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What is the point of physical exercise? | The TLS

By irina dumitrescu 18-22 minutes

A couple of years ago I gave in to the inevitable and joined a gym. There was nothing particularly appealing about air that smelled of rubber, disinfectant and sweat, or rows of treadmills facing in the same direction, like desks in a 1950s typing pool. But the number on the bathroom scale was rising. On my first day, a relentlessly buoyant personal trainer ran me through a series of exercises so vigorous they turned my stomach and explained to me how “functional” this training would be in daily life. As I tried to heave a 10kg power bag over my head, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I rarely lift more than the two-volume Oxford English Dictionary. I spent the rest of the week barely able to move, and most of the next two years feeling guilty for the money I was wasting on an unused subscription.

The gym seemed to hold a promise: with so many different ways to burn calories and tone flaccid muscles, I was bound to integrate more movement into my life and fight the encroachment of middle age. But there was something more: the most successful people I knew went to Crossfit or ran half marathons or practised yoga daily. Exercise seemed to be the hallmark of people who had mastered the chaos of life, who had ambition and the discipline to meet it. As long as vacuuming was my primary aerobic activity, I was doomed to be a lesser kind of person, a dabbler, a loser.

In The Age of Fitness: How the body came to symbolize success and achievement, Jürgen Martschukat offers a history of the ideology that gripped me, especially as it has developed since the 1970s in the West. Martschukat focuses on the United States and Germany as representative cases; this is no doubt related to his perspective as a German Americanist, but seems justified given the extent to which these cultures have cultivated ideas about the importance of a fit body for the health of a nation state. Martschukat’s main claim is that fitness, as we know it today, is part of a larger neoliberal discourse that encourages individuals to improve themselves without pause, use their time efficiently, and stay competitive in an ever-more dynamic marketplace. “Fitness,” writes Martschukat, “not only describes how you are, but what you ought to be – and how you can become what you ought to be.”

The contours of this argument are unlikely to surprise anyone with a casual interest in the topic. It can be tiring to read once again about the western obsession with “perpetual optimization and renewal” or about how overweight people are disparaged as lazy and undisciplined even though they live in societies that aggressively steer them towards unhealthy food. The exhaustion is not due to Martschukat’s argument, but a symptom of knowingly living under these conditions. Martschukat provides the historical context needed to understand why it became so important for people who live in wealthy, industrialized nations to spend a substantial portion of their already sparse leisure time working on their bodies.

One key, argues Martschukat, lies in a misreading of Darwin. The publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species introduced the idea that competition was ubiquitous in the natural world and determined which species survived and which died off. Darwin may not have coined the famous phrase “survival of the fittest” – that was the philosopher Herbert Spencer’s later invention – but he did think of evolution in terms of “fitness”. What he meant by the term was value-neutral: the fittest species was not necessarily the strongest or fastest or most robust, but the one that happened to thrive long enough in its immediate environment to reproduce. Fitness was not something achieved through hard work; it was simply a fortunate accident, and liable to change if conditions fluctuated.

The idea was ripe for misinterpretation. Nineteenth-century liberal thought emphasized personal liberty and responsibility, so it is not surprising that “fitness” shifted from being a stroke of communal luck to a sign of individual excellence. The Oxford English Dictionary supports Martschukat’s point: the entries for “fit” and “fitness” show that the word first begins to be used for physical vigour in the nineteenth century. Fitness, along with the exercise it took to achieve it, began to represent “the fundamental ability, which was considered a virtue, to work on oneself and to take responsibility for one’s performance”.

Martschukat brings together the growing focus on competition among social scientists and political philosophers in the nineteenth century, the rise of nation states and their desire to maintain a populace physically fit enough to fight, the racist belief that white men were the only reliable citizens of a country on the rise, twentieth-century concerns that desk work was making middle-class men flabby, and cultural ideas about “self-education”, which held individuals responsible for their own good health. It is not always clear, however, which factors might be more important than others, or how particular individuals or groups might have resisted these cultural trends and why.

The best moments of Martschukat’s book, at least for the non-specialist reader, occur when he dwells on specifics to draw out a surprising story or interpretation. He describes, for example, how companies realized in the early twentieth century that their workers were exhausted by the repetitive movements of their jobs. They instituted fitness breaks and organized days of sport to restore employees just enough to keep them working at peak performance. These are the predecessors of today’s onsite gyms and company-sponsored exercise programs, which aim for “lean people in lean companies, flexible bodies for a flexible capitalism”. Other highlights include Martschukat’s reflections on Viagra as a drug that turns sex into yet another performance of fitness. He notes that while some men chase the ability to achieve youthful erections at any age, women do not necessarily lament “their aging partners’ declining desire and potency”, seeing them as a natural opportunity to enjoy different kinds of intimacy. A memorable section on the 1980s American gym craze details Ronald Reagan’s outdoorsy exercise plan, which the president half-jokingly referred to in the pages of Parade magazine as “Pumping Firewood”. Indeed, presidents and those who aspire to the role have long recognized the symbolic value of a fit leader; think of Bill Clinton’s public jogging, Barack Obama’s pick-up basketball games with NBA players, and Kamala Harris pausing her run to congratulate Joe Biden on his election – then releasing the video to media.

Ultimately, The Age of Fitness makes even the act of putting on running shoes seem loaded with cultural baggage. Bodies come across as objects to be trained, manipulated, drugged and surgically altered in order to demonstrate the discipline and usefulness of their owners. But surely there are reasons to slip in a workout beyond the dictates of an oppressive modern ideology? Wasn’t exercise the natural mode of life for most of our species’ history, before we all became moulded to our chairs and developed heart disease? And why, given all of these shadowy forces, do so many of us still fail to incorporate more movement into our lives?

In Exercised: The science of physical activity, rest and health, the evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman offers a counterintuitive answer to these questions: “We never evolved to exercise”. This bold conclusion runs counter to what he calls the “myth of the athletic savage”, the popular notion that “people … whose bodies are untainted by modern decadent lifestyles are natural superathletes, not only capable of amazing physical feats, but also free from laziness”. In order to discover what type and amount of physical activity really are “normal”, Lieberman studies archaeological records of early humans as well as contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Much of Exercised is concerned with his observations of groups such as the Tarahumara of Mexico, known for their ability to run very long distances, and the Hadza people of Tanzania, whose ancient way of life now includes a steady stream of visiting anthropologists. Lieberman fills out the picture with studies on the effects that different levels of exercise have on our bodies, with the caveat that much of this research has focused on people who live in Europe and the US, and whose lifestyle is relatively unusual.

Spending time with the Hadza in 2013, Lieberman notices something startling: they do a lot of sitting around. This does not seem right. Sitting has, after all, been widely called “the new smoking”, and modern sedentary lifestyles contribute to a host of chronic diseases. It seems unlikely that hunter-gatherers would be sitting for five to ten hours a day, as do some people in industrialized countries. Moreover, a number of studies of the Hadza have showed that most of the movement they engage in over the course of a day is light, with perhaps an hour of vigorous activity. If the Hadza way of life is a clue to what has been “normal” for most humans, then, Lieberman suggests, normal is not nearly as dynamic as many people imagine.

The reason for this is simple: in situations where food is hard to come by, it is an evolutionary advantage to preserve as much energy as possible for reproduction and survival. People with limited calories at their disposal are wise to limit unnecessary exertions. Lieberman goes so far as to suggest that “compared with other mammals, humans might have evolved to be especially averse to exercise”. Lieberman uses the word “exercise” here to mean any kind of movement that is not needed for the continuation of life, as opposed to running after prey, carrying water or having sex. We did evolve to move our bodies, and are healthiest when we do so. But nonessential movement goes against our instincts.

Still, while all humans sit a great deal, not everyone does it the same way. Hunter-gatherers do not sit for long, uninterrupted stretches, and they do not use desk chairs or sofas that support their backs. Instead, they squat, kneel and sit on the ground, shifting as they do so, and only for about a quarter hour at a time. Nor is their sitting idle, but interrupted by chores and childcare. And when people like the Hadza are not sitting, they are more active than an average modern desk worker. Sitting on its own is not deadly – it’s about the way we do it and its place in the rest of our lives. The good news is that it is possible to mitigate the negative health effects of long daily sits by shifting, squirming, getting up frequently, and moving more outside of work hours.

Whether treating strength training, walking or ageing, Lieberman makes the case for the significant health benefits of physical activity while deflating the moralizing around it. A person who finds exercise difficult is not merely lazy or undisciplined but has to fight an innate urge (no longer advantageous) to conserve energy. The challenge is to find a form of movement that is “necessary, pleasurable, or otherwise rewarding”, and then incorporate it into our daily lives. In a book as refreshing as it is well written, Lieberman makes the case for a life filled with frequent, light activity rather than ironman heroics, for dancing around the kitchen rather than sweating till we drop.

The conflict between generalized cultural pressures, shaped by public health programmes and mass media, and the undeniable reality of living in an individual body is perhaps most striking when we start to sweat. In The Joy of Sweat: The strange science of perspiration, Sarah Everts offers a fascinating account of an involuntary bodily function that turns out to be as unique as a fingerprint. At first sniff, sweat represents the animal part of our natures. Smell has always been low on the hierarchy of senses, long thought to be less civilized than vision or sound. We cannot control when or how much we sweat, nor how it smells. But as Everts points out, sweat is “very human”. Few other animals use sweat to cool down their bodies; dogs must pant, while vultures are resigned to defecating on themselves to modulate body temperature. Some evolutionary biologists consider sweat a competitive advantage that helped us achieve our current dominance: having sweat glands allows us to survive in a variety of climates, and the ability to stay cool makes it possible to chase down animals faster than we are, but more prone to heat exhaustion.

Every person’s sweat glands release a specific combination of chemicals. These interact with the bacteria living on the skin to produce a “signature body odor” so particular that dogs can identify it, a quality long used by police forces to track down criminal suspects and, in more tragic cases, political dissidents. Because everyone has unique odour receptors in their noses, how we perceive smell is also idiosyncratic. The most entertaining scene in The Joy of Sweat sees Everts attending a “smell- dating event” in Moscow’s Gorky Park, a form of speed matchmaking made possible by the fact that one person’s stench is another’s perfume. After some vigorous exercise, participants swab their chests and armpits with cotton pads. The pads are then put into glass jars and presented for smelling. If two people rate one another’s smells highly, they are invited to meet. Everts goes from jar to jar, not particularly impressed by any of the samples, until she reaches jar #15 and has a revelation: “It smells to me like Sex Epitomized.”

The Joy of Sweat reveals much about the way people connect with one another. People can identify the body odours of those close to them with a great degree of accuracy: parents and children, siblings and romantic couples are all able to recognize each other’s smells, sometimes even after years apart. Meanwhile, those who cannot smell have a tougher time maintaining relationships. On rare occasions, individuals who are very close can also affect each other’s scent. At one point, Everts describes the case of Chris Callewaert, a biologist who works on “armpit transplantation”, where bacteria from the bodies of people with little body odour are transferred to much funkier armpits. Callewaert began this line of research after his own odour changed dramatically, for the worse, the day after a sexual encounter. He ultimately regained his own smell using the bacteria from an old T-shirt.

One paradox of the modern preoccupation with controlling the body is that we are supposed to exercise more without ever smelling of sweat. Everts offers a short history of the deodorant industry, which, beginning in the late nineteenth century, convinced first women, then men, that having body odour was social suicide. The first deodorants were not easy on the skin. One concoction used hospital disinfectants to counteract smell, while Odorono, an early antiperspirant, contained a corrosive acid solution and caused “armpit inflammation and burning”. Nor are extreme solutions to sweat a thing of the past. Everts describes the travails of people who suffer from hyperhidrosis, a condition that causes them to sweat excessively. Many are so unhappy that they undergo surgery that cuts the nerve bundles responsible for triggering sweat, a procedure that comes with unpleasant side effects and is not always successful. All this, to avoid the embarrassment of moist palms.

“I could see that the body, so disavowed by the patriarchy, was not something separate, or ‘other’”, reflects Alison Bechdel in her compelling graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength. The book traces Bechdel’s odyssey through decades’ worth of fitness trends, as she jogs, skis, bikes, kicks and stretches herself to exhaustion. Her journey prompts a larger question about American culture and its growing emphasis on exercise: “What gnawing void propels this cardio-pulmonary frenzy?” Bechdel juxtaposes her quest with the lives of Romantics, transcendentalists and Beat poets who, like her, searched for “inner transformation” and a renewed relationship between individuals and the world around them.

A self-described “vigorous type”, Bechdel spends most of the story disciplining her body into submission. She also suppresses her grief at her father’s passing, becomes successful in her career, and develops a few addictions, mostly to work. She is unhappy in love, and impatient with herself. There are moments – often during a run or while skiing alone – when she glimpses a way of existing that is less effortful, less painful, less centred on achievement. It is then that she finds flow, understands that she is connected to all other people and to the universe around her. But there is no easy transformation here: despite her best attempts at becoming more enlightened, Bechdel remains “enamored of the ideal of the rugged individual, the enclosed, impregnable ego!”

The Secret to Superhuman Strength is the story of a woman destroying herself by engaging in activities that are supposed to make her better. Bechdel is attuned to the ominous side of exercise. In one meditation on her ongoing attempts at self-improvement, she exclaims, “This fantasy of physical fitness is for fascists! I’m a feminist, for *@#&’s sake!” Progressive politics sometimes offers relief from her incessant need to punish herself: the realization that alienation from her own body is the result of the patriarchy takes place at a women’s festival in Michigan. But her increasing workaholism hints that Bechdel may be driven as much by a desire for “fitness” in Martschukat’s sense: a desperate will to survive. At one point, her partner asks what she is afraid would happen if she were to stop pushing herself so hard. Bechdel tentatively replies, “I … I wouldn’t deserve to exist?”

Exercise renders our bodies a source of both shame and joy. Though much of Bechdel’s story is about the first emotion, she also reveals the unexpected gifts of physical activity: losing herself in the euphoria of running, a sense of ease while skiing, and, while training with others in a karate studio, “the experience of union as we moved and breathed in sync, in a collective trance”. In Exercised, Lieberman explains that Tarahumara runners understand marathons as “a sacred metaphor for the journey of life” rather than mere competition. He also points out that just about every culture has, or used to have, a tradition of communal dance. We did not evolve to run on treadmills like lonely hamsters, but we have always enjoyed moving ecstatically in groups, touching transcendence through hours of sweaty exertion. Had I known this when I approached the gym doors, I would have turned around and gone to a nightclub instead.

Irina Dumitrescu teaches medieval literature at the University of Bonn

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