Posted on December 29, 2022

The White Supremacist Origins of Exercise

Olivia B. Waxman, Time, December 28, 2022

How did U.S. exercise trends go from reinforcing white supremacy to celebrating Richard Simmons? That evolution is explored in a new book by a historian of exercise, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, author of the book Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession, out Jan. 2023.


Perfect for reading on the treadmill or stationary bike, the below conversation with Mehlman Petrzela outlines the earliest ideas on exercise, delves into the history of various popular workouts, and the outsize influence of Richard Simmons.


What’s the most surprising thing you learned in your research?

It was super interesting reading the reflections of fitness enthusiasts in the early 20th century. They said we should get rid of corsets, corsets are an assault on women’s form, and that women should be lifting weights and gaining strength. At first, you feel like this is so progressive.

Then you keep reading, and they’re saying white women should start building up their strength because we need more white babies. They’re writing during an incredible amount of immigration, soon after enslaved people have been emancipated. This is totally part of a white supremacy project. So that was a real “holy crap” moment as a historian, where deep archival research really reveals the contradictions of this moment.

Your book talks about how, at one point, America’s focus was on exercising so we could have a population that was ready to go to war. What is health and fitness culture training us to do? How has that expectation evolved over time?

During the New Deal [of the 1930s], the Civilian Conservation Corps would recruit out-of-work or impoverished, scrawny men to go work in the forest and on public works projects. One of the ways that they marketed this was “it puts muscles on your bones.”

That really picked up during the Cold War. Right after World War II, you start to have more concern about Americans getting soft, this idea that the things that made America great—like cars and TV sets—were actually taking a toll on Americans’ bodies. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy went on a mission to make exercise look wholesome and patriotic and focus on shifting the purpose of exercise to being a good citizen and defending your country.

In the 1980s, there’s a huge boom in the fitness industry, connected to this “work hard, play hard” mentality. I was also really moved speaking to gay men who had lived through HIV/AIDS and talked about how they exercised to display that they had a healthy body at a moment when there was so much homophobia. Some gyms became like community centers, sharing medical information, almost like mutual aid societies.

Another big turning point is 9/11. You see a boom in the CrossFit mentality of almost like militarized fitness and girding yourself and your body for a fight—not necessarily, by the way, in the 1950s/1960s way of fighting for the U.S. Army—but more like “you need to know how to perform functional fitness to protect yourself if things go wrong.” At the same time, you see [an emphasis on] wellness, self care and healing and being meditative in an increasingly traumatic and unpredictable world.

What era of fitness are we in now?

Gym usage is rebounding rapidly since the pandemic [lockdown ordinances], but now it’s also really efficient for a lot of people to exercise at home. What’s so unfortunate about the pandemic is how much it accelerated fitness inequality. You can go home and be on your Peloton if you can afford it, if you have the space for it, but not everyone can.

I was meeting with somebody who’s very active in the New York City pickleball world, and you have all of these adults who want to do this inclusive recreational thing, and they’re competing with children who want to go out and skateboard and do basketball. Those are wonderful things, and we don’t have the public space to accommodate them.


How did running become a popular exercise in the 1970s? It’s often hailed as a great equalizer, an exercise everyone can do with hardly any gear required? Did you find that to be the case?

It became popular among environmentalists, people who were imagining what it would be like to be in a culture that was not centered around cars. The sneakers back then were pretty rudimentary—old work shoes with rubber soles.

But it’s important to point out that access was never totally equal, if you lived in a neighborhood that didn’t have safe streets or streets that were not well lit. Women were catcalled. People of color were thought to be committing a crime.

The “running is for everybody” discourse still quite often leaves out the fact that depending on where you live and the body that you live in, it can be a very different kind of experience.