Danielle Friedman, LET'S GET PHYSICAL

Danielle Friedman, LET'S GET PHYSICAL

Zibby is joined by award-winning journalist Danielle Friedman to discuss her first book, Let’s Get Physical, about the modern evolution of women’s fitness movements. Zibby and Danielle talk about their respective relationships with exercise, which societal norms changed alongside each new development, and the tragic backstory behind the barre phenomenon. Danielle also shares why she intentionally left spinning out of the book as well as how this project has led to the creation of an online workout community.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Danielle. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.

Danielle Friedman: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I was so excited even from the first time I got a pitch letter or galley or whatever of this and I saw this cover and the topic. I’m a few years older than you but grew up in the exact same way in terms of fitness and trends. Oh, my gosh, reading this, I’m like — let me back up. I’m so excited. Tell listeners a little about what this book is about and how you decided to write it and why you did it.

Danielle: The book is a cultural history of women’s fitness. It begins in the 1950s and makes its way to the present. I think a lot of people assume that women’s fitness history begins with Jane Fonda. While she had a tremendous impact that I write about, there’s actually a fascinating, rich, complex history that begins many decades before. The book came about because about five years ago when I was getting ready for my wedding, I decided to take my first barre class. I loved how the classes made me feel. Also, as a women’s health journalist and a feminist journalist, I just became intrigued with the whole culture. I also noticed that many of the moves in class felt sort of comically erotic and sexual, which was extra interesting to me because no one seemed to be acknowledging that. What began as a piece looking into whether there were sexual health benefits to the barre workout turned into an exploration of the origins. It led to the creator of barre, Lotte Berk, who invented the method. She was a German dancer living in London, invented the method in the 1950s. Sure enough, she was really ahead of her time when it came to encouraging women to tap into their own desire and to improve the sex lives of women by encouraging them to connect with their bodies. I wrote about her story for The Cut. Even while I was still reporting that story, I started to see that there was a much bigger story here. I also, at one point, was like, I’d love to talk to the woman or the person who wrote the history of women’s fitness. I was pretty shocked to discover that that book didn’t exist. I went down one wormhole after another, one rabbit hole after another. That brought me to this story.

Zibby: Wow, it’s amazing. I know you point out in the introduction or somewhere that there’s lots of research on sports, women athletes, but fitness, which takes up so much of our time and mental bandwidth and advertising and everything else, has been so underreported, which is really crazy. This is all about, write the book that you wish you had. It’s perfect.

Danielle: Exactly. I think until pretty recently, fitness, and especially women’s fitness, just has not been taken seriously. I’ve been really encouraged over the past few years since I’ve been writing the book to see that begin to change and recognizing that, like you said, it’s something that we spend, collectively, billions of dollars and hours devoted to. It has played such an important part in so many women’s lives over the past seventy years. I felt it was time for it to get its due.

Zibby: I’m so glad you did it. I’m so glad. I grew up in the eighties like you going to the aerobics classes with my mom. I remember having this sleeveless, giant, yellow shirt in big, bold, black letters that said “Stay Alive in ’85” with my legwarmers and everything. All your talk about the Get Fit Barbies and all that stuff, I was in it. Actually, my mom went to Lotte Berk every day.

Danielle: Oh, wow.

Zibby: I should’ve talked to her before this podcast with you, by the way. I should have her join or something.

Danielle: I love that.

Zibby: Growing up, after she finished her Gilda’s phase, which was more aerobics, which dovetails with your whole timeline and your chapters, then she went into the Lotte Berk thing. That was like, okay, I’m off to Lotte Berk. That was all the time. Now to hear the history — by the way, even the Holocaust story behind Lotte Berk, I couldn’t believe that. Share more about the story of her escape and the tragedy in her family and all of that.

Danielle: She came from a pretty well-to-do family. Like I said, she was German. She was always a little bit of a rebel even in deciding to become a dancer. She followed that path. She became an acclaimed modern ballerina all around Germany. Then in the 1930s when the Nazis began to rise to power, her family was under surveillance. At one point, she was due to give a recital with her then husband who was also a dancer and who wasn’t Jewish. The Nazis basically distributed a pamphlet just telling people not come and warning them that they could be persecuted. In a very dramatic story, basically, her husband did the entire performance as if he was dancing with her. Then at the very end, she burst onto the stage and thanked the audience for not being Nazis. Then soldiers stormed the stage, and she had to flee. The only reason she was really able to escape was because her husband had a British passport and wasn’t Jewish, and so they were refugees. Her father, who she was very close with, actually perished in Auschwitz. She had a very challenging early life. Then once she was in London, there wasn’t as much of an audience for the type of dance she did at that point. It was sort of necessity that led her to develop this exercise regimen. She became a sensation in her forties. That’s another thing that, actually, I love about so many of these pioneers. They didn’t find success in this area, in some cases, they didn’t even launch their careers in this area until they were in their forties. As someone who recently turned forty herself, I’m very attuned to that.

Zibby: Woo-hoo!

Danielle: Thank you.

Zibby: I loved that too. That’s so great. I also love the way you structured this book and the way you wrote it. Each chapter tells its own very interesting story. Yet it’s all woven together. When you transitioned from the first or second chapter to the third, I got chills. Wait, hold on, I want to just read this line. You talked all about Lotte Berk, which I found fascinating. I cannot do barre classes to save my life, but I know how good they are supposed to be for everybody.

Danielle: You have to really psyche yourself up.

Zibby: I know. I’m like, I’d rather do almost anything. Here, I’ll just read these last two paragraphs, if that’s okay, from the end of the second chapter.

Danielle: Yeah.

Zibby: “When Lotte Berk first introduced women to her workout in the sixties, the class’s sexual openness felt thrilling and empowering because it was taboo. Now more than fifty years after the sexual revolution, turning a rigorous strength-training workout into something overtly sexual feels gratuitous. I want that hour to myself for my peace and my well-being and my mental health. Burr Leonard, the creator of The Bar Method told me, echoing the feelings of other women I spoke with, I think that’s what it does most powerfully.” Then you say, “Back in the early seventies on New York City’s Upper East Side as society ladies and celebrities taxied to class at Linda Bach’s studio, they might have noticed a small cadre of women breaking a sweat right out in the open on 5th Avenue. Less than two blocks from the barre studio in and around the city’s Central Park, women were discovering the joy of jogging.”

I love that. That just gives me chills. Again, it did it. Then you go on to Run. I love how even you titled the chapters, Run, Burn, Sweat, all these. It’s so clever. I just am loving the whole packaging of this book and the evolution of this whole industry and how we’ve arrived here. Why aerobics? Why barre? Now this move to strength training, which I’m also really interested in — I just went to this health clinic-type place. I’ve been a cardio person, maybe from this era. Go to step aerobics. Then I moved to running. It was always a cardio something. Really, now there’s this huge movement to lift, strength training, and how that’s the most important thing. You have a whole thing here about women and weightlifting and all of that. Tell me a little more about what you know about strength training. After all this research, what should we do?

Danielle: That is a great question. With strength training specifically, and weights, I should just say that, as you know, a theme throughout the book was basically how taboo it was for women to intentionally cultivate strength for so much of the twentieth century. That explains why so much exercise was not acceptable for women. Sweat was seen as also taboo. It’s one thing if you’re going to aerobics and you can say, this is to become strong, but it was sort of cloaked in the language also of figure-shaping and beauty culture. With lifting weights, with strength training for strength’s sake, there’s nowhere to hide, really. Of all of the movements that I write about, that one was the most overtly feminist. It took some really brave pioneers starting in the late seventies to convince women that lifting weights and having visible muscle was not unfeminine and was worth pursuing. We’ve come a really long way in that area specifically.

I can speak for my perspective more as a journalist and cultural historian as opposed to necessarily a trainer. We know for women, especially as we get older, that strength training is so vital to our quality of life and is such an important complement to cardio. Whether it’s lifting weights or going to something like a barre class that uses body-based resistance, isometric training, it’s all good. This is the case for so many of the workouts I write about in the book, but you just find the workout, the regimen that feels good for you, that works for you, that you don’t dread. There’s been a real shift over the past five or ten years for women especially toward focusing on not just what we traditionally think of as muscular strength, but as a focus on the pelvic floor and the kind of internal strength that isn’t cosmetic at all but that can have a huge impact, again, on how we live our lives as we get older. Just do something. That’s my biggest .

Zibby: I know listeners can’t see this, but as Danielle was talking about this last section, she sort of sat up to demonstrate the importance of strength , strength and posture. I just sat right straight up too because it’s true.

Danielle: I have to remind myself every day.

Zibby: Somebody I just saw recently had the best posture I’d ever seen. It was a man. I was like, “How do you have such amazing posture?” He had trained in acting. He said you have to envision it not from your shoulders, but from a point in the middle of your chest. That’s the point that has to go up to the ceiling. Any time I try to remember that I’m slouching over this microphone again, I remember that.

Danielle: Thank you for that reminder.

Zibby: You talk in the book about your own journey, essentially, through working out and, yes, the barre classes, but also your marathons and half marathons how you like dance cardio and having a whole range of things at your fingertips. I don’t know about you, but I feel like sometimes it’s very overwhelming. There’s so many options, especially here in New York. You said that you originally went to the barre class because a sign on the sidewalk got your attention. It’s like that every block, though. There are studios where you stand on — what even are those things? They shock you. You stand on the platforms. They vibrate. Do you know what I mean? Maybe that’s coming to its end. Every other block, there’s another studio with a different way. Where do you start? It’s very hard for people to know where to go and what’s right for them and what they’re going to like. For me, I’ve been so busy. I’m like, I don’t have time to even figure this out, so I’m just going to do nothing, which is bad.

Danielle: I totally relate to that. I think that sense of overwhelm has only been exacerbated by the fact that so many brands have now moved online too, which is great, but I think too much choice isn’t always a good thing. I also think, and I write about this a little bit in the book, there’s such a feeling of collective burnout right now, especially among women, and exhaustion. I think when some of these workouts are pitched as this all-consuming lifestyle or such a commitment, it can just feel like, like you said, I don’t have time for it. You end up doing nothing. For me, like you said, I love barre. Running has always been my tried-and-true. It’s what I’ve done throughout my whole life. I think some people might turn up their nose at this, but on those days when I don’t feel like I have it in me to run or do a strength-based workout, I’ve started just going for a walk. I’ve seen during the pandemic that there’s been this kind of walking renaissance. Walking has had its moments at various other points in fitness history too. You’re not going to necessarily break a sweat, but it’s better than nothing if it feels good for you. I think the best place to start is just with identifying what you can do that doesn’t feel like a burden and that you actually look forward to. Maybe it’s something very basic. Maybe it coincides with getting fresh air. Maybe it’s just ten minutes of stretching in the morning. For me, so many of the workouts that I’ve tried have come from word of mouth, from a friend. Just start somewhere. Sometimes it’s just process of elimination. Something I heard in my reporting was women who tried something and didn’t love it or felt really self-conscious, like they weren’t good at it, and then just kind of gave up for a while. It’s so common to feel that way. I think it’s about being kind to ourselves and finding our thing.

Zibby: Did I miss — there’s a whole, obviously, chapter of life, but I feel like you don’t have a spin chapter, right?

Danielle: Ah, funny you should ask. There was going to be a spin chapter. In the end, I’m saving that for next book, for something that I hope to write about in the future. I tried to focus on the pioneers and the fitness movements that really laid the foundation for the way that women work out today. There is an interesting story — of course, everything has a history. Everything has an origin story. Spinning sort of grew out of so many of these other movements and the shifting cultural mindsets that basically said it was okay for women to sweat, to push themselves. Something that I think about all the time and that I allude to in the last chapter of my book, the psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who is one my idols — she wrote, most recently, The Joy of Movement — talks about research showing that, so often, the ingredient that makes a workout catch on or go viral is the introduction of synchrony, of working out alongside or in sync with other people. That especially holds true for spinning because the bicycle has been around. There is a really interesting feminist history around the bicycle and suffrage and women’s freedom of movement. As far as studio-based spinning, it was that introduction of synchrony that I think really made it feel essential for people.

Zibby: Very interesting. I’ve followed every fitness craze. Whatever makes a program popular — I’m sure like you, I’ve tried every single thing along the way. Now I’m mostly into the Peloton app. They are a sponsor, but that’s not why. Literally, recently, I’ve been doing these thirty-minute or twenty-minute HIIT classes. Do you ever do HIIT? I feel like it’s so effective. What do you think about that?

Danielle: I have to say, I haven’t really gotten on the HIIT train yet myself, but I know so many people love it. When I talk about exercising in a way that feels good, that doesn’t necessarily mean easy. It often doesn’t. For me, running a marathon coincides with the best I’ve felt in my whole life, both the training and the achievement. I think HIIT gives you that intense burst of endorphins and energy. It’s time-efficient as well, especially if you’re doing a thirty-minute workout.

Zibby: It’s interesting to think about sweating, culturally. For so long, women weren’t supposed to do it. Then, as you point out, over time, yes, it became something that we could do, and so then people took that to the extreme, hot yoga and drenched in sweat in spin class and all of that. Now I feel like maybe we’re getting to a point where it’s like, but do we need to? It’s like when you first start doing anything that you weren’t supposed to do, like drinking, then you go back to a baseline where you’re like, okay, now I can have a glass of wine with dinner, as opposed to going out and partying. Maybe that’s where we are with sweating. Maybe we don’t need to sweat as much. Just because we can, maybe we do a weight-lifting thing for an hour, and we don’t need to get so drenched. We can actually just go right back to works afterwards, right?

Danielle: Yeah, it’s extra time-efficient. I agree completely with that premise. More recently, so in the past twenty years, the millennial push toward optimization and toward twenty-four-hour-work mentality and culture has just increasingly upped the ante for what counts as working out. Granted, as I talk about in the book, eighties fitness culture was also pretty extreme. Many people suffered consequences as a result, injuries born from overuse and that kind of thing. Fitness, for a lot of people, is understandably an outlet for control and for pride and for generating this sense of purpose that they’re maybe not feeling in other parts of their life. For people whom it’s serving that purpose in a healthy way, it really feels like self-care. That’s great. There’s definitely an element of judgement and shame in terms of how hard — there’s a lot of performative fitness happening right now. There has been for the past fifteen or so years. I keep coming back to it, it’s simple, but it’s just about moving in ways that feel good and in way that we’ll actually do. I think about this a lot because, actually, for me, it started with my marathon training. I do the Galloway method, which is run, walk, run. It was started by this well-known marathoner, Jeff Galloway. I love it. It has completely prevented injury. My pace actually isn’t any different because when you walk, your muscles are recovering. Every time I see someone post “I ran three miles without walking,” I’m like, it’s okay. There’s no one way to do it. I think everyone just has to find the path that works for them, whether it’s very sweaty or whether it’s more meditative.

Zibby: This book is so great. It’s such an inspiration to know that every time I pick up my phone and put on one of my Peloton stretch classes, I’m a part of the history of this whole thing. I’m just a blip in the movement. I am reflective of the trends. In twenty years, I’ll probably be doing something else that hasn’t even been invented because that’s going to be the new thing. I’ll stop moving my body this way. I think understanding more about where all of this comes from is very empowering when it comes to making decisions about what to do with our own fitness today. Everybody is trying to figure out what to do and who to listen to and all of that.

Danielle: Thank you. That was certainly one of my goals, was to show how all of these fads are interconnected and part of this much larger story of women’s empowerment and physical liberation. I hope that readers take that away from it as well.

Zibby: I also love Olivia Newton-John. I had a major girl crush on her growing up. I wanted to be her and thought she was just the coolest. So you might be doing another book on spinning. Anything else coming up that we should know about?

Danielle: I don’t know if it would be an entire book on spinning. At the moment, I’m just deep into the history of women’s fitness culture and exploring how we can promote women’s health and self-care in a way that lifts all women up.

Zibby: It would be neat if you, through this book’s platform, start some sort of website that looks just like this and people log their thing. I feel like there’s some community aspect that you could really harness with this book.

Danielle: You’re right, absolutely. I did actually create an Instagram just for the book that’s kind of now become my professional Instagram. It’s a baby community, but it’s been so nice to connect with other women on this topic. Exactly what you said, more and more people have started to share their experiences with me. That was one of my favorite parts of reporting the book too, just speaking with women, and especially women in their seventies, eighties, nineties who lived this history, about what movement has meant to them throughout their lives. I love that idea. I would love to run with that a bit more.

Zibby: Awesome. Next time, you need to interview my mom, basically. She still runs five miles, and strength training. I don’t know. I can’t keep up with her. I’ve never been able to. Last question, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Danielle: Oh, my gosh, yes. I started my career as a book editor as Penguin, so I’ve been on all sides of this. Advice for aspiring authors, the most obvious is just stick with it. It took me eighteen months to write the proposal for this book. It coincided with having a baby. It took me about eighteen months to write it. Give yourself the time that you need. Stick with it. If you believe in the idea, I think there’s no reason why you can’t bring it to life.

Zibby: Love it. So great. Amazing. Hopefully, I’ll see you in the neighborhood. You can walk right by me on the way to Central Park.

Danielle: I’ll wave.

Zibby: I’ll go walk with you or something. Take care. Thank you so much for coming on.

Danielle: Thank you. Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Danielle: Bye.

Danielle Friedman, LET'S GET PHYSICAL

LET’S GET PHYSICAL by Danielle Friedman

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