The Rise of American Fitness Culture with Shelly McKenzie

Shelly McKenzie, an independent scholar, holds a Ph.D. from George Washington University, where she has taught writing and American studies. In this interview, we discuss her book Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America and the development of American fitness culture from the Cold War to the present.

Enter the giveaway below to win a paperback copy of Getting Physical (United States residents only).

Cover of Getting Physical by Shelly McKenzie, a book about American fitness culture

Greg: Can you tell me a little about your background? What led you to write a cultural history of the American fitness movement?

Shelly: In short, I wrote the book I wanted to read. When I was working on my doctorate in American Studies, I was reading a lot of histories of the body—books about the history of tattooing, cosmetic use, plastic surgery, suntanning, diet culture and body shape—but I was unable to find much that explained the current climate of exercise and physical fitness in a serious manner. Scholarly histories seemed to stop around the 1920s and cultural criticism seemed based on broad generalizations and personal memories.

I had been a regular gym exerciser since college and enjoyed the feeling of physical activity, the knowledge that I was doing something good for my health, and the camaraderie of group exercise classes. The physical liberation I felt at the gym did not match the various texts I encountered in grad school that treated exercise as either a silly fad or a kind of coercion related to appearance or body shape. I was also very frustrated that most authors seemed to ignore the beneficial health aspects of regular physical activity as well. My intent was to write a history that was firmly grounded in medical research and to examine the interplay between science, popular culture, government health promotion and sports organizations.

Greg: Getting Physical addresses the governmental, scientific, commercial and cultural forces that caused Americans to take an interest in physical fitness. What were some of those forces? How did they interact with each other?

World War II-era Rosie the Riveter poster
World War II-era Rosie the Riveter poster

Shelly: In the post-World War II period, one’s physical body became a liability. This was a difficult notion to accept from a nationalistic standpoint. If I ask you to think about American bodies of the past, you will likely imagine pioneers, soldiers in the military, railroad and construction workers—strong, muscular, fit bodies—but the post-World War II era labor market was no longer creating bodies like these.

White collar employment exploded in the postwar era and the suburban lifestyle took shape. Americans were enjoying “the good life” after years of scarcity during the depression and war. During the Cold War, Americans saw the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle as evidence that the “American way of life” was superior to Communism. When this same line of thinking was applied to bodies, however, it didn’t work. A lifestyle of ease did not shape bodies in the same way hardship had. Even as they enjoyed television, automobiles and an elevated standard of living, Americans struggled to reconcile this idea of the “tough” national body with postwar abundance. Wouldn’t a lifestyle of ease and comfort make us soft? Lead to weight gain? Weaken the military?

The question then was how to encourage fitness while staying true to American ideals. Figuring out what “American fitness” was and then promoting that idea became the job of the newly established President’s Council on Youth Fitness, predecessor of today’s President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition.

Greg: How did the council define “American fitness,” and how did they recommend achieving it?

Shelly: This was actually quite a job given that exercise science research was in its infancy and physicians of the time were conflicted about the value of exercise for health. Additionally, federal fitness promotion in the cold war context was challenging. Politicians were tortured by the success of the Soviets in the 1956 Olympics and by news reel films which showed Russians exercising en masse. The PCYF received bags and bags of letters which warned that compelling American children to exercise was “un-American.”

Director Shane MacCarthy realized that the most democratic way to encourage fitness was to sell the idea to American consumers. Essentially, the PCYF acted like a public relations firm for the idea of fitness. Because they did not want to alienate any potential organizational partners, nearly any recreational activity could be included under the umbrella of fitness. It wasn’t until John F. Kennedy took hold of the President’s Council that it began to focus on fitness activities as we would imagine them today.

Greg: Your book deals with American fitness culture. How much do you know about the development of fitness culture around the world? Were interests in fitness in other countries driven by American ideas, or was the cultural shift in America a response to developments elsewhere in the world?

Shelly: This is a provocative question for me because prior to graduate school I spent seven years in France and Switzerland and during those years I belonged to gyms that clearly took their inspiration from American fitness trends. Gym design, equipment and the content of fitness classes were the same. Interest in fitness among Europeans seemed more casual to me—exercise was framed as a kind of occasional leisure activity—you didn’t see the same kind of intensity that Americans often imbue their fitness regimen with. I also noticed differences in thoughts on gym temperature and ventilation—Americans love their air conditioning and I often heard other members express fears they would catch a cold from open windows or fans.

And yes, this being France, I did, on occasion, see people leave the gym and light a cigarette just outside the door.

When writing Getting Physical, I didn’t give much thought to cross-cultural perspectives because I was entirely focused on documenting fitness history through historical evidence and gathering that material was already a Herculean (pun intended) task. Archival documentation, organizational records, LP exercise albums and consumer health manuals were difficult to track down because these materials were rarely preserved. Libraries, even medical libraries, culled obsolete consumer health manuals from their stacks. Fitness businesses didn’t save their records, either, and certainly not those experiencing financial difficulty. In the early days of television film was often reused as a cost-saving measure, so, other than Jack LaLanne, we have few preserved recordings of early exercise shows. I am convinced that there were many other local market television exercise shows—we just don’t have the evidence beyond mentions in the TV column of the newspaper.

I conducted research in the basement of one legacy running organization, reviewing newsletters from the early days of the sport. As I was leaving, an employee mentioned to me that it was good that I had come when I did because in two months’ time they were moving and planning to throw out all the documentation of their formative years. Just locating these materials was challenging—before you start doing any kind of comparing, you have to understand your own history first, so I focused on that.

Greg: What are some of the issues surrounding fitness in America today? How (if at all) do you see those issues being resolved?

Shelly: I’m concerned that formalized exercise has increasingly become a luxury good, and in that process, has left out a large swath of the population. Exercise is a form of health care and as such, everyone should have access. At a minimum, we need to see better care and funding of community recreation facilities and programming. We also need to plan our built environment with the needs of the body in mind. At mid-century Americans were aware that the new suburban living presupposed car ownership. Exercise personality Bonnie Prudden called it “the tyranny of the wheel,” meaning the stroller, the school bus, and the personal automobile. Rather than having exercise as something “extra” to add to our already busy lives, it would be far more effective to construct neighborhoods and cities that take the needs of the body into consideration so that physical activity is integrated into daily living.

Seal of the President's Council on Youth Fitness
Seal of the President's Council on Youth Fitness

Greg: What most surprised you as you were researching and writing this book?

Shelly: To this day, when I tell people that I’m a fitness historian I still get reactions that trivialize physical activity. People immediately conjure up thoughts of leg warmers, shake weights, and other novelties and sort of chuckle to themselves. How this happens in an era where we know that physical activity is essential to health is beyond me.

The cover of Getting Physical features an image of a group of joggers in Eugene, Oregon in the 60s. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the women are wearing street clothes and what look to be Keds sneakers. They took to the streets in the absence of any kind of proper gear—try to imagine going for a run today without real running shoes, a sport bra or before the invention of lycra! Early exercisers were determined—they were literally running for their lives. The history of exercise was and is, serious business, and an endeavor worthy of study.

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