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In this episode I give my take on a New Yorker article that kind of sent me. While the overall message is to just have fun and be active, there is this element of “fit shaming” embedded in the article.
I’m sick of people like this making excuses for not being fit, shaming the ambitious and industrious among us. Stop making every damn thing about you and your lack of desire or discipline to pursue excellence. It’s tired. Below is the article in question.
EXERCISE IS GOOD FOR YOU. THE EXERCISE INDUSTRY MAY NOT BE
Amid the marketing of unattainable physical ideals, it’s easy to forget what made fitness fun.
By: Margaret Talbot
Lucky are those for whom the benefits of vigorous exercise are more or less the unintentional effects of something they love to do. I am not one of them. My friends have heard me declare that I like to swim, but what I really like is not so much moving purposefully through water as being immersed in it, like a tea bag. I like to walk, but would I do it quite so much if I had not, in a self-sabotaging form of rebellion against the Southern California car culture in which I grew up, refused to learn to drive? During the pandemic, I secretly relished the fact that my yoga classes had switched to Zoom; at home, with my camera turned off, I could look at my phone or play with the dog when other students were asking the instructor to help them refine their asanas. (The dog showed a keen interest in my “practice.”)
My husband, on the other hand, has a positive mania for basketball. Now sixty-two, he has been playing multiple times a week for more than two decades. He went back to the sport after breaking his ankle in a one-on-one game years ago, and again after a basketball sailed into his eyeball and detached his retina a couple of months ago. Sure, he knows that the cardiovascular workout is a boon—on days when his shot is off, he’ll say, “Well, at least I ran around”—but it’s the game he loves.
Unlike him, I have pretty much always had to cajole and guilt-trip and science-splain myself into exercising, even though I know from experience that I feel better, lighter, calmer afterward. (There have been long periods of my life when I didn’t even try.) This means that I am as familiar with the discourse about exercise as with exercise itself. I’m surely not the only one: the history of fitness is in large part the history of admonishments to become fit, and of advice on how and why to do so.
On this much we should agree at the outset: exercise is good for you. Virtually all medical professionals would sign off on that proposition, and so would most of the rest of us, even at a time when some portion of the population rejects plenty of other health-related expertise, like calls for vaccinations. Being physically active has been shown to decrease the risks of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers; combat anxiety and depression; strengthen bones and muscles; sharpen cognition; improve sleep; and extend longevity. All exercise is not created equal: my twenty-minute afternoon strolls hardly compare to my husband’s two-hour basketball games. But a little is better than none, which is comforting to remember. Getting up from your desk every hour or so is better than not doing so. Even fidgeting is better than sitting still—a bit of foot-jiggling increases blood flow.
Exercise has not always been recognized as an unassailable good. For much of the twentieth century, as the journalist Danielle Friedman writes in her canny and informative new book, “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World” (Putnam), vigorous exercise for women was considered not only unfeminine—women were supposed to glow, not sweat—but dangerous to female reproductive organs. (My own grandmother used to tell me to avoid lifting heavy things, so as not to impair my childbearing ability.) Men in the nineteen-fifties and sixties could invite questions about their sexuality if they seemed too interested in developing their physique, according to a 2013 book on American fitness culture by the scholar Shelly McKenzie; taking up exercise in a regular way wasn’t generally seen in a favorable light. And mid-century medical advice stressed the perils of overexertion as much as underexertion, especially when it came to the gray-flannel-suited man in the executive suite, who was thought to be chronically stressed, and therefore perpetually at risk of a heart attack. (If he survived one, his doctor was likely to tell him that he shouldn’t do much of anything strenuous ever again.) Friedman describes a 1956 radio interview in which Mike Wallace, later of “60 Minutes” fame, expresses incredulity at the vision set forth by the pioneering fitness advocate Bonnie Prudden. “You think there should be a formal exercise, a kind of ‘joy through strength’ period for husband, wife, and family when the father gets home from work at six-thirty at night, before the Martinis?” he marvels. “You think we should have a routine, all of us?” So many time-stamped assumptions are packed neatly into that response: that a (male) breadwinner would be home with his feet up by 6:30 P.M., that an exercise “routine” couldn’t possibly supplant the ritual of a nightly cocktail.