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Fit Nation

The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession

How is it that Americans are more obsessed with exercise than ever, and yet also unhealthier? Fit Nation explains how we got here and imagines how we might create a more inclusive, stronger future.

If a shared American creed still exists, it’s a belief that exercise is integral to a life well lived. A century ago, working out was the activity of a strange subculture, but today, it’s almost impossible to avoid exhortations to exercise: Walk 5K to cure cancer! Awaken your inner sex kitten at pole-dancing class! Sweat like (or even with) a celebrity in spin class! Exercise is everywhere.

Yet the United States is hardly a “fit nation.” Only 20 percent of Americans work out consistently, over half of gym members don’t even use the facilities they pay for, and fewer than 30 percent of high school students get an hour of exercise a day. So how did fitness become both inescapable and inaccessible?

Spanning more than a century of American history, Fit Nation answers these questions and more through original interviews, archival research, and a rich cultural narrative. As a leading political and intellectual historian and a certified fitness instructor, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is uniquely qualified to confront the complex and far-reaching implications of how our contemporary exercise culture took shape. She explores the work of working out not just as consumers have experienced it, but as it was created by performers, physical educators, trainers, instructors, and many others.

For Petrzela, fitness is a social justice issue. She argues that the fight for a more equitable exercise culture will be won only by revolutionizing fitness culture at its core, making it truly inclusive for all bodies in a way it has never been. Examining venues from the stage of the World’s Fair and Muscle Beach to fat farms, feminist health clinics, radical and evangelical college campuses, yoga retreats, gleaming health clubs, school gymnasiums, and many more, Fit Nation is a revealing history that shows fitness to be not just a matter of physical health but of what it means to be an American.

424 pages | 27 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

History: American History

Sport and Recreation


"Petrzela takes us on a whirlwind journey. . . She traces how the United States simultaneously became obsessed with working out and failed to provide necessary resources for it."

New York Times

“Petrzela demonstrates that chic, pricey gyms have an outsize influence on our collective mentality around fitness, and she does so effectively. Her analysis of elitist workout culture has a sharp edge. . . . [Fit Nation] provocatively and firmly argues that fitness is not an unmitigated good in American culture.”

Washington Post

"Petrzela’s account moves at a quick-lap pace: She scans the market from top to bottom, from the Equinox gym to the Zumba class in a local church hall."

Wall Street Journal

“Petrzela has brought us an intellectually rich and delightfully informative history of how people in the United States have understood, obsessed over, and changed their bodies. In a thorough look at the trends, characters, and ideologies that have informed the body politic and the politics of bodies, Petrzela helps us recognize the weight of constant messaging from industries trying to convince the public to seek perfection endlessly. An important and enjoyable read.”

Marcia Chatelain, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning "Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America"

“America’s current obsession with fitness, exercise, and wellness has a deep and fascinating history, one that Petrzela has been at the forefront of illuminating as a historian, writer, educator, activist—and instructor. In Fit Nation, Petrzela brings to bear her tremendous narrative gifts through a rich cast of characters and entrepreneurs while deepening our understanding of the complex social, cultural, political, and economic forces that have helped to shape our bodies figuratively and literally. Whatever your relationship to exercise, this entertaining and transformative book is a must-read.”

Marisa Meltzer, author of "This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me)"

Fit Nation is a comprehensive, analytically rich history that offers an expert guided tour of fitness entrepreneurs and practices. Petrzela uses the lens of fitness to offer a fascinating history of transformations in conceptions of masculinity and femininity, consumption practices, and entrepreneurialism. The result is a political history of ideas—about the body, community, and the proper relations between the state and the individual—that is not only fascinating but strikingly relevant.”

Lawrence B. Glickman, Cornell University

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for my whole career! As someone who has straddled the fitness industry and public health academia for decades, I truly cannot underscore strongly enough the importance of what Petrzela has so perfectly and poignantly presented here. Both long overdue and impeccably timed, Fit Nation is a necessary key to the future of fitness.”

Shauna Harrison, yogi, trainer, and academic

"Throughout, Petrzela critiques the fitness industry's lack of attention to poor, working-class, and nonwhite communities, and marshals a wealth of information into a coherent narrative. This is a valuable survey of what exercise means in America."

Publishers Weekly

"A pensive survey of the evolution of exercise in America and a pessimistic view of our nation's current fitness."


Table of Contents

Author’s Note
Introduction: What Is the Fit Nation?

Part One: When Sweating Was Strange
1. Performing Civilization
2. No More Fat Cats or Ladies of Leisure
3. Sanitizing—and Selling—Fitness
4. The California Beach Body Is Born

Part Two: Slimming the Soft American
5. White Plains, the White House, and the Paradox of Prosperity
6. Fitness Makes Us Strong, Not Soft

Part Three: From Margins to Mainstream
7. The Future Belongs to the Fit
8. Training for Life, Body, and Mind
9. The “Tanny Touch”
10. Slimming on the Small Screen

Part Four: Movement Culture, Redefined
11. Yoga and the Counterculture
12. Kenneth Cooper and Aerobics Universalism
13. Run for Your Lives!
14. Title IX and Its Limits
15. Swap the Fat for Your True Self

Part Five: Feel the Burn
16. Daytime Disco
17. The New Gospel of Fitness
18. Turning Up the Intensity
19. Not Quite Sports

Part Six: Hard Bodies and Soulful Selves
20. Beyond Aerobics with Chanting
21. Strong Is the New Skinny?
22. It’s Not Fitness, It’s Life

Part Seven: It’s Not Working Out
23. Exercising in an Age of Uncertainty
24. Eat, Pray, Buy
25. The Limits of “Let’s Move”
26. The Pandemic and the Peloton
27. Broken Equipment

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