The 50 Year Workout: Rethinking the exercise of our time

Some of us avoid exercise: why? PhysEd researcher Brian Culp says a more inclusive, less sports-oriented high school education can help. Historian Jürgen Martschukat argues that the pressure to keep fit at all comes less from us, and more from political and economic forces.

Political, economic, and cultural pressures shape our attitudes toward fitness, say researchers

Participants attend a yoga class on the Edge Observation Deck, overlooking the Manhattan skyline, in New York, June 17, 2021. Historian and author Jürgen Martschukat reminds us that widespread exercising did not exist in the West before the 1970s. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally published on June 23, 2021.

Some people love to exercise. Others do it grudgingly. Some hate it.

Personal motivation plays a part, but some researchers believe that cultural factors also have significant influence.

To formally exercise is "a deeply historical experience, one that did not exist 50 or 100 years ago," points out Jürgen Martschukat, a historian from the University of Erfurt.

The rise of formal exercise

His new book, The Age of Fitness, looks at the rise of fitness culture in the West, particularly from the 1970s to the present. 

Martschukat says political and economic expectations create the need for greater fitness, and reward leaner body standards.

Two competitors compete at an aerobics championship at Oakridge Mall in Vancouver in 1987. The sport was wildly popular at the time. (CBC)

Looking at Western countries after the Second World War, Jürgen Martschukat says governments soon realized that the promotion of consumer culture negatively affected people's relationship to food and activity.

President John F. Kennedy exhorted 1960s America to do more exercise, warning: "A country is as strong as its citizens…  Mental and physical vigour go hand in hand."

In 1970s Canada, ParticipAction campaigns urged greater activity, and compared 30-year-old Canadians unfavourably to 60-year-old Swedes in a series of TV ads.

Strong, slim bodies as the ideal

Once-niche activities such as jogging, and then aerobics, became wildly popular, as well as big business. Private gyms proliferated.

At the same time, the Reagan-Thatcher era of the 1980s saw an economic crisis that led to calls for "leaner production," smaller government, and greater individual responsibility. 

Jürgen Martschukat does not think it's a coincidence that working on oneself, to achieve an idealized slim, strong, healthy body, became a Western ideal. 

Author Jürgen Martschukat explores how fitness is deeply ingrained in modern society and how important exercise has become to measure success or failure, in his book, The Age of Fitness. (Polity/University of Erfurt)

Even today, the historian sees a "power dynamics of fitness" in our competitive work and social environments, with a fit body connoting self-control, success, and survival. 

"Fitness has a deep impact on our position in society, on our recognition as productive citizens, on how we can access the resources of society, and how we are perceived and acknowledged" by others, says Martschukat. 

High school PhysEd as social microcosm

Power dynamics also take hold in high school PhysEd classes. Despite the emphasis on learning, the fittest and most skilled students can soon rise to the top of the class hierarchy, leaving the rest behind.

As an adolescent in the 1990s, writer-editor Michelle Woo experienced familiar PhysEd troubles, such as being the last picked for a team, and getting injured during an aggressive game of dodgeball.

Brian Culp says 'dehumanizing' is the right word to describe how some students feel about PhysEd. (Kennesaw State University)

The experience stayed with her: "I still see myself to this day as not good at sports... I probably would choose not to participate" even in a casual game of beach volleyball with friends, Woo admits.

The adult after-effects of PhysEd class are not uncommon. But researchers and educators are at work to improve PhysEd class, to make it more welcoming and student-focused.

Building a better PhysEd class

Brian Culp researches physical activity in schools and communities. He also trains physical educators and movement specialists. He thinks one issue with PhysEd class is the over-emphasis on sports.

The Kennesaw State University professor says: "When you look at goals and standards for physical education, they don't mirror the goals of sport. In Canada, in the United States, the goals are supposed to be about lifetime physical activity."

In a recent paper, Brian Culp used the term "dehumanizing" around the way that some high school students can experience alienation,  and even a loss of identity, in PhysEd class environments. 

He's acutely conscious of societal barriers around physical activity as well. Black students in class may face higher expectations around athletic ability due to racial stereotypes. This despite reduced access to a breadth of activity options such as swimming or hockey, due to lack of community resources or historic exclusions.

Experts in the field of PhysEd say teachers need to stay educated on their students' realities and to make sure they are inclusive of everyone. Brian Culp adds it’s also vital for educators to be aware of the history behind the gym curriculum. (Martin von Krogh/Getty Images)

Brian Culp and other PhysEd educators are working on strategies to help a whole range of students succeed.  Solutions include making environments safe and welcoming, giving some agency to students around activities, ensuring sports are not the only option, and improving awareness and representation among PhysEd teachers.

When it comes to the joy of movement, and physical activity through adulthood, Brian Culp thinks that PhysEd class has an important role in making people feel secure and positive:  "It's a body confidence piece, right?"

Guests in the episode:

Brian Culp is a professor of Health and Physical Education, as well as an assistant departmental Chair at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. In 2014-15, he was a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at Montreal's Concordia University. 

Jürgen Martschukat is a professor of North American History at the the University of Erfurt/Universität Erfurt in Germany. He is author of The Age of Fitness: How the Body Came to Symbolize Success and Achievement, translated by Alex Skinner (Polity, 2021).

Michelle Woo is a senior editor at Medium. She wrote about the impact of PhysEd class for Lifehacker, and is currently at work on a book about horizontal parenting, or how to invently entertain your children while lying down.

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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