Cover: The Age of Fitness by Jürgen Martschukat







This book took shape over many years and in the context of a number of research projects. Between 2012 and 2015, the Fritz Thyssen Foundation funded our project on “Das essende Subjekt” (“The Eating Subject”). I am as indebted to that institution as I am to the Volkswagen Foundation for generously funding the project on “Ernährung, Gesundheit und soziale Ordnung in der Moderne: Deutschland und die USA” (“Nutrition, Health, and Social Order in Modernity: Germany and the United States”) from 2015 to 2019, as part of the funding stream Schlüsselthemen für Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft (Key Issues for Science and Society). Without the research professorship that formed part of this key issues project in the summer semester of 2018, I would not have been able to complete this book.

While working on the manuscript I received valuable feedback from numerous colleagues and friends. The North American History colloquium at the University of Erfurt and various seminars, from Charlottesville in Virginia to Dunedin in New Zealand, were a great source of inspiration. Through a William Evans Fellowship in the spring of 2017, the University of Otago enabled me to carry out research at its School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, which in turn allowed me to discuss the project intensively and advance it greatly. My thanks go to Doug Booth for his tremendous support, his wonderful hospitality, and his input at various workshops and over numerous coffees. My thanks also go to Stefanie Büttner, Katharina Dahl, Paula Dahl, Tristan Dohnt, Norbert Finzsch, Laura-Elena Keck, Tae-Jun Kim, Olaf von dem Knesebeck, Nina Mackert, Irene Martschukat, Maren Möhring, Stefan Offermann, Tanja Robnik, Olaf Stieglitz, Heiko Stoff, Paula-Irene Villa and Simon Wendt, who read various parts and versions of the text and discussed them with me. Paula Dahl, Nina Mackert and Irene Martschukat even worked their way through the entire manuscript; Maria Matthes and Viviann Wilmot assisted me with the research and the final editing, and Alex Skinner created an elegant translation. Without your help this project would have gotten nowhere.

Last but not least, my special thanks to Alex, Andy, Bille, Dirk, Flo, Harry, Jörg, Matthias, Paddy, Reemt, Sebastian, Silke and all the other boys and girls from Team Altona for their company across thousands of kilometers in and around Hamburg and throughout Europe.


We live in the age of fitness. Tens of thousands of people run marathons and compete in all-comers cycle races, while millions go for an evening jog in the park or work out in gyms, where they lift weights and use machines of various kinds or practice yoga; active vacations of all kinds are more popular than ever. In 1970, this was barely conceivable. Hiking vacations were for retirees and windsurfing had just been invented. The Berlin Marathon still lay in the future. Few adults had a bicycle, while gyms were few and far between. Since then, however, fitness has boomed. Let’s consider the scale of the fitness market. In Germany alone, active people (and those who want to appear active, or at least aspire to be active) spent over 50 billion euros on fitness-related items in 2015: running shoes and sportswear, weights and carbon fiber bicycles, energy drinks and diet foods. Equally popular are fitness classes and activity vacations, fitness magazines and books, apps and gadgets. Fitness stars such as Kayla Itsines – to mention one of many examples – have millions of followers on Instagram; images of toned bodies are hugely popular on social media.1

What those engaged in “getting fit” generally have in common is that they are active, but rarely organize themselves in clubs or associations. They do not participate in a specific league, and they are almost never out to win a competition. Yet they all want to improve themselves somehow. They do not engage in the kind of organized competitive sport that spread from the United Kingdom to other modernizing societies from the mid-nineteenth century.2 Those who undertake fitness training are not looking to win a medal. Instead, what this practice aims to achieve is a fit body. This body, in turn, stands for an array of partially overlapping forces, abilities and ideals, which point far beyond the doing of sport. These encompass one’s health and performance in everyday life and at work, productivity and the ability to cope with challenging situations, potency, a slim figure and a pleasing appearance according to the prevalent standards of beauty. Also important in this context is “doing the right thing,” “doing something good” for oneself, and getting the “best” out of oneself, as well as gaining recognition for it. At times, the sheer joy of movement and activity also comes into play. These various driving forces are not mutually exclusive.

The pursuit of fitness3 is part of a culture and society that concurrently laments increasingly fat bodies. In the twenty-first century, fatness is even referred to as an epidemic, and health problems such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease are a perennial topic of concern. Particularly in Western societies, but now also worldwide, the consistent message is that the lack of physical activity has assumed “frightening proportions.”4 A so-called sedentary lifestyle and an unhealthy, high-calorie diet are viewed as the main causes of increasing fatness. On the one hand, then, there is a culture of fitness, while on the other there is anxiety over the lack of exercise and burgeoning fatness. What may seem contradictory at first sight turns out to be part of a single social formation, centered on the self-responsible, committed and productive individual. Both sides of this coin (the culture of fitness and the fear of fat) revolve around the successful self, which proves its success by mastering its own body. In (post)modern societies, lack of fitness amounts to a flashing red light.

To gain a deep understanding of our age of fitness, this book delves into history. To illuminate the present through the past means comprehending history as a space “in which the present has been formed.”5 We have to draw on history if we aspire to grasp our own present, identify its problems and paradigms, and engage critically in its most contentious debates.

This entails linking the topic of fitness with the project of the free, self-responsible individual and their history. As this book reveals, historicizing fitness demonstrates that lived self-responsibility and its consolidation as an ideal have constituted a project for more than two centuries. Writing a history of fitness also means exploring the genealogy of competition and performance, and assessing their importance to modern societies, to their organization and to the societal participation of different types of person. Another key question concerns body shape and health and the relationship between the two. Above all, though, a history of fitness is a history of the body as social history: a history of values and norms, epistemic and discursive orders, representations and figurations, technologies and bodily practices. A history of the body of this kind shows how people are placed in a particular relationship to society through their bodies and how they participate in their own emplacement.6

My observations focus on recent history, since the 1970s. The last half-century may be considered the age of fitness, and it is no accident that this coincides with the age of neoliberalism. Rather than a generalizing call to arms, here neoliberalism denotes an epoch that has modeled itself on the market, interprets every situation as a competitive struggle and enjoins people to make productive use of their freedom. Neoliberalism thus describes a certain way of thinking about society and subjects, understanding their behavior and classifying it as appropriate or inappropriate. The individual is supposed to work on themself, have life under control, get fit, ensure their own productive capacity and embody these things in the truest sense of the word. This requirement has achieved unprecedented importance under neoliberalism.7 Fitness is everywhere. Fitness, as philosopher Michel Foucault might have put it, is a “dispositif” or apparatus – an era-defining network of discourses and practices, institutions and things, buildings and infrastructure, administrative measures, political programs, and much more besides.8

But I also reach further back into history in order to understand our age of fitness. At times the tracks we need to follow extend back to the eighteenth century, for example when it comes to the idea of liberty and self-determination, or the disciplining of the soldierly body. Yet it was not just the soldier but also the new republican citizen that was required to be disciplined and upright, rather than glutted, degenerate, and physically torpid like the nobility, or stooped and battered like the third estate.9 In a history of fitness, the middle of the nineteenth century also demands our attention. This is the period when Darwinism, the “survival of the fittest,” and the conception of inevitable, natural competition took the stage. And it was in the decades around 1900 that modern societies first experienced a fitness hype. At the same time, they were plagued by a crisis that was experienced, in part, as a crisis of the body. When it comes to the history of fitness over the last few decades, in many ways the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries presaged future trends more than the cult of the body in fascism and Nazism. Historians have often highlighted the 1950s and 1960s in this regard as well. After years of crisis and war, many people on both sides of the Atlantic once again indulged in the pleasures of consumption. Yet this immediately led to anxieties about its harmful effects on the body, health and performance.

The history of fitness related in this book is a critical one. This means that it pays attention to the ambivalences of fitness. It brings out how societies are governed through fitness – understood as the freedom to work on the body and the successful self. This means doing more than just admiring fitness and more than praising freedom as a fundamental human right and opportunity. In fact, freedom is bound up with the demand, made of all of us, to use our freedom productively and in the best possible way; and fitness perfectly embodies this facet of freedom. People’s success or failure in this respect establishes differences, engenders exclusion and legitimizes privileges.10 The coexistence of, and simultaneous antagonism between, fitness and fatness, their meanings and associations, reveal the manifold tensions inherent in governing through freedom and fitness. Fitness and fatness – often perceived as non-fitness – have a significant impact on whether a person is recognized as a productive member of society, on who may be considered a subject and who may not.11

In the course of this book, I will routinely locate fitness in “modernity,” describing fitness as its hallmark and regulatory ideal. Modern societies have declared perpetual optimization and renewal one of their core precepts and achievements, and fitness posits the constant optimization of body and self. In line with this, as they have developed over time, modernity and fitness have been closely interlinked. The origins of both lie in the late eighteenth century and both experienced a boom in the decades around 1900. Toward the end of the twentieth century, meanwhile, both modernity and fitness began to change or come to a head in key respects. This applies, for example, to the paradigm of the body’s malleability. In postmodernity, working on one’s body has even gained in importance and, as sociologist Paula-Irene Villa writes, “Bodywork is always and inevitably work on the social self.”12

Similar may be said of my references to the “West” as the main setting for the following history of fitness. What I have in mind here is a critical perspective on a community of values, norms, and principles, which include the productive use of freedom, the optimization of the self, and constant progress.13 Hence, the following chapters focus on the US and Europe, especially Germany, and on the similarities and differences that typify the relationship between freedom, bodies, and social order on each side of the Atlantic. The US is in fact the society most dedicated to the idea of freedom as norm and practice.

Fitness, then, operates via the body, but it is by no means limited to it. So, this book is about much more than “just” the training of the body. The first chapter foregrounds our present and recent past, bringing out the significance of the body and body shape. My focus is on those practices and policies that are directly related to the body and that are obsessively pursued in our contemporary societies. The key terms here are exercise and eating right. Chapter 2 sketches the history of the fitness concept, from the eighteenth century to the 1970s. It shows how the idea of dynamism and the notion that we can achieve anything we aspire to have increasingly permeated modern societies, and it reveals how the notion of fitness, as we know it today, emerged. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 go even further beyond fitness as bodily practice. They scrutinize three fields of tremendous importance to the individual’s recognition as a productive member of society and as a subject. Chapter 3 deals with the relationship between fitness and work, and thus revolves around the importance of bodies and productivity. Turning to the relationship between fitness and sex, chapter 4 considers reproductivity and potency. The fifth chapter discusses the relationship between fitness and the ready ability to deal with challenges and achieve our goals through sustained effort, probing how fitness and heroic visions intermesh. For a long time, these visions were of a martial cast. For some time, however, and increasingly, they have been taking inspiration from the struggles of everyday life.

Each chapter in this book forms a coherent whole and may be read individually. But only reading the entire book will convey how deeply fitness is inscribed in modern societies, and how critical fitness is to success or failure, recognition or exclusion, in a society that sets such great store by self-responsibility, performance, market, and competition.


  1. 1. On “sport as an economic factor,” see Informationen aus dem Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft #12/2018, June 7, 2018,; see also the Instagram account of Kayla Itsines,
  2. 2. Gruneau, Sport & Modernity; Eisenberg, “English Sports” und deutsche Bürger; Eisenberg, “Die Entdeckung des Sports.”
  3. 3. In using the phrase “pursuit of fitness,” I borrow from the American Declaration of Independence, which refers to the “pursuit of happiness”; see esp. chapter 2 and Martschukat, “The Pursuit of Fitness.”
  4. 4. See, for example, Werner Bartens, “Krankhaft sesshaft. Der Bewegungsmangel hat weltweit erschreckende Ausmaße angenommen,” SZ, September 6, 2018, 14; on Germany, see Froböse et al., Der DKV-Report 2018; Guthold et al., “Worldwide Trends in Insufficient Physical Activity.”
  5. 5. Editorial, Geschichte der Gegenwart.
  6. 6. See esp. Netzwerk Körper (ed.), What Can a Body Do? See also many of the articles in Body Politics: Zeitschrift für Körpergeschichte,; Lorenz, Leibhaftige Vergangenheit, was pioneering in its day.
  7. 7. Brown, Undoing the Demos, 15–50; Rödder, 21.0, 54–5. In those parts of the book where I write about fitness, the economy, and the world of work, I also use the term “flexible capitalism” to refer to the last 50 years because it more accurately captures the specific historical shifts and challenges involved; Lessenich, Die Neuerfindung des Sozialen, 9–19.
  8. 8. Foucault, “Confessions of the Flesh”; Ganahl, “Ist Foucaults dispositif ein Akteur-Netzwerk?”; van Dyk, “Was die Welt zusammenhält.”
  9. 9. Alkemeyer, Zeichen, Körper und Bewegung, 212; Mayer, Wissenschaft vom Gehen.
  10. 10. Krasmann, “Regieren über Freiheit”; Rose, Powers of Freedom.
  11. 11. Honneth, Anerkennung, 182–234; Butler, Psychic Life of Power.
  12. 12. Gumbrecht, “Modern, Modernität, Moderne”; Dipper, “Moderne, Version: 2.0”; Gruneau, Sport & Modernity, 1–14; Villa, “Einleitung – Wider die Rede vom Äußerlichen,” 8.
  13. 13. Hall, “The West and the Rest.”