January 13, 2020

The Social Life of Physical Fitness

author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

I’m not what you would call a health nut. I only started going to the gym after I threw out my back. To be honest, I mostly hate it. I need to have Netflix on my phone (which is why a disproportionate number of my posts are about Netflix shows), have a few other televisions on ESPN, CNN, and HGTV above the mirrors, and a room full of people to watch. It’s then, and only then, that I can press the awareness of physical exercise out of my mind and run a few miles. Blah.

But it seems like most folks really like that kind of thing. If you think of health is a big deal right now, you’d be right. According to Forbes, the fitness industry is a $30 billion business—growing at an annual rate of 3-4% since 2010. If hashtags are a more meaningful metric for you, how about this: the Harvard Business Review, asking “How Did Self Care Become So Much Work?” noted that the hashtag #selfcare exploded on Instagram between mid-2018 to mid-2019, from 5 to 17 million posts.

And then there is the fellow traveler to the fitness industry, the varied culture and corporations centered on mindfulness (e.g., yoga, meditation, spas, etc.), another a multi-billion industry.

Business professor Ron Purser has a new book called McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Its main thesis is that corporations love the rise of this form of self-care. Not just as an investment, but also as part of their benefit packages and even weaving it into their corporate philosophies because, as you can imagine, it is largely absent of any critique of the wider inequalities or injustices—that are evident locally in the business itself or that exist in our wider social world.

Deep breathing, reflections on being, and other mindfulness practices tend to center on the self. Certainly people’s selves might need some work. I won’t judge. But by stopping the mindfulness industry places the responsibility of happiness on the individual, not their jobs, not the government, not the wider stratification system. For sociologists, we would say that this is a particularly non-sociological perspective. But for Purser corporations could not hope for a better method for compliance. (Read an interview with the author, here.)

Fitness has a longer history in American culture, so it might not be surprising that industry has been finding ways to make some money.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan wrote Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man; the book’s first chapter, “The Medium is the Message,” overshadowed the important subtitle of the book which highlights how the technologies and media we develop—they are different—broaden our reach. Just as I wear glasses as a technology that helps me see the TVs at the gym, we all use technologies to extend what he called “our sense lives.”

McLuhan wrote that the “technological extension of our bodies [that were] designed to alleviate physical stress can bring on psychic stress that may be much worse.” Indeed, there is a reason why McLuhan was considered was prophetic. When I think of recent developments in fitness technologies, I think about how they are not only an extension of man, but also a kind of intrusion as well. The companies behind new fitness technologies are not letting us reach outward, but bringing themselves inward.

Into the home, for example. Instead of going to the gym, with machines like Peloton, the gym comes to you. (Social media hullaballoo aside.) I just learned about the Mirror, too. The Apple Watch, as another example, further individualizes—even isolates you—in your own fitness bubble. These technologies are changing our relationships to fitness and to ourselves.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter called this creative destruction—the occasional new business model that upends a market. (Think of what Uber, Lime bikes, and e-scooters—the "micromobility movement"—are doing to the taxi industry.) Schumpeter called this process the “essential fact about capitalism.” Are gyms like my YMCA the older order that will be upended in this fitness new model?

It’s not just the kinds of places that will change (e.g., from working out at the gym to working out at home). I think that the change of the onus for one’s happiness is further personalized, further decoupled from larger society. Physical fitness and mindfulness are getting increasingly personal, increasingly intrusive.

But fitness is only increasingly isolating people in some ways. In others, it makes us ever more connected, albeit often well outside of our awareness. Health data is being collected, aggregated, analyzed and, in some cases, sold. Health apps know when we’re active and when we’re sleeping. They know our heart rates, blood pressure, and weight. They know when people are pregnant, when they are menstruating. And then they sell that information to Facebook. (I encourage you to read this amazing article on connected fitness, from The Verge.)

Apple, with their heartbeat monitor/watch is going after the health industry. They have even added a feature where users can add health records, and make promises of security and privacy. The billion-dollar industry fitness industry meets the $10 trillion healthcare industry meets right on your wrist! The extensions of man connect our very hearts to the heart of the healthcare industry. Is the creative destruction of the health industry next?


To learn more, you might want to check out the American Sociological Association (ASA) section called Sociology of Bodies and Embodiment.. There is also an ASA section on Communication, Information Technologies, and Media.Also see Loic Wacquant’s Body & Soul and Shilling and Bunsell’s “The Female Body Builder as a Gender Outlaw.”


An interesting addition to the discussion around connectedness and fitness is the rise of the 'parkrun' movement throughout the world. These weekly, free, inclusive and supportive 5km runs or walks have been identified as not just encouraging personal fitness but for the connection to community that many participants experience. While these events might be a rare counter to the isolationist tendencies of the rest of the fitness industry and unlikely to greatly impact this trend their significant growth is worthy of some attention. One could even argue that the early morning Saturday events that bring groups of positive and like-minded individuals together to worship at the alter of self-realisation make them the modern day version of church.

Wow, that's a great addition to the conversation... The modern day version of church! Thanks ~Jon

Personal fitness is your ability to cope with the stresses in your life, whether the stresses are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, or whatever else. A truly fit person should be able to cope with any stress that comes their way.

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I agree with most of what you stated on the article but there are small gyms out there that are actually trying to push people to go back to basics and interact with each other, without using any form of technology.

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Thanks for sharing this informative and amazing post here. I found it very interesting and enjoy reading this blog. Will wait for more posts.

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