Relatively few Americans will exercise at a full-service gym or set foot in a swank boutique cycling or yoga studio; only 20 percent work out regularly. Yet many more will check out at the supermarket or see an ad online that reflects how traditional media are shifting people’s understanding and experience of exercise, as well. Specifically, fitness-focused publications are newly committing to inclusivity of all kinds, including Women’s Health banning the body-shaming term “bikini body” from its cover and Self magazine acknowledging with surprising candor that the wellness industry has a “race problem.” The mass-market ads in these publications are increasingly less likely to exclusively feature the slim, white, young fitness models who have dominated their pages and the industry.
If a revolution is afoot, we are in the early stages: As critics have pointed out, daring concepts like “radical self-acceptance” can quickly be hollowed out to sell the same old imperatives. (See “strong is the new skinny.”) Yet there’s no question that a redefinition of why people work out and who is welcome at the gym is underway, and not only in the boutique studios of New York and Los Angeles or even just the fitness media. 24 Hour Fitness CEO Chris Roussos is framing the benefits of exercise especially broadly, teaming up with the Behavior Change for Good Initiative led by Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., and Katherine Milkman, Ph.D. and an interdisciplinary team of scientists to ask the big question: “How can we make behavior change stick?”
Increasingly, fitness is no longer covered exclusively by niche publications or siloed in the “lifestyle” sections of general-interest outlets, but it attracts serious interest as a way to understand broader social issues. In The Atlantic, urban studies scholar Richard Florida used the gym to study gentrification, arguing that “Boutique Fitness Studios Are Remaking Urban Neighborhoods.” At the Harvard Business Review, SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan offered insights on luxury brand development.
Targeting a readership with vastly different politics, social critic Laurie Penny wrote in leftist magazine The Baffler that there’s no better evidence of how our individualistic culture intensifies inequality than the self-centered wellness craze. Still, she conceded, doing Downward Dog now and then might actually equip aspiring revolutionaries with the hope and health required to sustain their struggle.
It’s not just the news media, either. The strongest sign that fitness is becoming more deeply interwoven into our lives than ever before shows up in entertainment products that offer viewers nothing in the way of achieving flatter abs or thinner thighs. Ariana Grande took the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards to perform “Side to Side”—a song about having sex to the point of soreness—in a Spin class setup. For the winking reference to be understood—that a rough ride in an indoor cycling class can leave students as sore as a different kind of “ride”—the audience had to have some familiarity with that feeling (or at least have heard a friend complain about it).
Entire programs bank on a broad fascination with exercise culture as an exciting backdrop for shows aimed at audiences that need not work out themselves. The investigative podcast “Missing Richard Simmons” sought out the mysteriously absent flamboyant fitness star over six full-length episodes and audiences clamored for more. Now in its second season, “GLOW,” a fictionalized Netflix show about a 1980s all-women’s wrestling squad—“The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”—was glowingly reviewed in a New York Times essay and praised as a “true original.” None of the recent reality shows that follow trainers’ daily lives have been huge hits, but the fact that they keep getting made points to how Americans are fascinated with fitness as a lifestyle as much as a way to achieve physical goals.
Ironically, for the increasingly immersive nature of exercise culture—not only from Netflix and the news, but also in Disney princesses outfitted in activewear, corporate fitness challenges, and so on—far too few Americans are able to enjoy it. Nonprofits are stepping up to bridge this gap between the inactive—and statistically unhealthier—masses and those who can afford often prohibitively expensive offerings. Looking ahead, there’s no question that the media will continue to weave together fitness, politics and culture as it has for at least the past 75 years. And the newest, digital forms of fitness that allow people to exercise inexpensively and conveniently might be our best hope to enable more people to fully participate in a fitness culture that today surrounds us but doesn’t (yet) allow us all to sweat on equal terms.
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