Reshaping Physical Education and the Fitness Industry with Natalia Petrzela

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is a historian of contemporary American politics and culture. She holds a B.A. from Columbia and a Ph.D. from Stanford and is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture and Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise ObsessionNatalia is also Associate Professor of History at The New School, co-founder of the wellness education program Healthclass 2.0, and a Premiere Leader of the mind-body practice intenSati. She is co-producer and host of the acclaimed podcast Welcome to Your Fantasy and the co-host of the podcast Past Present. In addition, she is a columnist at Observer, and a frequent contributor to outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and The Atlantic. She lives with her husband and two children in New York City. In this interview, we discuss Fit Nation and Natalia’s vision of how to make physical education and the fitness industry benefit all Americans.

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Fit Nation by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a book about reshapng physical education and the fitness industry

Greg: Can you tell me a little about your background? What led you to write Fit Nation?

Natalia: I’m a historian. I have a PhD in history. I wrote one book about the culture wars in California. I’m really trained as a scholar of the modern United States. So in that sense, maybe it’s not a surprise that I would write a book about a phenomenon that is very much of the modern U.S.

Since I was a teenager, I have had a little bit of a double life where I was both pursuing that scholarly career and also becoming a total gym rat. Not a sports person—I was always alienated by sports, dance and the normal physical activities for a teen girl. But I found the gym. I found group fitness and then I got into marathon running. I worked in gyms and I really love that world. As a scholar, I found that physical fitness was underexplored as a part of American culture.

There are a few more steps to this story, beginning with an activist program where I was working with schools to do an innovative fitness and food program. But basically, I felt I had this opportunity and this unique perspective to bring together these two worlds in which I was so deeply immersed: that of the gym and that of academia.

Greg: How did physical fitness in America develop from a subculture to a mainstream activity?

Natalia: It’s a long story, but the basic contours of that story are that for a surprisingly long period in American history (like well into the 1960s), if you were someone who went to work out, to lift weights, to do calisthenics or—a little later—to do what we call cardio—running, swimming, biking—you were considered kind of strange. You had to explain yourself.

If you were a man, the idea was that exercise was kind of narcissistic. It was not connected to important serious guy pursuits, which involved you using your mind. It was a little low class, like manual labor. And for women, exercise was considered unfeminine. You were building muscles, you might be developing competitive instincts—which were unfeminine—and you could hurt your fertility. So all of those attitudes were conspiring against fitness being the big part of our society that it is today.

Over the course of the twentieth century, we went from this sense that fitness is just this physical pursuit and thus kind of suspicious and even dangerous to there being a much wider spread embrace of the idea that mind and body are connected and that you can’t really be a fully actualized person unless you’re working on your body as well as your mind.

And that idea took hold across the political spectrum. There were activists like the Black Panthers and feminists who encouraged physical fitness from a perspective of self-determination and agency. Then there were real conservatives who believed fitness was about personal discipline, not waiting for some government handout for healthcare, and taking control of your body. That sensibility really spread in the middle of the twentieth century.

That belief shift, combined with a big federal program in the 1950s and 60s to create fitness programs for adults and kids, sanitized the idea that exercise is good for you. After that, we didn’t get all these public fitness programs, unfortunately, but there was an industry that ran with the idea that fitness is not only good for you, it’s virtuous. Fitness makes you a good person. You’re working hard. It costs something. It shows that you’re a good capitalist because you can afford it. And this growing industry led to the development of social expectations that everybody should work out. If you work out, you’re a person who has good values. But the fitness industry makes it hard to work out if you can’t pay for it.

The idea that body and mind are connected took hold across the political spectrum.

Greg: Can you speak a little bit more about that tension? Because everyone seems to know that exercise is important. And yet most Americans don’t exercise. How do you explain the divide between beliefs about physical fitness and exercise and the reality of fitness levels in America?

Natalia: So I mentioned that I wrote my first book about the culture wars, and we’re obviously in a moment right now where we’re so divided on so many core issues in this country. Something to be optimistic about is that pretty much everyone agrees exercise is good for you. No matter what you believe about a host of other issues. So then the question is exactly the one you raised. If everyone believes exercise is good for you, why do something like only twenty percent of Americans get the recommended daily minimum of exercise?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, but I would say that one big reason is that, instead of having a very public, free, openly accessible system where people have well-lit parks and clean streets and physical education (PE) classes that inspire them to get excited about exercise in public schools, we have a pretty privatized industry that, right from the moment kids are young, puts them in private league sports. And after that, you have a gym and fitness industry that is only available to those who can pay for it.

The number one pushback I get to that is, “Oh, come on. Anybody can go running. You just need a pair of sneakers.” And while that is kind of true—and as a runner, a big appeal of the sport is that you can pick up and do it anywhere—the truth of the matter is not everybody has access to those things. I live in a pretty safe neighborhood, and my husband can go running at times of the day I would never go outside as a woman because it’s dark and it’s kind of dangerous. Add to that, being a person of color—I’ve interviewed so many people who said if they don’t wear technical gear and make sure to stay in certain areas, they’re actually worried about the response they get as a person of color running. We saw that with Ahmaud Arbery.

Beyond that, I think there are all of these issues connected to familiar questions around inequality in this country. For example, having access to green spaces, having tree cover that keeps the temperature lower and allows you to be outside doing recreation, having more access to pools. All of those kinds of things directly affect whether people can exercise.

Going even further out, if you can’t afford to live near where you work or you have less control over your time or space at home, you are much less likely to be able to work exercise into your life, even if there are affordable options. And there are affordable options for most people. I’m not saying the fitness industry is just a super luxury phenomenon. But I think we have to realize that the less control you have over your time, the less disposable income you have, the more marginalized you are in other ways, the harder it is to work out. And that should make us push back on this idea that what we have is an epidemic of laziness.

Natalia Petrzela
Natalia Petrzela

Greg: So is there any truth at all to the idea that there are some people who are not exercising solely because they don’t have fancy Lululemon leggings or because they don’t live around the corner from a 24 Hour Fitness?

Natalia: I mean, you do not need hundred-dollar leggings to go to the gym. That’s ridiculous. Does that motivate some people to go to the gym because they feel cute in their outfit? Sure. But I didn’t spend all this time writing this book or being active about fitness equality so more people could have hundred-dollar leggings. I don’t think that is the main issue at all.

But I do think if you have hundred-dollar leggings, then you have disposable income to make choices among a lot of fitness products that are available to you. I’m a fitness instructor as well, and people ask me, “What form of exercise should I do?” The answer is you should do the thing you will do. Whether that is a YouTube video series you like or meeting your sister to go for a walk, it has to be the thing that you will do. And the truth of the matter is that if you have more control over your time and more money to spend, you have more exercise options.

I am such a booster of exercise. I think my life would be much, much sadder and darker if I didn’t exercise all the time. But I’m not the exercise police. I hated PE. I would hate it if expanding the so-called Fit Nation meant more people were forced into PE. That idea totally traumatizes me. Instead, we have to create a culture where more people have access to exercise on their own terms. A culture where they actually have a choice and can find forms of movement that are meaningful to them.

So that’s what I would say. No, it is not a lack of Lululemon leggings or a fancy gym membership, but I do think proximity to places is really important. And yeah, sometimes a cute pair of leggings will get me to the gym too, but that is not the fundamental issue here.

Greg: So big picture, how do we actually help more people get fit? How do we make exercise more appealing or more convenient for everyone?

Natalia: Big picture, we need to solve poverty. That would help in so many ways. We didn’t even talk about food. If your best bet economically is to eat a ton of processed food because it’s the cheapest option, that makes it so much harder, not only to be healthy, but to motivate yourself to exercise. There are all of these macro, systemic issues that are not directly about exercise that I think would help.

But to keep it on the topic of fitness, let’s start with children. There’s a lot of talk right now about the importance of kids being physically active. I think that’s fantastic, but for the most part, it puts the responsibility on parents rather than on school systems. And I think it is really important for parents to bring their kids into the idea that healthy movement is part of everyday life.

I was just looking at Instagram, and someone was encouraging people to bring your kids to the gym with you. Let them see you lift. Let them see you take joy in this. Let them see you have friends at the gym. I do think that’s really important. But I also think, given all the things we’ve discussed so far, not every parent has that knowledge or opportunity. So we’re not going to solve this problem by just putting it on parents.

Most kids in America go to public school. The first place they might encounter exercise and embrace exercise is in physical education class. So we need to emphasize the importance of physical education as a core part of a solid schooling experience. That is not currently the case. I used to be a middle school teacher, so I spent a lot of time in the education world, and PE is the redheaded, middle, orphan stepchild of the education family. It’s always the course that’s cut. It’s always the course that’s pushed to the side. We really are due for a revitalization there, and we need to support the physical educators that are doing the work and are committed to getting kids excited about exercise. That’s absolutely the first step.

Children jumping rope in a physical education class

Another thing I think is really important is urban planning, thinking about how you set up people’s communities so that access to fitness is something that happens without a ton of organization. There’s a public park in Long Island that I’ve spent some time in that is really well done. It’s got a skate park, it’s got a rink, it’s got tennis courts, it’s got a track where you can walk and parents can watch their children. It’s got a playground, it’s got a basketball hoop and it’s just a nice place to be. It’s the kind of place where anybody can go. You see people of all different backgrounds there, and it makes movement part of socializing in a community. I think that kind of planning has to be really deliberate. We see some great spaces that are made that way, but unfortunately, they tend to be in more affluent areas, which perpetuates the very issues that we’re talking about.

The last thing I’ll say is I think it would be great to have policy that really sees the importance of this public commitment, while also making use of the wonderful expertise and innovation that’s happened in the private sphere. If we could have real public-private collaborations, I think that would be so much more powerful than everyone working in silos. A lot of the outreach I see from the fitness industry is a free class or a temporary free membership. That stuff can be good, but those aren’t structural issues. It would be great to get that kind of collaboration between public and private that could really move the needle forward on democratizing access to exercise.

Greg: Can you give me an example of how that public-private collaboration might work?

Natalia: Great question. What I could imagine—and this has happened before in California in the 70s and 80s—is you start with an innovator in the industry. The example I’m thinking of is the woman who created Jazzercize [Judi Sheppard Missett], which was huge in the 1980s. She worked with the public authorities in California to create a program that was used in public schools. So that’s an example of an actual sustained partnership between a fitness company and physical educators to create a curriculum and also fund its rollout in schools.

I’m not a policy maker, but I’ve looked at enough of this stuff to realize it’s super important that everybody sees their interests are valued. Hiring Peloton to build a fitness program and just creating some lucrative contract for Peloton isn’t going to work. Schools would actually have to partner with these companies and make it worth their while. The company would then do the work in a sustained way, not for the quick public relations bump, but because they’re building curriculum, they’re training teachers.

At the same time, those companies also need to use and respect the existing expertise that teachers already have. I think that’s one of the big missed opportunities in this story that I chart over a century.

The physical education profession has been around since the nineteenth century. There are a lot of reasons why PE is not the crown jewel of the American educational system, but there’s also a lot of expertise there—certainly more so than some random influencer on Instagram.

This is not about letting the industry tell the public sphere what to do. I see this as a real potential for collaboration where people could work together. And by the way, that doesn’t have to be some federal program the president signs into practice. This stuff can happen at the local level. That’s the place to start.

Jazzercisin' by Judi Sheppard Missett
Jazzercise founder Judi Sheppard Missett

I gave a talk about this last week, in which I was speaking about the Kennedy and Eisenhower push for national fitness. But those years were also a missed opportunity for a big public buy-in to infrastructure around exercise. Those administrations’ efforts are one version of the public commitment. But it doesn’t have to be this national project. School systems are very local. You can imagine really vital partnerships happening on the local level. It’s slower and it’s a little more ragged. But I do think fitness is so important to building community that it could be a wonderful way to build community in cities and towns across America.

Greg: Picking up on the issue of schools and physical education, when I was in school our physical education program was basically two weeks of soccer, followed by two weeks of basketball, followed by two weeks of volleyball, etc. And if you were a kid who didn’t like sports, then you probably just checked out during PE. So how do we design a physical education program that engages kids and keeps them interested in fitness over the course of a lifetime?

Natalia: Yeah, that’s a great point. During my research, I went through thousands and thousands of pages of fitness boosters trying to achieve something like what I’m describing. Surprisingly, one of their big obstacles was athletic cultures in schools and communities. In the 50s and 60s and even 70s, all of these fitness proponents who were advocating for more inclusive PE, recreation centers, etc. noticed that a really big obstacle was having a very entrenched sports culture in schools.

First of all, if you have a really elite varsity sports culture, the non-athletes get used to staying on the sidelines. Kennedy called that spectator-itis. Kids felt that if they weren’t excellent at sports, they should sit on the sidelines and be spectators. That ethos absolutely still trickles in today to physical education environments.

Some of these successful physical education reformers have said it’s essential that PE doesn’t just replicate athletic activities where some kids already have very developed skills and almost everybody has an idea of who’s good and not good at sports. So incorporating different kinds of movement that don’t replicate the organized team sports that kids already have exposure to is actually really important.

Greg: What most surprised you as you were researching and writing Fit Nation?

Natalia: There were a lot of things because I spent a lot of time on this book, but one is very related to the question you just asked me. I knew I was telling the story of the rise of an industry and the privatization of exercise. But what really surprised me is that I interviewed all these people who made big names for themselves in the fitness industry in the 1980s when it really took off, and I did not realize how many of them had come out of the physical education track. So many of them, especially women, were on the track to become PE teachers because, as jocks, they felt physical education was literally the only career path available to them.

But what was even more surprising is not just that they made these lucrative careers in the fitness world, but that they said, yes, they earned more money than they would have as physical education teachers, but they also didn’t see people transforming their relationship to movement in those classrooms. The curricula they were teaching was just giving the athletic kids another hour of the sports they already knew they were good at, whereas the kids who were intimidated or shy would sit on the sidelines or have an excuse and end up more alienated from exercise.

In this new industry they were helping create, there were all these new modalities, whether it was aerobics or barre or jogging or yoga, where people who had never thought of themselves as athletic were actually finding a love of movement. So I had no idea the track from physical education to industry was so prevalent and I also didn’t realize that what drew them in was not just the promise of profit, but also a kind of inclusivity they had not seen or felt able to achieve in the classroom. And that to me was so interesting and surprising—kind of sad, but also kind of inspiring.

For more on Natalia Petrzela and her work, follow her on Instagram and Twitter. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.