Our relationship with exercise is complicated. Reports from the UK and the US show it is something we persistently struggle with. As the new year rolls around, we anticipate having the drive to behave differently and become regular exercisers, even in the knowledge that we will probably fail to do so. Why do we want to exercise? What do we expect it to do for us? We all know we are supposed to be exercising, but hundreds of millions of us can’t face actually doing it. It is just possible the problem lies at the heart of the idea of exercise itself.
Exercise is movement of the muscles and limbs for a specific outcome, usually to enhance physical fitness. As such, for most of us, it is an optional addition to the working day – yet another item on a long list of responsibilities alongside the fulfilment of parental duties or earning money to put food on the table. But because the principal beneficiary of exercise is ourselves, it is one of the easiest chores to shirk. At the end of the working day, millions of us prefer to indulge in sedentary leisure activities instead of what we all think is good for us: a workout.
Fitness crazes are like diets: if any of them worked, there wouldn’t be so many. CrossFit, the intensely physical, communal workout incorporating free weights, squats, pull-ups and so forth, is still less than 20 years old. Spin classes – vigorous group workouts on stationary bikes – have only been around for about 30. Aerobics was a craze about a decade before that, although many of its high-energy routines had already been around for a while. (The pastel horror of 1970s Jazzercise is probably best forgotten.) Before that, there was the jogging revolution, which began in the US in the early 1960s. The Joggers Manual, published in 1963 by the Oregon Heart Foundation, was a leaflet of about 200 words that sought to address the postwar panic about sedentary lifestyles by encouraging an accessible form of physical activity, explaining that “jogging is a bit more than a walk”. The jogging boom took a few years to get traction, hitting its stride in the mid- to late-80s, but it remains one of the most popular forms of exercise, now also in groups.
The exercise craze that dominated the 1950s was, oddly, not even an exercise. The vibrating exercise belt promised users could achieve effortless weight loss by having their midriffs violently jiggled. It didn’t work, but you can still find similar machines available for purchase today.
These fads even came with their own particular fashions – legwarmers, leotards, Lycra. So is our obsession with fitness doomed to be the stuff of embarrassing passing “phases”? Is exercise itself a fad?