a long-legged dancing lady of Iowa with permed blonde hair and a massive smile”–who during the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties created Jazzercise, a jolly aerobic exercise that was accompanied by music. She also became a multimillionaire dressed in Lycra through the process. Popularity of Jazzercise as well as its predecessors like Jane Fonda’s popular exercise tapes “created an appreciation for women’s physical strength and fitness,” Friedman observes. In the same way, “America’s body ideals inched further away from the reach of many women” because “pop culture started to glorify women’s body types that were slim, however, they also appeared to be athletically attractive.” This is what happens that runs through the many fitness trends that Friedman writes about. They offer women a way to express their energy or a confirmation of their physical abilities Then, the pastimes are incorporated into lifestyles, the word “empowerment” becomes a commercial cliche and certain body types are celebrated and glorified and some of the enjoyment is absorbed into.

That’s not to diminish the thrill that comes from certain breakthroughs Friedman mentions. In the year Kathrine Switzer, who was twenty years old journalist as well as English student from Syracuse University, set out to participate in the Boston Marathon in 1967, women were banned from the race. Switzer was registered under her own initials, but showed up and was subsequently spotted by reporters who yelled “It’s an actress! It’s an actual woman!” The race director attempted to remove herself physically from the track. Switzer and others appeared on TV for a commercial promoting female runners and the jogging movement of the 70s attracted women, too. The president Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments into law, giving female athletes equal access facilities and funds at schools. In 1984 the 1984 Olympic Games held a women’s marathon for the first time. Nowadays, more than half of marathoners are female. The idea of a woman sweating in running clothes isn’t a radical idea today; in fact it could be seen as the wellness cliche. But, at the same time it’s not quite an open “anybody who has a pair sneakers is able to do it” idea that some of its proponents would like to think of. You don’t just need the physical ability but some places, you need to be white in order to feel comfortable doing it. But according to Friedman states, “every woman who dared to take to the streets in the 1970s should be credited for opening the doors to women to be able to move freely and completely and to feel the deep feeling of physical freedom that comes from pushing yourself forward by using only your will and muscle.”

It’s this enticing recreation of exercising as play and freedom that is what makes “Sweat,” Hayes’s book worth studying. The book doesn’t count its steps in the Fitbit fashion, but rather, it sways. Hayes, while chronicling his pursuit of boxing, biking, swimming, running, yoga, and lifting, sprinkles in bits of exercise history that happen to capture his genial curiosity, from the late-nineteenth-century career of the circus strongman and bodybuilding impresario Eugen Sandow to the surprising significance of bicycles for women in the same era. The trip is in large part an academic one: his fascination with a book that he discovers in the rare-books area in the New York Academy of Medicine 1573 copy of “De Arte Gymnastica” written by the Italian physician Girolamo Mercuriale is what drives him to travel, literally towards England, France, Italy and Sweden to explore archives and meet translators and librarians. Mercuriale is an example of the voices that come from the past that resound with practical and humanistic wisdom. The act of swimming, Mercuriale believes, can “improve the breath, tighten up and warm your body” and increase the risk of being “less susceptible to injuries.” In addition, he expresses his thoughts in a poetic manner about how the water “produces through its gentle touch a kind of unique pleasure of it’s own.” (I’m there with him here.)

It is clear that the primary reason for Hayes’s research is personal, just as exercise is always personal once you’ve finished reading about the latest five-minute wonder exercise and slip on your sneakers. About a decade and a half back, Steve Hayes’s partner, who was forty-three at the time, and “by all appearances well fit”–died abruptly in the morning, after suffering a heart attack during his sleep with Hayes next to him. There were no “signs or premonition.” They had been to the gym on the night prior they had cooked dinner, and read in the bed, and then went to sleep. After Steve’s passing, Hayes set out to finish a list of things that Steve left at his desk, along with an array of household chores followed by the list himself of the things had always been his dream to complete including learning to box. It’s this pursuit–a means of expressing sadness or perhaps a renewed passion for life–that results in a unique and often emotional blend of memoirist and historical writing. Hayes has plenty to say about the culture of gyms in gay males in the AIDA crisis, as well as about the specific San Francisco gym he frequented, Muscle System, which was decorated with mirrors that were floor-to-ceiling. “If anything else, muscle can make a man appear healthy, strong, and attractive even if he did not feel like it within,” he writes. “Directly or indirectly, every gay person was at some point in the disease, whether it was illness, infection and survival, caregiving or denial.”

Recently, Hayes and his partner, Oliver Sacks, the brilliant neurologist and writer started swimming “whenever we could in the cold mountains as well as in the salty waters of the ocean as well as in New York’s chlorinated public swimming pools.” Following the death of Sacks passed away in the year 2015. Hayes had lost interest in fitness. When he first returned to swimming in 2015, he was mostly trying to control his blood pressure and weight and blood pressure, both of which were rising. When he decided to swim once more and recovered, he quickly rediscovered the fundamental rhythms of the water; the body remembered how to perform the dolphin kick and his mind was able to wander. While reading Hayes’s story the humor of his story made me consider certain types of movements we engage in as children, but rarely revisit when we become adults. A skipping routine, for example, that may look silly, but it’s extremely enjoyable. Also, rolling around like a barrel on a hill covered in grass. Hayes isn’t one of these, however Hayes does attempt wearing a bare-faced tshirt, as is the method used by athletes in the first Olympics. In the Sacks’s home in the country, Hayes runs down the quarter-mile drive and then back in a buff. If you’re thinking, “there was some jostling beneath,” he reports, “but within a few seconds my testicles were retracted, and my the scrotum followed, like I was shrink-wrapping my thighs,” and he soon realizes that he is “sporting nature’s jockstrap.”

That’s what they did at Marathon! The test is “vital and wild. It is also powerful.” We all have our own versions of this, thanks to our gym memberships and wearable devices and our endless scrolling through research on longevity and diet strategies, the joy of moving isn’t the main reason to work out. Hayes’s enthralling book reveals what’s in store if we only create it.