Exercise and American Culture

Shape of Things to Come

The President’s Council on Youth Fitness advertisement. (Courtesy of JFK Presidential Library)

A week ago many Americans made a pledge to exercise more. Some of you may be sore from the grueling workouts you suffered through the last seven days. Others may feel convicted that you already gave up. Personally, I can barely walk because my legs are so sore. Thankfully, I sit at a desk and write all day. Nevertheless, my New Year’s resolutions and the larger class sizes at my own gym got me thinking about exercise and American culture. The first book that came to mind was Shelly McKenzie’s Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America. In her excellent book, she analyzes the relationship between the changing trends in exercise and American culture. Riffing on her examples, I thought readers might find a brief outline of the changes in American exercise after World War II interesting.

In the 1950s America entered the golden age of capitalism. The decade marked by an explosion of abundance reshaped American’s bodies. Moving to the suburbs pushed Americans behind the wheel of cars and removed walkable neighborhoods. This transition did a number on American’s physiques. President Eisenhower started the President’s Council on Youth Fitness after tests revealed that American children were less physically fit than European children. Through a major P.R. campaign, this organization sought to fight the effects of postwar consumption.

By the end of the decade, women turned to exercise as a means of remaining thin and beautiful for their husbands. Tapping into the increase of television ownership and stay-at-home mothers, The Jack LaLanne Show offered women guided exercises they could do at home. The goal of the show appears in the opening credits when the narrator declares, “And now here is the man who will help you feel better, look better, Jack LaLanne.” In each episode he used regular household items like a dining room chair to help women tighten up their “front porch [their stomach], side porch [their hips], and their back porch [their buttocks].” The fact that the program remains the longest lasting TV show with a single host, from 1953 to 1985, illustrates the popularity of LaLanne’s instruction.

As women watched LaLanne’s TV show, men began exercising to fend off the increased threat of heart attacks. The stock character for white middleclass 50s and 60s men was the frumpy businessman in the grey flannel suit. Mad Men nails this stereotype. This depiction downplayed the importance of men developing a muscular physique. Men spending too much time shaping their physique ran the risk of being labeled homosexual.  F. Valentine Hooven’s book, Beefcake convincingly argues that the muscle magazines of the 1950s and 1960s were the first gay magazines.   With the Cold War logic equating homosexuality with communism, prescribed forms of exercise for American men encouraged some activity, but not over exertion. Therefore, men’s exercise routines primarily consisted of a weekend round of golf, joining a bowling team, or taking a leisurely swim. These activities balanced the threat of overexertion and idleness both of which physicians feared would encourage heart attacks.

In the 1960s, men’s exercise held relatively steady, but an emphasis on dieting was added to exercise for women. The most successful propagator of women’s dieting was Weight Watchers. The first meeting of Weight Watchers took place in 1961 when Jean Neditch’s invited some friends into her home to discuss weight loss and offer encouragement. Two years later the first public meeting had over four hundred people waiting in line hoping to be admitted. Aside from the increased importance of dieting, mechanized exercise equipment offered women shortcuts to the body they desired.  In 1966, inventions like the jiggle machine and hot sauna pants promised women the outcomes of exercise. Just stand or sit and let the machine do the rest.

The 1970s have been labeled the forgotten decade, but it left an indelible mark on American exercise routines. Many Americans grew disillusioned following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate Scandal, and stagflation. As a result, Americans turned inward to focus on shaping themselves. With self-help books flying off the shelves, Americans took a renewed interest in exercise. The most popular and impactful exercise trend of the 1970s was jogging. For readers of a certain age, Ron Burgandy may be the first pop culture reference that comes to mind with the mention of jogging. The funny thing is that the clip actually works to show how “apparently you just run for an extended period of time” became a pop culture phenomenon.  Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running  published in 1977 combined the popularity of jogging and self-help. Before taking up jogging, Fixx weighed 240 pounds and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. His book chronicles how his exercise routine promised physical and psychological health benefits. He lost sixty pounds and quit smoking. In 1979, Jimmy Carter began jogging to counteract his critics’ depiction of him as weak in comparison to Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, Carter collapsed on a scheduled 10k race at Camp David. His inability to finish the race provided plenty of fodder for his critics and plagued him for the remainder of his presidency.

Jimmy Carter Collapse

Jimmy Carter collapsing on his 10k run at Camp David. Time Magazine published this photo October 1, 1979.


Ronald Reagan lifting weights . (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Riding the tide of Jimmy Carter’s perceived weaknesses, including exercise, Ronald Reagan ushered in a decade of optimism and strength. Reagan bolstered his strong anti-communist rhetoric with a strong physical physique. In 1983, he wrote an article for Parade magazine outlining his exercise habits routine. To maintain his physique, Reagan informed his readers of the virtues of weight training to shape one’s outward appearance. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone also helped remove the homophobic stereotypes of bodybuilding. Together their many 80s action films presented a new form of masculinity that praised an extensive, and maybe excessive, amount of muscle. As a result, nearly seven million American men and women spent $5 billion a year on membership fees as they flocked to gyms. This combination of exercise and culture led Shelly McKenzie to dub the 80s “the fitness decade.”

For the past two and a half decades, many of the previously mentioned exercise fads have stuck around. People are still concerned about their physical appearance, still jogging even when it is below freezing outside, still trying to bench press more than the person next to them. But what fascinates me is trying to understand why new and incredibly popular things become…the new and incredibly popular thing.

So I began wondering what is the new, popular exercise program today? My answer: CrossFit. First, a confession. Yes I am a CrossFitter (insert eye-roll here), and I love it. Second, I am not advocating for everyone to join CrossFit. My brother once told me that he thought if CrossFit could define a firm theology, it could become a certifiable cult. No matter your perspective, love it or hate it, CrossFit is popular. Since 2000, CrossFit has grown to over 10,000, affiliate gyms world-wide. What does that mean? A lot of people, especially Americans, pay a lot of money every month to flip tires, climb ropes, run sprints, swing kettle bells, lift weights, and do an ungodly amount of burpees as fast and as hard as possible.

The interesting thing about CrossFit to me is what it says about American culture in the Digital Age. After Al Gore created the Internet in the 1990s, the world has radically changed. The coolness of an activity is determined by clicking a like button. The number of friends or followers a person has is displayed next to their name on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. The number of clicks on a blog post fuels at least one graduate student’s vanity. Aside from the Internet and social media, technology has made daily routines easier. Apps wake you up at the perfect time in the morning. Thermostats adjust themselves. And 3D printers make food. Growing alongside these technological advances is the popularity of struggle. People pay more for vegetables grown without pesticides or beef raised without antibiotics. Miranda Lambert won Female Vocalist of the Year with her song “Automatic” that bemoans the inconveniences of days gone by with things like cassette tapes, Rand McNally maps, and sun-brewed tea. Websites like Huckberry peddle products that are “handmade,” “craft,” “authentic,” or “American made.” All of these examples praise difficulty. The Digital Age holds in tension a desire for consistent technological advances and nostalgia for the authenticity of a day-gone-by.

CrossFit represents an outgrowth of this cultural pushback. CrossFitters love that they don’t use machines like an elliptical, don’t wear ear buds to listen to music, and don’t have mirrors to inspect themselves as they workout. Instead, they try to eat like Paleolithic person and foster a sense of community. CrossFit’s ability to tap into the cultural demands for an authentic, rugged, no-frills, and unplugged exercise experience makes it the exercise craze of the 21st century.CrossFit meme

Do you think my diagnosis of contemporary American culture is on point? Or, am I just another one of those annoying CrossFit people that fits this meme?

Hunter Hampton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri.  Email him at hmhyn7@mail.missouri.edu.

6 thoughts on “Exercise and American Culture

  1. Hunter-
    That was awesome!!!
    I guess I never thst about cults having a defined theology. I concur that it definitely develops a sense of community. You should submit that article to the xfit
    magazine ! That was great!
    Connor knew the answer to the question about the newest most popular fitness program. Keep up the good work


  2. Reblogged this on The Sports Seer and commented:
    There are 58 Crossfit gyms across Arkansas. This movement, like all other forms of fitness in American culture, is rooted in the Baby Boomer movement among housewives to stay in shape.

    The 1950s brought us The Jack LaLanne Show, in which LaLanne used regular household items like a dining room chair to help women tighten up their “front porch [their stomach], side porch [their hips], and their back porch [their buttocks].” The fact that the program remains the longest lasting TV show with a single host, from 1953 to 1985, illustrates the popularity of LaLanne’s instruction.


  3. I loved the progression of exercise through the 20th century. Carter collapsing during a 10k is classic. You explained what I’ve been trying to articulate over the past few years; Americans pushing back against the Digital Age. I will go further, and say that there is a growing distaste for all things unnatural or processed.
    And whoever made the cult comment surely made it in jest. Great post.


  4. This was an absolutely fascinating read!

    Do you have any thoughts about the pre-1950s period in the US? Men like Bernarr McFadden and Charles Atlas arguably paved the way for public acceptance of fitness crazes.


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