Is Exercise the New Elitism?

Is Exercise the New Elitism?

Athleisure, that weird hybrid word, was officially added to our dictionaries in 2016. Not sure what it means? Take a quick look around you. See anyone in neon skin-tight trousers? Snazzy sneakers? A hoody? There you go: athleisure-wear. A recent broadsheet style article identified the sport legging as the most important fashion item of today, and work-out gear has a £6.4bn market worldwide. In the UK, sales of gym-friendly clothing grew by 50% over the past four years.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. No matter what you call it, sportswear has a history of being co-opted by fashion. And that history shows that not everyone who wears trainers goes training. Just as football fans once wore adidas Gazelles to go to the pub, you might rock your Sweaty Betty joggers for nothing more strenuous than a tough night at a cocktail bar. The real change is not the silly name, it’s that it’s not only sportswear that is fashionable now. Actually being sporty is, too. Running, once the province of strange men in their underwear (as Dr George Sheehan, the godfather of jogging, was once described), is what many people do before breakfast. Spending on gym membership went up 44% between 2015 and 2016 (though we all know that spending doesn’t always correlate with using). Fitness is now assumed to be as much part of our leisure time as lager, shouting and drunk Tweeting.

Right here, right now, we are in the middle of a fitness explosion. Joe Wicks, a PE teacher turned personal trainer turned Instagram star, only set up his business in 2015. He got 70,000 paying customers in a year. Massy Arias, another PT, has 2.1 million Insta followers, a great line in motivational messages and wants to build your strength and confidence. The Tone It Up girls, Katrina and Karena have a massively popular YouTube channel. Amanda Bisk, Rachel Brathen, Kayla Itsines… the list of CrossFitters, yoga lovers and fitness trainers who post up motivational pics and videos is never-ending.

Almost every model worth her contract has been snapped on her way to and from SoulCycle or Barry’s Bootcamp. As have popstars. Working out is what the rich and beautiful do, when they’re not being rich and beautiful. They also make money out of it. Kate Hudson has her own sportswear brand, Fabletics; Beyonce’s Ivy Park sold out in TopShop; Rita Ora and Selena Gomez have had very successful adidas collections.

And us normals are joining in. Over the past few years Elle magazine has led women’s magazines into a different age with its positive attitude towards getting sporty. Men’s Health has long bucked the declining magazine trends. Nike have stores everywhere. Strong not skinny is a mantra, Lululemon a lifestyle. Everyone is hashtag fitforlife.

How can this be a bad development? Isn’t it good that we’re all getting fitter? Well, as with many things in life, it’s more complicated than it might first appear. First, not everyone is managing to just do it. Research shows that 26% of us lie about the amount of exercise we do; and even taking that into account, 44% of UK adults don’t manage even moderate exercise. One in seven has done no exercise at all for a decade, and almost half haven’t run at all in the past year.

And if we look at the truly fit (they want us to, after all), then their hard work can disguise other issues. Recovering anorexics are prone to becoming addicted to exercise. Those with control issues often take fitness very seriously and can put excessive strain on their body (I have a friend who works out every day, for at least an hour. He has been told that he needs to rest for one day a week. But he can’t do it). Remember when triathlons were for nutters? Now if you hit a significant birthday – 40, 45, 50 – it’s not enough to have a party. You’d better mark it with an event such as the Marathon des Sables (a six day, 250km run across the Sahara desert), or a simple 27 marathons in 27 days, as Eddie Izzard did at the age of 53. Just for your information, the most common age for a marathon runner to have a heart attack is 49.

Another side to today’s fitness is the way it seems to spread out from running shoes to take over every aspect of your life. Fitness means you have to start unpicking everything you do: from working to eating to sleeping. I got a FitBit for Christmas. I’m happy with how many steps I’m doing every day, but devastated by its sleep assessment (under five hours a night). And as for eating: it’s all become very complicated. Avocados are the new cocaine. There’s a shortage of  courgettes because of how many people are busy spiralising it, pretending it’s pasta. Going vegan is all very well – good for you, good for animals, good for the planet – but clean eating has taken over. Somehow, perfectly innocuous food items, like cheese on toast and spaghetti bolognese, have become as bad for you as mainlining smack. Deliciously Ella, Hemsley and Hemsley, Oh She Glows, Clean Kitchen and many other thin, well-meaning women who like to look good on an Ibizan beach have all sorts of substitutes for conventional eating. The problem is not that such recipes are clean, it’s that they’re expensive, fiddly and foster a certainty that if you eat a non-complex, gluten-packed carbohydrate you have actually made a date with the devil. Or that you’ll have a heart attack on the spot.

The problem with trying to be fit for life in all areas of your life is that it’s yet another pressure. If you succeed, you’ll be thin and skint and unhappy because you’re hungry. If you don’t, you’ll be chubby and skint and unhappy because you’ve failed. Even if you take out all the faff about what you eat, if being fit is the goal, then the unfit, the poorly coordinated, the non-joggers aren’t even in the running (hoho). Fitness has, as it so often does, become a class divider. Not so long ago, being rich meant that you were fat. You had money, so you had lots to eat. But now rich people are thin, with muscly arms and taut stomachs and legs that bend over their heads. Poor people are chubby, with comfy arms and bums that sit down on the sofa. In affluent events, nobody is big, except the security. What should be for all – as the Government post-2012 Olympics campaign makes clear – can be alienating for many people. Thisgirlcan hits the right spot but there are many, many people who find it hard to imagine being fit enough even to bend down and tie their shoelaces. Fitness requires time and energy and determination and self-belief. Not everyone has all of those attributes.

Still, we should take heart. Taking part in exercise is not as hard or as pretty or as expensive as we’ve been told. Pull on a pair of cheap trainers and walk round the park for 30 minutes. There you go. If you do that every day, you will lengthen your life by five whole years. In 1986, the average person in the UK walked two-thirds of a mile every day. Now, we’re down to under half a mile. We all need to get fitter. But many people are being left out.



One Response to Is Exercise the New Elitism?

  1. David P. Christopher says:

    The media messages around food and fitness are confusing, so let’s sort out the wheat from the gluten-free chaff…

    First, changing patterns of work and leisure mean that more and more of us are sat in front of screens for hours on end, gawping at everything from spreadsheets to sport, facebook to films, emails to adverts…

    The trouble is, we’re usually immobile, often with a plate and glass or two of something nice on the side. The upshot is we put on weight, and that’s bad, because findings in medicine show being overweight isn’t good for us.

    In response, fitness and food are shown as the way to health and beauty, yet as Miranda points out above, many take no notice, while those who do are sometimes thought of as ‘elitist’. What’s going on?

    For clever young professionals and so-called yummy mummies, food and health have become aspirational goods. The young and youthful middle classes take note of healthy messages about food. They seek out the nutritious, fresh, light and low calorie bites, and tend to be the ones with most anxiety about what they put in their mouths.

    The same demographic are also the ones who most work out at the gym, checking their abs and heart rates with a finger on the fashionable pulse.

    They’re also the main demographic watching the food progs and buying the books, even though for most they’re just light entertainment, symbols of aspiration for suburban coffee tables (or wherever fancy books are displayed now), rather than a resource to learn from.

    Point is, these are aspirational middle-class practices. They’re miles away from those of the white working-class. And ditto those of their counterparts from the various ethnic communities.

    Let’s take a closer look. Go exploring one of the many shell-shocked, beaten up towns north of the M25, for example Scunthorpe. Stroll around the town centre, past the pound and charity shops, and see how busy Greggs is at lunchtime. At the football ground, watch those greasy pies, hot-dogs and deathburgers fly off the shelves. And by night, see the neon-lit promise of numerous chippies and kebab joints up ‘junk-food junction’. It’s food as fuel, at nice prices and service with a smile.

    Scunthorpe, yes. But it could be anywhere in these chilly little islands. See the anonymous, provincial Celtic centres of Scotland, which Jonathan Meades christened ‘the football pools towns’, or go anywhere in Wales and Northern Ireland and it’s a similar story. In contrast, faddish eating, aspirational reading and religiously exercising, are widely seen as a middle-class imports from ‘namby pamby’ southerners.

    That’s not to say that wherever you go outside the M25 junk food rules and fitness is for fools. No – but the point is that healthy eating and exercise haven’t been elevated to fashion statements. In general, people don’t feel as confused, nor obsess as much as they do in London. Food and exercise haven’t become a elitist status symbol, and there’s less anxiety over ‘what’s good for you’, probably because people pay less attention to class, elites and the media, than they do to their mums.

    So, it isn’t that “many people are being left out” of the fitness game, because it’s one they never chose to play in the first place.

    And that’s how it is among the ethnic communities too. Back in London, go exploring the exotic environs of, say, Whitechapel, Bethnal Green or Brixton. Observe how many of the older generation of south Asian or Afro-Caribbean heritage shop, eat and partake in a separate food culture compared to their bourgeoise bretheren, while their younger, acculturated offspring cheerfully neck junk food on the hoof with their paler, working-class counterparts. It’s a similar story wherever you go.

    But what about sportswear? Ah, sportswear is a different kettle of fish. Why? Because it’s much less socially differentiated than food and fitness. Sportswear is practical, convenient and works for everyone, whether you’re a rapper referencing the gangs and projects of Chicago, a crisp-eating couch potato, or an elderly silver surfer. Whether you’re slim, competitive and work out or a mummy yummy or slummy, whether you’re recovering from an operation or training for the next Olympics, you can comfortably wear your t-shirt, tracky-bottoms and Nike Air Jordans with pride – either as a badge of identity, or as your own, personal comfort gear.

    For, unlike food, sportswear is the great leveller which transcends class, income, race, ethnicity and even gender. And that is why sportswear in general and the shell-suit in particular, is so reviled by the aspirational fashionistas of the metropolis.

    Now, must dash – I’ve got some chips on….

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