A riveting cultural history of fitness, from Greek antiquity to the era of the “big-box gym” and beyond, exploring the ways in which human exercise and physical ideals have changed over time—and what we can learn from our past.
How did treadmills and weight machines become the gold standard of fitness? Why have some of us turned our backs on the mirrors and gleaming devices of the traditional gym? What is the appeal of the stripped-down, functional approach to fitness that’s currently on the rise?
In this captivating narrative, Daniel Kunitz sets out on a journey through history to answer these questions and more. What he finds is that, while we humans have been conditioning our bodies for more than 2,500 years, we’ve done so for a variety of reasons: to imitate gods, to be great warriors, to build nations and create communities, to achieve physical perfection, and, of course, to look good naked. Behind each of these goals is a story and method of exercise that not only illuminates the past but also sheds light on aspects of the widespread, multi-faceted fitness culture of today.
Lift begins with the ancient Greeks, who made a cult of the human body—the word “gymnasium” derives from the Greek word for “naked”—and then takes us on an enlightening tour through time, following Asian martial artists, Persian pahlevans, nineteenth-century German gymnasts, and the bronzed bodies of California’s Muscle Beach. Kunitz uncovers the seeds of the modern gym in the late nineteenth-century with the invention of the first weightlifting machines, and brings us all the way up to the ultimate game-changer: the feminist movement, which kicked off the exercise boom of the 1970s with aerobics, and ultimately helped create the big-box gyms we know today.
Using his own decade-long journey to transform himself from a fast-food junkie into an ultra-fit—if aging—athlete as a jumping off point, Kunitz argues that another exercise revolution is underway now—a new frontier in fitness, in which the ideal of a bikini body is giving way to a focus on mastering the movements of life.
My review: 3 stars.
I’m in no way a fitness freak. I do yoga, walk for exercise, lift weights occasionally. I used to take Zumba and have tried my fair share of workout DVDs in my basement. If I had been born twenty years earlier, not many of those things would have been in my world, as they are recent inventions of our image and health obsessed society. I was interested in the book because I find cultural and social history fascinating, and the history of fitness and working out in the country has changed as our society has become more focused on sedentary work time and leisure activities.
Of course, throughout history, there was no need for fitness machines or classes because people did HARD WORK almost every single day, working on farms, at jobs that involved physical labor, and so on. They didn’t sit in front of the TV or computer for hours on end and didn’t eat processed, fast foods eaten from paper sacks. Our fitness revolutions came largely in the 20th century, mostly during the last 40 years of it, at pretty much the same time and rate as the rise in consumer culture. Kunitz does a great job of that later part of the history of fitness– it’s not that the early civilization history is not well-done, but I have less of an interest in that time period.
For the book overall, I liked Kunitz’s arguments. I enjoy learning about at the changing nature of society through a common topic like fitness. I think there could be a whole other book about fitness and identity with women, as that issue is wrought with other social and cultural changes happening from the 1940s on, similar to one I read in grad school about history of women’s roles with housekeeping and cleaning in the United States.
It was interesting to read this book in July, a month out from the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Rio. It’s always fascinating to me– and to other people I’ve talk with as well– that we could care less about swimming or track and field any other time of the year, but there is something about the Olympics that makes us interested in these sports more than ever. Part of it I think is because these are events that only happen every couple of years, but the other I think is part of the fitness culture that Kunitz discusses– it’s almost mesmerizing and mind boggling at the same time that a person could devote their life– and their body– to one specific endeavor for so long.
While I liked the light history slant, the academic inside me wanted more primary sources and less of Kunitz’s personal story as the book went on. In his note on sources at the back, he does say that he wasn’t seeking to write the definitive history of exercising and fitness, but I think because I come from the academic world, I always want more background and less personal slant.
As part of the TLC Book Tour of this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.