Fitness as we now understand it became fashionable then too, as Jürgen Martschukat’s fascinating history shows. By 1915 the expression “keep fit” was in widespread use, a US sports magazine reported. Especially in America, Martschukat argues (in Alex Skinner’s translation), “the activation of the body, and especially the white male body”, was the necessary response to the threat to white supremacy represented by increasing immigration to the US. This equation of physical exercise with national purity, of course, reached its apex in Nazi Germany, as the author describes. But that does not mean our modern concept of fitness is ideologically neutral, or indeed freely chosen.
Martschukat’s book isn’t as interesting as its subject, and the prose, translated from the German by Alex Skinner, can be repetitive and inelegant. My main issue with the book, however, is its neglect of the question that brewed as I read: So what? Meaning not so much, “What are you suggesting we do about this sinister regime of self-discipline?” But, “Does it matter that fitness is a neoliberal pursuit?” After all, people get a kick out of it – and these kicks can be profound and real, not false consolations like so much else neoliberalism provides. Habitual exercise can make people feel happier, better about themselves, in control of their lives, more capable – and not only of joining the ranks of the precariat, but of dealing with life’s trials (perennial, not just neoliberal).