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Jurgen Martschukat: The Age of Fitness

The Age of Fitness

We live in the age of fitness. In 1970, this was barely conceivable. In Germany in 2015, people spend over 50 billion euros on fitness-related items.

The pursuit of fitness is part of a culture and society that concurrently laments increasingly fat bodies. A history of fitness is a history of the body as social history: a history of values and norms, epistemic and discursive orders, representations and figurations, technologies and bodily practices.

Fitness is everywhere. Fitness, as philosopher Michel Foucault might have put it, is a »dispositif« or apparatus – an era-defining network of discourses and practices, institutions and things, buildings and infrastructure, administrative measures, political programs and much more besides.

Modern societies have declared perpetual optimization and renewal one of their core precepts and achievements. Fitness operates via the body, but it is by no means limited to it. Author focus is on those practices and policies that are directly related to the body and that are obsessively pursued in our contemporary societies. The key terms here are exercise and eating right.

Fit or fat

In Germany, about a third of the population is said to record data on movement, eating, sleeping and bodily trends in one way or another. In the United States the figure is claimed to be almost 70 percent. Health insurance providers on both sides of the Atlantic are now offering discounts to those willing to practice self-tracking and fitness tracking or to submit the data generated. This raises sensitive social and political issues concerning electronic patient records and »big data« in the healthcare system.

Karen Volkwein defines fitness as health stabilized through training. For WHO health is a state of physical, mental and social wellbeing.

Health is a point that can never be reached and the older one gets, the further one moves away from it.

Fitness is a regulatory and normative ideal of liberal modern societies.

The autonomous and self-responsible individual is central to liberal societies. And self-responsibility means ensuring one’s commitment and efficiency in every sphere of life.

The discourse on fatness is deeply political in many ways. First there is the classic political level. German government created in 2007 Fit Not Fat campaign. Prevention as the first sentence in this action plan emphasizes that it is an investment in the future. But the political dimension of the discourse on fitness and fatness goes far beyond the classic sphere of politics. A culture and society that draws its strength and success from the productive capacity of individuals and the population as a whole may be described, with Michel Foucault, as biopolitical.

Body shape becomes a sign of the ability to make responsible decisions, to function in a free, competitive society and to aid its developments. Lean bodies for a lean state, fit (typically freelance) employees for fit companies and their lean production.

The concept of »biological citizenship« sharpens our awareness of the relationship between bodies, freedom, fitness, civic duties and recognition.

The roots of our age of fitness lie in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the ideas of liberalism, competition and Darwinism were gaining traction.

In the age of fitness, eating right is one of society’s obsessions. In America, from the mid-1950s and the days of Eisenhower onward, the White House has been concerned with the fitness of America. In 1969 the White House conference on Food, Nutrition and Health urged Americans to consume less fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt.

Michael Pollan is talking about a dilemma facing the average American eater. Although consumers can choose from an abundance of different food, almost all industrially processed products are based on corn in one way or another. Corn (like soy) is subsidized by the state and is mechanically cultivated and harvested on huge industrialized farms.

Julie Gutham underscores that the correlation between body shape and class, fatness and poverty is fueled by this dynamic blend of neoliberal politics, a growing wealth gap and cheap, industrially produced food.

The diet industry with a turnover of approximately 150 billion USD worldwide in 2014 and projected sales of nearly 250 billion USD in 2022. In recent history eating in a way conductive to one’s fitness had become an obsession and a powerful normative precept.

In the pursuit of fitness, the right amount of exercise goes hand in hand with eating right. In West Germany they launched campaign Get Fit in 1971. In Austria the term Fitsport was coined. The fit body was now considered a beautiful, attractive body.

In 1970 running was also part of body and fitness mania. In 1970, 126 men and woman set off on the New York Marathon. Running simultaneously propelled a growing market in sports-related products, centered on running clothes and running shoes.

Aerobics was introduced on the verge of conversion of feminism and fitness. Kenneth Cooper developed in 1960 a special form of endurance training for astronauts and aerobics was born. Jane Fonda developed it further in 1980s. She introduced workout videos. At that time in USA 25 million people practice aerobics and 70 million worked on their fitness in one way or another.

Gyms had existed since the nineteenth century. So-called health clubs become popular since 1950s. In Germany there was 8.700 gyms in 2016 with over 10 million members.

In 1899, New York governor and future president Theodore Roosevelt had called on Americas to embrace a “strenuous life”: an indefatigable, industrious, physically active way of life that would equip them to survive in a globally competitive environment and the Darwinian struggle for existence.

Fitness – development of the concept

Modern fitness is dynamic, signifies endless activity and builds on people’s effort to ensure their health, performance and quality of life, to enhance and optimize them. This was not always the case. When the discourse of liberty, individual rights and human happiness gained currency in Europe and the USA in the eighteenth century, fitness was not a byword for self-responsibility and individuals’ scope to shape their lives. On the contrary, fitness stood for an insistence on preexisting principles and conditions.

Declaration of Independence declared not happiness but pursuit of happiness (active) a basic condition of being human.

A key event in the history of the fitness concept was the appearance of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. First published in London in 1859. Darwin did not invent the idea of competition as an instrument of social organization. But it was Darwin who now anchored competition in natural history. It was Herbert Spencer who coined “survival of the fittest” in 1864.

The concepts of the freedom of the human individual and of personal responsibility are central to the impact fitness was subsequently to have.

Liberalism (with liberty and self-responsibility as the central principles of human existence) and Darwinism (with competition and struggle as the essential principles of all existence) formed highly productive synergies in the mid-nineteenth century.

By claiming to ensure performance- or achievement-based justice, liberal societies have concealed inequalities and mechanisms of exclusion.

The decades around 1900 are regarded as a time of tremendous social change and as the first modern age of the body, which found expression in the discourse of fitness in a range of ways. A “bacillus athleticus” went around and “exercise, exercise, exercise” was claimed to be the best way to counteract physical degeneration. A novel enthusiasm for gymnastics, cycling, swimming and other activities geared toward the training of the body penetrated everyday life in modern societies around 1900. Characters such as fitness guru Bernarr Macfadden and Konigsberg bodybuilder Friedrich Wilhelm Muller became a global icon.

The meanings and functions of fitness and the body shifted once again in the 1930s in Nazi Germany. In Nazism, high-performance bodies were those that served a collective fantasy of performance and purity that was oriented toward the aesthetic and political ideal of the “Aryan racial body”.

In 1950s prevention took over fitness quest, since illness due to food, tobacco, stress and other problems of modern life, become security risk for countries.


Lean people in lean companies, flexible bodies for flexible capitalism was the maxim at play. Corporate fitness as this new practice was called in the USA would allegedly benefit everyone, a win-win situation for companies’ employees and the economy.

The new US welfare laws introduced by the Clinton administration in 1996 and the German Hartz IV reforms marked the end of welfare state, as previously understood. Government put their faith in the “enabling welfare state”, which makes citizens responsible for themselves as market actors. Fitness – in other words, performance capacity, which each individual is responsible for attaining and that requires ceaseless cultivation – is the core of this way of thinking and acting.

Few accounts of corporate fitness failed to mention the economic costs of physical inactivity and heart disease. In the US, a total of 132 million working days were lost in 1977 due to heart attacks alone, costing nearly 30 billion USD.

But using fitness to improve working capacity was already “a thing” in nineteenth century. Recreation and moderation, regulation and exercise were key strategy for combating fatigue and increasing physical performance, above all working performance. Fitness mania affected white-collar more than blue-collar workers.

The economic crisis of the 1930s caused the anxious discourse centered on sedentary employees to die down temporarily.

In the 1950s more than 900 companies were members of the National Industrial Recreation Association, a body founded in 1941 by 11 corporations to revive America corporate sports. In 1953 a total of 30.000 corporations spent some 800 million USD on their workers’ sports programs.

In 1970s lean production was the new mantra. Due to some economic crisis some Japanese based optimization strategies became popular (look at Toyota, just-in-time principle and others). But these flat hierarchies and shared responsibility again pushed people in the directions of self-exploitation. The new ideal type of worker was worker-as-entrepreneur. The coach has become a key figure in the age of fitness.

Fat people were often regarded as “second-class citizens” and were pushed out of working world. The right to one’s body has turned into a responsibility and even duty. Today being fat is no longer a sign of prosperity, but chiefly a marker of poverty.

Having sex

On May 18, 1998, Der Spiegel diagnosed the onset of a “new sexual revolution”. A few days before, Viagra had been approved for sale in the US. Viagra stands for sex in the age of fitness. Harder, faster and longer lasting are the criteria to the successful “sexual performance”.

If the clitoris and contraceptive pill had separated sex from reproduction, in vitro fertilization then separated reproduction from sex. Penetration finally seemed to have become obsolete.

The principle of approaching diminishing performance, which is often associated with aging, as a health problem treatable with pills, has become established since 1950 in the everyday professional, social and sexual life of Western societies.

In sport, rules of fairness are often cited as a reason to prohibit doping. In everyday life, however, performance-enhancing substances are, in principle, accessible to anyone who can afford them. Fairness is not at issue here.

Fatigue had in any case become the central problem of the modern achievement-oriented society, whether during sex of at work.

Surgery improvements and fighting mental blockage for better sex performance also found a way to modern society.

Fitness symbolizes health and productive capacity, which are maintained or induced by constant work on oneself. The attempts made to foster fitness and sexual performance through external interventions, substances and pills, highlight the fact that the human individual by no means act independently of external forces.


Whenever fitness is at stake, heroic metaphors and heroic figures are never far away.

The modern citizen-soldier capable of defense is an invention originating in the era of the Atlantic revolutions. Although it can ultimately be traced back to European antiquity, this being is intimately linked with the birth of the citizen in the revolutionary US and of the citoyen in revolutionary France.

“No being of the male gender who is incapable of defense can count as a man,”[1] emphasized Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the father of German gymnastic in 1813.

The biopolitical mantra of the early twentieth century that no nation ever will survive, whose people are not physically, mentally and morally fit for survival, was put to the test in a new way by the economic crisis of the 1930s.

The militarization and heroization of the trained body attained its clearest form in fascism.

In the US, military heroism retained its potency longer than in Germany and the decline of the hero was more erratic and ambiguous. After 1968, heroism initially seemed to belong in the past on both side of the Atlantic.

The hero was soon to recover. By the early 1980s, the hero had begun to enjoy a renaissance in the United States, in a familiar yet changed form. The new hero, who is often male, but increasingly female as well, is meant to represent individuality and autonomy, and should be ready for battle, powerful and sexy. The place where one could become hero now was the battlefield of everyday life. The rebirth of the hero in a different guise was accompanied by the end of the »social«.

The rebirth of the heroic hard body, which seems to have been tougher than ever before, is an element in historical shifts that put the autonomous individual and their readiness for battle at the center of the social order.

The fitness athlete is the ideal type of self-regulated motivation and thus of the neoliberal self.

In the twenty-first century, the renaissance of the heroic in the age of fitness gathered pace exponentially. In the marathon, everyone can be their own hero. But for many, marathon was not enough, the triathlons, especially Ironman and ultra-runs were next step.

In America country declared war on fat around the same time it pledged to wage war on terror.

The hero is virtually prototypical form of subject in the fitness society and the fitness hero is the prototypical form of subject in neoliberalism.

Productive, potent and ready to fight

In fall of 2018 the stigma of fatness as incompatible with fitness has begun to soften (at least a little). At the same time, even though fatness and fitness are no longer necessarily regarded as opposites, the performance-ready and performance-capable individual continues to be the norm and fitness is viewed as the ideal to be strived for.

Fat activism is a form of social critique.

In relationship between fitness and work, fitness was considered as tool for maintaining and enhancing work performance. In relationship to sex, sex is the key field of civil practice and recognition. And the fit body signals a readiness to fight.

The Age of Fitness operates via the promise that we can all become heroes and heroines if we master the workout in the gym or run a marathon.

[1] In the book on page 109

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