Guest host Julie Chavez interviews leading political historian, fitness instructor, and author Natalia Mehlman Petrzela about Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession, a well-researched history of exercise in America that traces how the definition of health has changed over time. The two discuss activism, fitness as a product, and the destructive dynamics around women and exercise, as well as the role of exercise in their own lives. Finally, Natalia shares her vision for the future of exercise, which includes improved accessibility to fitness for all.


Julie Chavez: Natalia, thank you for being here on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so happy to talk to you.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Julie: We are here today to talk about — I’m going to say it right at the beginning because I always forget to mention the titles of people’s books. We’re talking today about Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession.

Natalia: That’s right.

Julie: I’m so excited to talk to you about this book. I was really impressed. Would you mind starting — just tell me about the book.

Natalia: I should say I am a big fitness snob, but I’m also a historian. This book is the intersection of those things. It really started from my questioning of all these gym environments that I was always around. How did we get here? In a nutshell, the book tells the story of how we got here. It starts in a time when nobody, very few people, worked out — you were literally considered a freak, on the stage at the freak show, if you worked out — to today when still, only twenty percent of people get the recommended daily minimum of exercise, but everybody feels like they should work out. I trace that history, from the nineteenth century to Peloton in the pandemic, of how that idea came to be part of American culture and why the actual exercising part still is something that so few of us do.

Julie: I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was so well-written, so well-researched. I didn’t realize originally when I picked it up that you were an historian. An historian? A historian? I never get that right.

Natalia: I say a historian, but people who are fancier than I do often say an historian. Whatever you say is okay with me.

Julie: Perfect. I appreciate that space for me. When I picked it up, I just was amazed at the breadth of your research. You did such a good job. It was like taking a trip down the rabbit hole, too, for me personally of all the exercises I’ve done through the years. I thought about doing Tae Bo in the basement when I was in college and just all of these weird things that we’ve done. It sounds like, for you, a lot started with — really, you are an activist. It feels like that’s kind of the origins when you talk about starting as a middle-school Spanish teacher. Can you talk about those origins a little bit?

Natalia: I don’t want to make too much of my activism. To the extent that I really care about making the world a better place and about doing work that advances that progress, absolutely, yes, I’m an activist. In some ways, that looks like what we often think of as activism. When schools were closed, I was at city hall talking about the necessity for kids to be in school. With this topic, part of what got me into writing this as a historical work was seeing what I call fitness inequality and actually starting a program where my college students would learn about the history of where this came from. Also, we created an experiential wellness program to do in PE classes in schools. We worked with the New York Department of Education to do that. There’s that kind of more formal activism. Then in general, I feel like being an ambassador for asking smart questions about, “How did we get here?” and encouraging people to ask those questions, not just about a war or a policy, but the things that we don’t often historicize, like the gym or how we eat or how we shop or how we raise our children, I do feel that that’s a form of activism because I think the world would be a better place if more people were asking and answering those kind of questions.

Julie: That’s such a good way to put it. You’re right. By thinking critically about that, then you’re informing so much of what decisions we choose to make today.

Natalia: That’s my hope.

Julie: I love that. I was listening to one of your other podcasts. I was listening to “Past Present.” Also, by the way, I will be listening to “Welcome to Your Fantasy” ASAP because it sounds amazing.

Natalia: It’s a very juicy one. Thank you.

Julie: I cannot wait. In “Past Present,” one of the things you guys were talking about is using hindsight to make it foresight. That feels like exactly what you’ve done here. I feel like by tracing all of that, you do realize how many ups and downs and how much of the cultural messaging has seeped into this thing that we absorb, which is just trying to be healthy.

Natalia: Absolutely, and how the definition of health has changed over time and how we thought some people deserved to be healthy in a particular kind of way, others in a different kind of way. What does the ideal healthy body look like? All of those things, for sure. It’s funny you say that. Thank you for listening to “Past Present,” by the way.

Julie: Of course. It’s wonderful.

Natalia: Just today, we recorded episode 371. We’ve been at it for a long time. It’s funny with that tagline, turning hindsight into foresight, because one thing that we’ve thought of over the years is maybe we should’ve been a little more modest of just turning hindsight into insight. That would be enough, if we were just a little more insightful. We don’t need to predict the future. Let’s just think about where we are right now. That would be enough.

Julie: I like the idea of foresight because it imagines a bit of intention behind it, that we are creating the reality as we live it.

Natalia: Right. We’re not just victims of the past or passive individuals bound up in the tides of history or whatever. We can actually shape the future. That’s something that really gets me up every day. I’m a college professor. That’s how I spend most of my time, going to class and realizing, yes, my charge is to educate these kids and teach them about the past and also how complicated and ugly it often is, but I’m really falling down on the job if I don’t inspire them in some way to take that knowledge and to feel like they can change the future. If all they feel is disempowered by their education, I’m not doing my job right. This book is a part of a project like that. People are like, oh, cute, the gym, leg warmers. There are leg warmers in this story, and a lot of funny vintage-y kind of things, as you know, but I also think it is a serious story about who we have said deserves to work on their body, deserves to feel good, why we’ve made exercise basically a consumer good that you can only have if you afford it, and cut PE and all those things. To me, those seem like really important questions, not just cute vintage workout trends from the past, even though I love those videos. There are aspects of this book that are that.

Julie: What you’re saying there is so true. I loved looking at the advertisements that you included. I love that the book had pictures. That was exciting.

Natalia: Me too.

Julie: That really helped me frame some of it, too, because you see it as dated and you think of the idea as dated, but then you think of all of the things that have been pervasive from those ideas that have lasted.

Natalia: That’s one of the things that’s so cool as a historian writing about this particular topic. Now we take it so for granted that the mind-body connection is everywhere. If you have a white-collar job, there’s going to be a gym at your office. What do you do to socialize on the weekend? Maybe you’ll do a 5K. All of those things are relatively recent. They were deliberately constructed for particular reasons. It was so fun to go back and unpack how that happened. When you talk about the images — I know you probably have a lot of writers who listen. Negotiate images in your contract. They’re expensive. If you’re writing this kind of book, they’re so great. One of the things that I use in there is some pictures from the Presidential Council on Fitness. It’s changed its name a few times. Those ads tell a story of a thousand words with each picture. They start off being about guys getting fat and the military. By the seventies, it’s a girl in a pool. Physical fitness is beautiful. It’s like, whoa, that is a shift in what the government is promoting in terms of why we should exercise and who should.

Julie: I never even thought about the government’s role in it. I definitely think about it as a product. Of course, I grew up in the Presidential Fitness Award days.

Natalia: Same.

Julie: I could never climb a rope, so that was never happening for me.

Natalia: Me neither. Traumatizing. Trauma. Totally. Never.

Julie: I still think about that. If I see a rope hanging, I’m like, that’s just one thing that’s never going to happen for me.

Natalia: They retired that, by the way, not that long ago. I think it was 2013 they retired that.

Julie: That’s a long time that they were traumatizing those kids.

Natalia: A hundred percent.

Julie: Climb this rope. It is amazing to think about how, like you said, what we remember and what we know is such a small slice. Seeing all of the things that led up to that, even in your book, I kept thinking, wow, we’re only in the 1960s, and this is still developing. Something you talked about was the destructive dynamics of some of the messaging around exercise. Will you talk a little bit more about that?

Natalia: Depending on the moment, there are different destructive dynamics. One of the interesting ones, which I think is really still with us today, is the dynamic that’s not totally destructive. We look back today, and we see some of these things that are like, get as tiny as possible. Take this pill. Starve yourself. It’s pretty obvious that this is very damaging messaging. One of the things that I found so interesting was watching some of the programming from the 1950s and ’60s directed towards women. Let me tell you, it was not common for women to exercise then. There was something actually really wonderful and radical about people like Jack LaLanne on television saying, ladies, set aside your ironing, and come do some leg lifts with me. He talked about it as this, not quite empowering, but gratifying, kind of enlightening thing. Exercise will make you feel regenerated and youthful. Take this time. I think that is cool because being in your body and putting aside your housework and taking time for yourself to do that, that was really a big deal.

At the same time, if you watch hundreds of those episodes as I did, you pretty clearly hear the subtext, which I think is still with us today, which is, if you feel old and fat and disgusting, you have nobody to blame but yourself. If you just did these exercises, if you just disciplined yourself around food, if you just took the time to care about yourself, then you would be forever youthful and attractive and all the rest. To me, that mixed bag is so much still with us in every exercise program. I often walk into some spin class, and I’m like, there are really empowering things about this, but there’s also a sense of, oh, my god, another item on the to-do list. Not only do I have to go to work and schedule my kid’s stuff, got to take care of my body. Got to make sure I don’t look my age. God forbid. I think that is a pretty destructive expectation, unfortunately, that comes with an expectation I generally love, which is, yeah, women should feel good getting strong and being in their body and coming together and spending time and money on exercise. I would say that’s one that is very powerful in the story.

Julie: It is. You are exactly right that that’s still with you. It’s just that really shadow side that still exists. Also, especially for women, we can’t escape the “look better, look younger” machine complex that exists in every area of life, it feels like. I was telling you before we started recording, I was like, we’re going to get into my issues. This is one of them.

Natalia: Let’s do it.

Julie: I’m an exerciser. I love exercising. I need that release because for me, it’s a time to turn off my brain. I live too much inside my head at times.

Natalia: Me too.

Julie: It’s getting into my body, which is a wonderful thing. However, there are times where I get it twisted. I have benchmarks that I’m failing to meet or meeting, but they don’t really have to do with, am I in my body? Am I moving? Am I doing things that feel good? It’s more, was that intense enough? How many kilojoules did I have on my Peloton? Like a lunatic. Things like that. It’s so hard to untie some of that. I’m so glad that we’re seeing a little bit more of that. Reading this, I was like, gosh, we were doomed from the start here.

Natalia: It’s complicated. I appreciate your openness. I deal with many of the same dynamics myself. There’s also a piece that a lot of us experience, too, where there’s so much moralizing about exercise and the body in general. I’m so good. I’m working. I care about health. I’m spending a lot of money, maybe, but it’s for this virtuous thing. Then of course, the assumptions that come with people who maybe look like they don’t do that or who don’t do that, “They’re lazy. Can you believe…?” I think that that is a real problem. Identifying some of these dynamics is probably the first step.

Julie: The first step, here we go. It’s so true. The thing you were talking about when you were talking about Jack LaLanne and the idea that in those days, that it was reducing, this idea of reduction for women, just the use of that word, that taking up less space metaphorically and that it could be passive, I think some of those still lasting into it, that it should almost be effortless —

Natalia: — Oh, my gosh, yes. Am I cutting you — I don’t know if anyone will see this video, but we’re jumping on each other to talk. Yes, two things that you say there. One of the things, the exercise for women or for ladies — I should say this is mostly targeted at white women who have some disposable income. We could grapple with this today, but certainly until almost the eighties, you are — that’s not true. The seventies, probably. You’re not really seeing exercise marketed toward working-class women or towards Black women or women of color. Not that they’re not doing their own things, but the mainstream industry is very white and presumes a degree of affluence. Like you were saying, first of all, this notion that you should be passive and that women should ideally, inherently be frail and ladylike — we were talking about the ads. There were all these reducing salons. They literally would say, relax in luxurious comfort. No sweating. The idea was you should be working on your body, but you shouldn’t be grunting like an animal or building muscles like a man. That’s unladylike as a behavior, but it can also compromise your femininity, your fertility. It can give you muscles. We don’t want any of that stuff. That, I think, is not so much with us anymore. Don’t you think?

Julie: Agreed. Yes, I do.

Natalia: There is, go hard. Women can do that. The other thing that you said about reducing, to me, it’s interesting because that language is not with us so much, at least in the LA, New York scene. Go on not-so-elite social media, and there’s a lot of before and after and “drop twenty pounds in a month” and all that, but that’s not the dominant talk. What I think is really hard is that I still think that’s what a lot of people are selling and what a lot of people are buying. While in some ways it’s great that we have this more evolved discourse about self-care and getting strong and feeling good, if you listen to the whispers, a lot of people are still like, I just want to lose weight. In some ways, it’s a huge problem because it makes it harder to detect disordered, destructive patterns. Also, it shames people for wanting to lose weight. I sometimes want to lose five pounds. This is okay. I feel better when I’m a particular weight and I eat a particular way. That’s okay. Some of this new language is progress but can prevent us from having a more honest conversation.

Julie: That makes sense. It’s sort of a swing of the pendulum that goes too far. We can’t talk about that anymore, so we’re just going to talk about this other side. Really, that side still had some value to it, if we’re being honest about it.

Natalia: Right, and it’s still with us. A lot of people still want to lose weight. That is not all bad or all good.

Julie: You’re exactly right. It’s easy to oversimplify it. Where would you say we are right now? Where do you think we’re headed with fitness? What would you like to see, ideally? I know you’re an instructor also. I’d love to hear about that. Tell me a little bit about it.

Natalia: I’ll tell you about that first. I, like you, was traumatized in PE class by the rope climb, but for me, everything. Even pulling myself up on the bleachers, I was too weak to do. I hated everything physical. To get out of PE class, I found out you could do an independent study. I found a group fitness class, step aerobics, in 1995. I just fell in love with group fitness. Long story short, since that happened, I just always gravitated towards those environments. As a feminist, once that was part of my life in my twenties, I was ambivalent about all the, blast your thighs. Whittle your waist. Memorial Day’s around the corner. Almost as a guilty pleasure, I’m like, but it’s so fun. I love this dancing. I love the music. I kind of hate the language, but it’s so fun. It was 2005. I was actually doing my PhD out at Stanford, but I was dissertating in New York. I joined an Equinox gym. I met this amazing woman, my mentor. The book is dedicated to her. She passed last year, sadly.

Her name is Patricia Moreno. She had just started this class called intenSati which combines positive affirmations with really big movements. I was just like, oh, my god, I’m home. It’s the fun and the energy and the rigor. It’s really hard but with this really empowering language. We’re not talking about weight loss or anything. Honestly, I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m ripped and strong and all of this. She was certifying instructors. She was like, “Why don’t you do it?” It’s so funny. We get in our head, we were talking about. I’m like, “What are you talking about? I’m getting a PhD at Stanford. No, no, no. I’m not going to be an instructor,” even though this was my favorite thing in the world. She was like, “Just do the training.” Then before long, I was teaching at Equinox. I was a Lululemon ambassador. Now I don’t teach as much. I’m teaching tonight in Bridgehampton at Athleta. It’s an important part of my life. I love it.

Julie: That’s so great that you were able to dovetail those things for this book and see parts of it. I love that idea that there is — I agree with you. Group fitness is my jam because it’s a way to turn off my brain even further because I’m just being told what to do. Yes, it needs to be challenging enough to enjoy it, all these marks that you have set. It sounds like that’s perfect. I need to find a class around here. There’s got to be one. I’m in Northern California.

Natalia: It’s so funny, I’ll be there this week. I was going to teach. Then it didn’t happen. We’ll help you find one. Don’t worry.

Julie: Perfect. Thanks. We’re meeting all my needs in this conversation. I appreciate it.

Natalia: Exactly. Very efficient. I love it.

Julie: Did you think you were going to be interviewed? No, we’re just talking about my problems.

Natalia: I love it.

Julie: One of the main things that I loved about your book was — you said it at the very end. We talk about, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet, even though I’ve had times in my life where I’ve tried. You can’t out-exercise a broken system. That is such a powerful message here. You spoke about it earlier. Fitness, still, in our country, it’s so tied into a product that it’s inaccessible for a lot of people. What do you see as a solution for that? How do we move forward from here with that?

Natalia: That gets to your previous question about the future too. The first thing is what you’re alluding to. This book is about fitness, but we can’t understand or solve fitness inequality until we understand how intimately and intricately it is intertwined with all these other areas that we are more familiar with in terms of talking about inequality. For example, if you don’t live in a safe neighborhood, then you can’t go out and go for a run. That is not just in terms of crime. It’s about lighting. It’s about green spaces, which bring the temperature down so you can run more or walk more days a year. It’s about the body that you’re in. Obviously, as women, we face particular challenges of — I don’t know exactly where you are. I live in a pretty safe area, and I won’t run after dark or when it’s dark in the morning. No way. Then if you’re a person of color, that takes on a whole other set of issues. Similarly, think about labor. I work my butt off, but I have a lot of control over my time. If I worked shift labor or had to commute because I can’t afford to live where near I work, guess what? There goes my workout time.

If I didn’t have safe childcare, if I went to a school growing up, which I kind of did, that didn’t introduce me to exercise in a way that made me want to do it rather than traumatize me, all of those things stack against you. If you only can afford to eat unhealthful food, then you’re not going to feel good to be able to bring this stuff into your life. People say things like, do we need more free gym memberships? I’m like, yes, and… It would be great if we had more. I think it is good that the lower end of the fitness market is really opening up and that we have all of these low-cost options. There’s obviously a lot of online stuff. That said, the less control you have over your time, your spending, your life, the less likely it is you’re going to be able to bring exercise into it. I both advocate for this laser view of exercise as something worth looking at, but also reminding people it’s very embedded in all these other things. People get mad sometimes when I say that because we’re very individualistic in the United States. Also, exercise in particular, people are like, come on, just get off the couch and go for a run. Anyone can do that. All you need is sneakers. On some level, of course that’s true. Without personal motivation, you can’t do anything. Anyone can do push-ups. Not anyone. There’s the questions of ability. You can. It takes motivation. That said, that motivation is situated in so many other things that become so much easier to navigate if you have money, education, space in your home, etc.

I’m constantly trying to be inspiring. Yeah, get up. Let’s go for a run. That’s great. You can do it too. Also, I get it. You’re not a failure if you cannot or choose not to do this. That’s one thing. Then in terms of what I’d like to see, I would love for us to look back on this moment and the low, low participation in exercise and the crappy investment in PE and the total lack of policy that brings together private and public in this realm, and I would love for us to look at that as when everybody was smoking in classrooms or had no seatbelts. We’re like, can we believe that? What kind of society would do that? I think that would be great. My first book was about the culture wars, so the things that people disagree on. Everyone agrees exercise is good for you, for the most part. I don’t care what your politics are. I mean, I do care. That is pretty much a consensus position. Yet our policy has not caught up with that perspective, and so we don’t yet have those policies to actually make access and participation to exercise a national priority or reality. That’s where I would love to see us go.

Julie: I love that vision. That is perfection. You’re so right. The smoking in classrooms — whenever we go on an airplane, I still tell my kids, I’m like, “People used to smoke on airplanes. That was a thing that happened.” Just the idea, now we think, what? That’s a really good way.

Natalia: Even when my kids were little, I feel like the planes were still around that had the ashtrays in the seats, maybe. We weren’t smoking there anymore. I was never. I was a baby when that happened. I think some of those planes were still in circulation. They’re like, “What’s this, Mom?”

Julie: Yes, the ashtray or the cigarette lighter in the car.

Natalia: Totally. I was looking at my old pottery from camp. My kids were like, “What’s this?” I’m like, “I made my grandmother an ashtray in ceramics when I was eight.” That was totally normal. She’d sit there chain-smoking talking to me. The counselor’s like, seems wholesome.

Julie: This is a great idea. Ashtray? Perfect. It’s a nice shape. We’ll be able to get that done real quick. Gosh, it’s so true how times change and how we can use that to springboard us forward. You’re right. In terms of the things that we’re talking about with policies, this should be a really easy agreement. It’s not hard.

Natalia: It’s not hard. I am cautiously optimistic, but I can think of a million reasons on both sides of the aisle that things get dismissed. Invite me to the White House, Joe Biden.

Julie: There you go, exactly. What do you mean? I find our government to be so effective. Things just seem to get done so seamlessly. I don’t know.

Natalia: All the time. We’re really functional. It’s a functional system.

Julie: It’s so true. Here’s a question. What is your least favorite form of movement or exercise? What do you hate to do?

Natalia: That’s a good question. I don’t like sprinting — I’ll say that — at all. I do distance running. I really dislike sprinting. I also hate group exercise classes that are either too easy or totally out of sync, that feeling of being trapped in the room. Chitchat and all that, I hate. Then also, the room of people where they’re not on the beat, it’s just maddening. I’m too type A for that.

Julie: I can fully appreciate both of those. It’s so true.

Natalia: How about you?

Julie: What do I hate? You know, there’s not a ton. Yeah, people not being on beat and stuff. I go to my Bar Method over here, which I really enjoy, just low impact. Again, one of those both/and sort of situations where I enjoy it, but I wish that it were maybe more accessible for more people because it is a little on the spendy side. I don’t really like Pilates. It hurts my neck.

Natalia: I don’t like Pilates very much either. I’ve always thought that Pilates is very good for a different kind of body type than me. I don’t know.

Julie: Yes, you’re so right. That’s a good point. One man’s pain is another man’s pleasure kind of situation, or one woman in this case, obviously. Pilates is tricky for me. Most things, I pretty much like. I only run when chased now. I used to run distance. Now my kids run.

Natalia: I basically always feel better when I move. I’m like, I’ll do whatever. Take me to some weird gimmicky thing. I’ll try it. I’ll feel better than if I was sitting at my computer, which is what I do most of the time.

Julie: It’s so true. Even if it is sort of a disaster and it annoys you, then you have something to talk about later.

Natalia: Exactly. I always say that because the class I teach, intenSati, is weird. You’re yelling affirmations. I’m always like, you guys, at worst, you will have sweated a lot. You’ll have a good story to tell your friends about this crazy class you took.

Julie: That’s so my jam. I love it.

Natalia: You got to come next time you’re here.

Julie: I am going to make it happen. I’m sure I’ll be on the other side. What are you writing right now? Are you working on something?

Natalia: Right now, ironically, I am late on a review essay, which is reviewing a few books which are actually questioning hustle culture and celebrating saving time for yourself. I owe this big essay. Ironically, I’m behind. I’m like, maybe I should be chill because this is what these books are teaching me. The editor is not going to be so chill. I’m working on that right now. Then I’m not rushing into the next book project. My cohost of “Past Present,” one of them, Neil J. Young and I, we actually have plans to cowrite a new history of the Hamptons, so Eastern Long Island from the perspective of twentieth century, and in a very different way than it’s ever been written about before. That’s the next book project.

Julie: I cannot wait to read that. I have never been to the Hamptons. I know nothing about the Hamptons.

Natalia: You got to come.

Julie: I have a lot of things to do now after this conversation. I’m going to be very busy.

Natalia: Here’s the thing. You’ve heard of the Hamptons, right?

Julie: Of course.

Natalia: Right. That’s one of the things we want to trace, is how the Hamptons became an idea and what that idea is and how much it coheres or not with the lived experience in reality there. It’s not just celebrity mansions. There’s an amazing immigration story. The politics are super interesting. We’re really excited to dive into that.

Julie: I can’t wait. That sounds really fascinating.

Natalia: Thank you. I’m psyched.

Julie: Natalia, this was an absolute pleasure. I enjoyed talking to you. This has been great.

Natalia: Likewise. I loved it. I want to go meet you and work out together.

Julie: Yes, let’s put it on the schedule. I’m here for it, but we’re not climbing any ropes.

Natalia: That’s fine with me. Maybe not Pilates either. We can go to Bar Method.

Julie: Perfect. We’ll just cross those off. We could maybe go watch people do those and cheer them on.

Natalia: Sounds great.

Julie: Thanks so much.

Natalia: Thank you.



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