The History of Fitness with Daniel Kunitz

Daniel Kunitz is the author of Lift: Fitness Culture from Naked Greeks and Acrobats to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors. He has written for numerous publications and is the editor-in-chief of Sculpture magazine. In this interview, we discuss Lift and the cultural history of fitnessEnter the giveaway below to win a copy of Lift (paperback copy in the United States, ebook or digital audio version for non-U.S. residents).

Lift, a cultural history of fitness by Daniel Kunitz

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

Daniel: My background is primarily literary: I studied literature in college and literature and philosophy in grad school, then spent ten years editing the literary magazine The Paris Review. I’ve published numerous poems, essays, and short stories. Later I did art journalism and criticism too, and I was running art magazines while writing Lift.

At the same time, it occurred to me that people of my generation were taught to expect a gradual but consistent decline in fitness and physique after about the age of thirty. So I set myself an experiment: try to get a little fitter, and eat a little better, each year after thirty and see what happens. What happened was that I turned forty ripped and in extremely good shape and only kept going.

Around 2010, I realized that a very culturally broad shift had occurred both in how we understand fitness and in the number of people participating. I wanted to understand that shift, how we got to that point, and found that there were no books that really spoke to that question, nor were there books that even set out a convincing definition of what fitness might be. This led me to write Lift.

Greg: What are the historical origins of exercise? What (if anything) has remained constant over history, and what has changed?

Daniel: The origins are probably as old as history itself, which is to say people probably began exercising as soon as there were settled groups with distinct warrior classes, and the first people to exercise were likely those military people. For most of written history, until the last fifty years or so, what remained constant was how few people engaged in purposeful exercise and how little a place it had in any culture, with the exception of the Ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, exercise for the body was largely inseparable from exercise for the mind, and both were put at a premium for citizens (meaning, at the time, free-born males).

What has changed? I think today’s gym-goer would recognize most of the workouts the Greeks did, although not their workout gear: they exercised naked. Of course, we have far more equipment, but the approach of the Greeks would not be alien to us. Probably the biggest changes are: the inclusion of women and older people, and the understanding of how important exercise is for health.

Greg: How has the role of exercise within a larger culture changed over time?

Daniel: The Greeks aside, exercise has had a minimal role in most cultures until the last quarter of the last century, beginning, roughly, around 1970. At that time, the first mass interest in exercise began and continued to grow until around 2008, when it exploded. For the last fifteen years or so, exercise has had an increasingly central role in many global cultures. That said, less than twenty percent of Americans met the minimum exercise guidelines (aerobic and strength) in 2018, so while exercise is increasingly central, we still have a long way to go. Indeed, fit people remain a rarity in the West.

Daniel Kunitz, author of Lift

Greg: How are contemporary fitness practices linked to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, and how did that movement shape exercise as we know it today?

Daniel: In Lift, I argued that the first mass fitness craze, which began in the 1970s, was inseparable from the feminist movement. Men had been trying to get other men to work out for over a century at that point, with little success. But by the early 1970s the feminist movement had made sufficient gains to allow women to begin opening their own businesses and to begin participating openly in fitness practices.

Gyms (or, more accurately, aerobics studios) were some of the first businesses women opened, since gyms previously were largely restricted to men. The success of those female-owned studios spurred the advent of large corporate gyms that were open to both men and women. And once women entered the gym, men followed. Feminism gave us the large corporate gyms we know today. In the eighties, Jane Fonda, along with a few other women, created the workout video as we know it.

Feminism also contributed significantly to the growth of strength training in the last 15 years. Once again, small numbers of men had been strength training for centuries, and those numbers did grow somewhat with the rising popularity of bodybuilding in the late 1970s. However, large numbers of men did not begin strength training until large numbers of women got into it—in the early 2000s, initially through Crossfit.

The subsequent growth of powerlifting and weightlifting as sports was powered by the influx of women participating in them. Add to that the fact that the popularity of yoga and Pilates would be unthinkable without the women who popularized them, and we can see that what we understand as exercise culture, the culture of training, is inextricable from the history of feminism.

Exercise is infinitely more important than any supplement, drug, or hack that one might employ to further one’s health.

Greg: What lessons can we learn from the history of fitness and exercise? In what instances has contemporary exercise improved on past practices?

Daniel: I think the first thing to recognize is that the history of fitness and exercise is one of intermittent technological advances that, for the most part, haven’t fundamentally changed the way people work out. Which isn’t to say that these advancements haven’t been useful, only that our best practices have changed only slightly. We’ve known for quite a while what works. And while we have made small, optimizing changes in our approach to certain exercises, these improvements have little impact on the average person.

What has drastically changed is our understanding of how extraordinarily important exercise is to health and longevity: that has only been really appreciated in the last decade or less. Exercise, we now know, is much more important than what or how you eat, and even how much you eat; and it is infinitely more important than any supplement, drug, or hack that one might employ to further one’s health. The only thing that even approaches the importance of exercise for health is non-exercise activity, like steps.

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

Daniel: Certainly the thing that most surprised me in researching Lift was realizing how important feminism, and the role of women, has been to the modern history of fitness. Probably the second most surprising thing was realizing that muscle and strength have been extremely problematic things for almost all of human history. Muscle has tended to have negative connotations: bulky, aggressive, alien, too sexualizing for men, too masculinizing for women, inflexible, unhealthy, too redolent of labor and the working classes, a sign of low intelligence, animalistic.

Almost all these negative associations still obtain today, though we are slowly moving away from them as we come to appreciate how important muscle and strength are to health and longevity. Finally, the third most surprising fact that I learned was that fitness practices are always political. As we try to perfect ourselves, we do so by aiming toward ideals, and ideals are never neutral.

For an in-depth look at the history of fitness, enter the giveaway at the top of this page to win a copy of Daniel Kunitz’s book Lift. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.