The Culture of Fitness: Opportunities and Challenges for Health
conference contributionposted on 22.03.2010, 16:18 by Jennifer Smith Maguire
Over recent decades, many Western countries have experienced a strange paradox, with sport, exercise and leisure industries expanding alongside problems with inactivity and obesity. This paper examines the relationship between the commercial fitness industry and the question of health, focusing specifically on the case of the United States. The paper is organized around three key questions. The first concerns the notion of fitness: what is fitness? We are encouraged by the popular, medical and academic press and by governments to view fitness as both a measure of physical capacity and as an unquestioned good. However, if we look at the concept of fitness more closely, we can see that it is not so straightforward. Definitions of fitness change over time and relative to different political, economic and social conditions. For example, in the United States, fitness in the 19th century was linked to questions of national strength and moral character. Over the 20th century, this has gradually changed such that fitness is now primarily an aspect of individual improvement and capacity (Green 1986; Mrozek 1989). However, definitions of fitness remain contested, all the more so at times of military conflict or economic uncertainty, when anxieties about national and social fitness and preparedness are visited upon the individual in particular ways, as with the current ‘war’ on obesity in many Western countries. The second key question concerns the commercial fitness ‘boom’ that has occurred in the past three decades, and how we might understand it as a particular cultural field (Bourdieu 1993). While the paper and the larger research project from which it draws are focused on the US, where the pace and scope of the individualization and commercialization of fitness have been most dramatic, the commercial fitness field is a global phenomenon. Bearing in mind that the commercialization of fitness—and associated decline of physical education and public provision of recreation programmes and facilities—is mediated by local conditions, including sporting traditions, patterns of state provision of leisure services, socio-economic stratification, climate, and patterns of urbanization and commuting, it can be particularly illuminating to study the US as an extreme example of the commercialization, privatization and individualization of leisure (Rojek 1985, 1995) in consumer societies around the world. Finally, the paper poses the question: is fitness good for us? This is not a ‘yes or no’ question. Over the past three decades, medical research has continued to substantiate the role of exercise in decreasing the risks of various diseases and ailments, including arthritis pain, breast cancer, colon cancer, osteoporosis, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and 2 congestive heart failure (Krupa 2001). However, when we take for granted that fitness is ‘good’ we fail to question the vested interests and unintended consequences of the particular way in which fitness is constructed and sold to us. For this reason, let us pose the question in a polemical fashion, and attempt to understand how the commercial fitness field benefits from, but is poorly equipped to address, population-level health issues such as inactivity and obesity.