Health & Fitness | January 16, 2023 2:18 pm

Is Fitness Pricing Out Too Many People?

The history of the industry is revealing

Spin class
A new book offers insights into fitness and American society.
Al Bello/Getty Images

Is there a connection between physical fitness and being economically flush? It’s not hard to see an increasing number of ways in which these two qualities line up — including the high cost of gym memberships in New York and San Francisco to a growing belief that physical fitness can be beneficial in the workplace — even if your job doesn’t involve any kind of physical labor.

When you factor in the sometimes-absurd amount of time that can go into achieving very visible evidence of fitness, it starts to feel like a paradox. How does one rectify the seeming gulf between getting or staying fit and the time and money needed to achieve those goals?

In a recent edition of her Substack newsletter Culture Study, Anne Helen Petersen spoke with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela — author of the forthcoming book Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession — about these very questions. “What would it look like if people of all backgrounds and identities had access to safe and fun recreational exercise experiences and the time, space, and health to enjoy them?” Petrzela says at one point in the interview. “That’s what I’m fighting for.”

Petrzela has extensive backgrounds in both the study of history and in various fitness ventures, which gives her a unique perspective on both. It also leads to some especially memorable insights in her conversation. “It’s important to understand that for most of U.S. history, working out is not a socially acceptable activity or a form of conspicuous consumption at all,” she told Petersen. “Making exercise a priority in terms of time and money actually made you suspicious, so you weren’t about to go flaunting your participation.”

The whole conversation is a fascinating look at fitness, history and economics — and it sheds a lot of light on the evolution of an industry and where that industry might be headed.