For most inactive Americans, the problem with working out starts where their relationship to exercise does: in gym class. According to Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian at the New School and the author of the forthcoming book Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession, public-school physical education became more widespread in the United States during the Cold War, as the federal government began to worry that America was falling behind Europe and not producing enough combat-ready kids to challenge the Soviets. (That concern stretches back to the early 20th century and has endured for decades beyond the fall of the U.S.S.R.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, building physical instruction around a national inferiority complex instead of childhood well-being has had some consequences, the most enduring of which is an obsession with testing “fitness” instead of teaching practical physical skills and helping kids explore new activities.
The limitations of traditional American PE can be evoked pretty tidily with a single phrase: the Presidential Fitness Test. If you’re not familiar with the test or have repressed those memories, it was a biannual quasi-military exercise developed in the 1960s that required children as young as 6 to, among other things, run a mile as quickly as possible, do as many pull-ups as their little arms could handle, and get weighed, usually while all of their peers looked on. The criteria for passage varied over the years, and, in between tests, schools weren’t required to teach kids anything in particular that would help them improve their scores on the skill components. Instead, the test reflected the priorities of the system that created it: For example, kids deemed “overweight” couldn’t fully pass the test, even if they outperformed their classmates. The whole system was a big missed opportunity: Instead of engendering curiosity about physical activity and giving kids skills to build their capability, PE separated them into the physical haves and have-nots. Public-health officials admitted as much when they discontinued the test in 2013.
As it turns out, you can’t just teach millions of children that exercise is painful, humiliating, or a punishment for their failures and expect them to swan into adulthood with healthy, moderate beliefs about their bodies. Instead, they follow the lessons they’ve learned about themselves, and about exercise: Some people avoid ever entering a gym again and shy away from activities that might draw attention to their physical capabilities, such as hiking or dancing. Others emerge confident that they were born with the keys to the kingdom of athleticism.
Petrzela says that this dichotomy colors much of how American adults think about exercise, including who pursues careers in fitness, who can get hired in the industry, and how the audience for fitness services is defined. The fitness industry has changed a lot and for the better in the past 15 years—gym teachers have begun to piece together curricula that are more encouraging and creative, exercise gear is available in a larger array of sizes, and people who run fitness businesses have started to realize, however slowly, that shame might not be quite as reliable of a sales tool as it once was. But lots of stereotypes persist, and not just in the minds of people who are already regular exercisers. If you’ve been told all your life that only thin people are healthy, and that exercise is designed to make you healthier, then it’s only natural to believe that for a particular exercise regimen to “work,” it must make everyone who does it thin. If a business can’t create rock-hard abs for its instructors, what could it possibly do for you?