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The Most American Flex Is a Fitness Fad


As exercise equipment maker Peloton Interactive Inc. struggles to reinvent itself, investors must decide whether it’s worth giving the fallen Wall Street star a second chance. Let history be their guide.

Not just the company’s history. Modern humans’ relationship with physical fitness provides a cautionary tale for future investors in the next big exercise craze — and rest assured, there will be another.

Why do Americans go to such extravagant lengths to stay in shape? The rise of the so-called physical culture movement in the late 1800s, along with its close cousin, “Muscular Christianity,” marked a newfound obsession with fitness in Western nations, particularly the United States.

These movements grew out of a strange amalgam of pseudoscience, theology and anxiety about the future of native-born Whites in late 1800s. Enormous numbers of immigrants were flooding into the US and many of these Whites expressed unease that “Anglo-Saxons,” as they referred to themselves, had become “overcivilized” and soft.

So native-born Whites increasingly embraced team sports, outdoor activities and mandatory physical education in public schools. Private groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, also promoted exercise, opening a network of gyms that mixed religion and fitness.

Still, most Americans had little interest in gyms and regimented exercise. After all, they had limited leisure time in those days and got plenty of exercise in their everyday life by walking or doing manual labor.

Moreover, some figures in the physical culture movement seemed, well, weird. Consider Bernard McFadden, a sickly child who renamed himself Bernarr because it evoked the roar of a lion. He made a fortune promoting a regimen of weight-lifting, calisthenics, restrictive diets and brisk walks. He also published a magazine called Physical Culture that became the unofficial voice of the movement. “Weakness Is a Crime,” it declared to would-be readers. “Are You a Criminal?”

The eccentric bodybuilder, who courted controversy by promoting exercise for both men and women, was eventually overshadowed by another fanatic with an exclusively male clientele: the Italian immigrant Angelo Siciliano, better known as Charles Atlas. Both men gained fame and fortune hawking their programs, but they would soon be eclipsed by developments in the post-World War II era, when fitness became an abiding obsession of the White middle class.

The new ethos owed much to the suburban ideal of the 1950s. Initially, everything about the suburbs worked against fitness, from the growing dependence on the automobile, the use of buses to shuttle children to centralized schools and the advent of television. Even the single-story ranch houses that defined the era put an end to the exercise provided by going up and down stairs.

In her insightful account of this shift, historian Shelly McKenzie argues that much of the ensuing debate over fitness was framed by a new problem confronting the White middle class: “How could they enjoy the fruits of post-war affluence while also managing their bodies for optimal health?” The solution, observed McKenzie, was “the invention of exercise.”

The movement arguably began with a report by the US National Institutes of Health in 1952 that called attention to obesity as a serious health problem. A year later, a widely read study found an alarming gap between the levels of fitness in American and European children, with 56% of American children failing a standard set of tests versus only 8% of European kids.

The reason, the authored concluded, was simple: European children walked a lot, climbed stairs instead of taking the elevator and spent much of their free time playing outside; Americans did not. 

This article eventually came to the attention of Dwight Eisenhower, who responded by forming the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. Its leaders, working with advertising executives and other corporate allies, orchestrated an effective public relations campaign that yoked physical fitness to the imperatives of the Cold War, arguing that American boys and men had to get into fighting shape if they were to defeat the Soviets. 

But the campaign targeted girls and mothers as well. One spokesman for the program declared that it not only aimed to produce “healthful, vital, masculine men,” but also “active, healthful, vital, feminine women who can mother a vigorous generation.”

All of this marked a sea change in how many Americans viewed exercise and fitness. What had formerly been a subculture associated with eccentric impresarios like Bernarr MacFadden and Charles Atlas was quickly becoming a mainstream preoccupation.

It was also becoming a big business. One of the first to see the potential was the fitness fanatic Jack LaLanne, who opened his first gym in the 1930s. In the 1950s, LaLanne launched several televised programs in which he would perform exercises — he dubbed them “trimnastics” — with the audience following along.

LaLanne, who wore a form-fitting jumpsuit to show off his sculpted body, worked on a set that resembled a suburban living room, much like those occupied by his overwhelmingly suburban, female audience. He preached the virtues of exercise for maintaining “zest” in the “marital bed.” Long before the “Peloton wife” ad stirred controversy, LaLanne’s exhortations openly connected a woman’s physical condition to her sex appeal.

The 1950s also marked the moment when commercial gyms entered the mainstream.  A new generation of entrepreneurs like Vic Tanny opened gleaming temples filled with the latest exercise equipment. Tanny, who believed that “good health can be merchandized just like automobiles,” counted half a million men and women as members by decade’s end.

Other fitness chains sought to overturn the age-old adage, “no pain, no gain.” High-end salons like Slenderella, which counted three million clients in 1956, promised women that their machines, which used vibrations or rollers, held out the promise of what McKenzie, the author and historian, has called “effortless exercise.”

A paradox defined these developments. The ease of suburban life left Americans out of shape. But if modern consumer society caused the problem, it could also solve it. For a price, Americans could buy fitness via gyms, exercise programs and other pursuits.

Some of these began modestly. The jogging craze, which required a relatively minimal investment, quickly grew into an entire industry worth half a billion dollars by the end of the 1970s. Other fitness fads, like the workout program founded by Jane Fonda, wedded celebrity culture to new videotape technology to build a mass following.

The fitness business, which encompassed everything from books, tapes, equipment, apparel and gym memberships, kept growing through the 1970s and beyond. Everything from Jazzercise to Nautilus weight-training machines to Pilates gained a following in subsequent years.

In 2022, the fitness business is bigger than it has ever been. In the US, gyms and fitness clubs generate annual revenue of nearly $40 billion; home-fitness equipment-makers generate nearly $5 billion more.

Set against this backdrop, Peloton is nothing more than the latest entry in a decades-long quest of affluent Americans to stay fit, no matter the price.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Peloton’s New Strategy Spins All Over the Place: Andrea Felsted

Peloton’s Real Rival Is Doing Laps of Central Park: Tim Culpan

Will New York’s Fitness Scene Stay Home?: Tara Lachapelle

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is coauthor of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion



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