Give your mind a workout with these picks on exercise and fitness.

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Bates, Charlotte. Vital bodies: living with illness. Policy Press, 2019. 113p index ISBN 9781447335047, $105.00; ISBN 9781447335061 pbk, $36.95; ISBN 9781447335078 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2019

Bates (Cardiff Univ., UK) was interested in how people with a variety of chronic physical and mental illnesses live a “modern life,” undertaking everyday activities that most of us take for granted, such as walking, eating, and bathing. To that end, and to discover how the chronically ill maintain active, satisfying lives, she conducted in-depth interviews with 12 people who are currently living with chronic illnesses. It is debatable whether the stories, comments, and photos provided by the respondents can be generalized to a broader segment of chronically ill populations, as their input was deeply personal. The book does not qualify as an ethnography; the people it portrays provided photos, drawings, and diary entries that are meaningful to them. Although it provides a poignant glimpse of life with chronicle illness, overall the volume seems poorly suited for educating the lay reader or offering a scholarly, sociological perspective on chronic illness. Suggestions for living a healthy life include advice on how sleep, exercise, and fish are beneficial, whereas sugar is not. Those words of advice are not new. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers only. —C. Apt, South Carolina State University

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Chaline, Eric. The temple of perfection: a history of the gym. Reaktion Books, 2015. 272p bibl index ISBN 9781780234496, $30.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE October 2015

The concept of the gymnasium as a place where competitors (for the most part men) over the age of 18 trained for competitions started with the ancient Greeks.  In modern form, the gym might be a fitness center, martial arts studio, boxing gym, or multi-sport complex.  The US alone has some 40,000 such facilities (not counting those at colleges and universities).  Covering more than 3,000 years of history, this expansive work uses the gymnasium as a starting point in examining human efforts to perfect the body.  Framing a consideration of the gym within the nation-state, Chaline argues that the choice to work out, though perceived by individuals as independent, may in fact be more intimately and purposely tied to a state’s interest in the fitness of its citizens.  The author considers Greek notions of physical training (tied as they were to aesthetic ideals and intellectual traditions), national military interests as manifest in cultural practices around physical training, conceptions of strong men and ambivalence about strong women, and fitness crazes as enacted in general populations.  He offers a grounded perspective on today’s representations of the physical—from world-class soccer players to contestants on American Ninja Warriors. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. —E. J. Staurowsky, Drexel University

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Gatzemeyer, Garrett. Bodies for battle: US Army physical culture and systematic training, 1885–1957. University Press of Kansas, 2021. 329p bibl index ISBN 9780700632589, $39.95; ISBN 9780700632596 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE September 2022

Gatzemeyer organizes this study chronologically by periods surrounding wars fought between 1885 and 1957, illustrating the three primary military physical training systems during those eras. Situating discussion in cultural and historical contexts, he examines physical training and culture and the role sport played in the US Army and the larger civilian culture, showing both parallels and divergences. Extensively researched and sourced from several academic disciplines, this study builds on numerous historians’ previous works to examine the official policies and practices of the Army regarding physical training, especially in the first half of the 20th century, viewing them as cultural expressions. Gatzemeyer primarily relies on official published training manuals to compare and contrast differing physical cultures of successive periods. He also focuses on the “elite producers” who influenced and created them. His treatment illustrates the changing definitions of soldiercitizenfitnessmasculinity, etc. and preferred qualities at different times in both military and civilian cultures. The official conceptualization of physical culture represented much more than simply fitness—it was loaded with cultural significance—and the same is true today. The continued salience of these concepts in everyday civilian experience makes this study of interest to scholars of many aspects of US culture. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates. Graduate students and faculty. General readers. —A. Curtis, Lake Erie College

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Gotaas, Thor. Running: a global history, tr. by Peter Graves. Reaktion Books, 2009. 383p ISBN 9781861895264, $35.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE June 2010

Gotaas takes a broad, shallow approach in this history of running worldwide. In a treatment that encompasses running from prehistoric times to the present, he argues that “running skills were important for man’s evolution: the anatomy and body changed when our forefathers were forced down on to the ground and anatomically speaking, running made them human.” The book includes many interesting pearls and debunks myths associated with running–for example, that the messenger Philippides died after running 25 miles from the plains of Marathon to deliver the news of the Athenians defeating the Persians. Gotaas explains that Philippides was an experienced messenger and was accustomed to running much longer distances than this. Among the book’s highlights are chapters on the revival of the Olympic Games, a discussion on eugenics (in a chapter titled “Dubious Race Theories”), and the concluding chapter, “How Fast Can a Human Being Run?” Taking a historical approach in addressing the question of why human beings run, Gotaas finds the modern jogger runs for many of the same reasons the Hopi Indians ran: “to improve health, eliminate sadness, firm up the body, and increase vitality.” Summing Up: Recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates; general readers. —T. K. Ambrose, Berea College

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Havens, Thomas R. H. Marathon Japan: distance racing and civic culture. Hawai’i, 2015. 227p bibl index afp ISBN 9780824841010, $47.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE October 2015

Havens (Japanese history, Northeastern Univ.) tackles a sport often overlooked by those studying sport in Japan.  He looks not just at important marathon events and people–for example, runner Kanaguri Shizo (1891-1983), fastest marathoner in the world in his time–but also at the broad culture that surrounds the marathon and even more important ekiden, another form of long-distance road race practiced in Japan. Havens talks about how the long-distance running culture evolved and changed as Japan moved from the Meiji period, which ended in the early part of the 20th century, to the present day.  As the author explains, marathon was sometimes part of an attitude toward military training and strength, and sometimes about the individual.  Havens places his work historiographically, and he provides excellent notes and bibliography—which is helpful because, as he acknowledges, finding resources was difficult.  Havens also examines women’s participation in marathon running: women have participated in marathon almost from its start in Japan, and this sets Japan apart from many other countries.  And Havens writes about Japan’s running culture in relation to the world, especially through his discussion of the Olympics.  A must read for anyone interested in Japanese sport and its role in the larger Japanese society. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. —L. A. Heaphy, Kent State University

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Petrzela, Natalia Mehlman. Fit nation: the gains and pains of America’s exercise obsession. Chicago, 2023 (c2022). 424p bibl index ISBN 9780226651101, $29.00; ISBN 9780226651248 ebook, $28.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2023

In Fit Nation, historian of contemporary politics and culture Petrzela (The New School) details the pitfalls and obsessions people face regarding exercise. Though the positive physical and mental benefits of exercise are well documented elsewhere, Petrzela finds it imperative to also explore how the narrative surrounding exercise changed in recent decades, especially after 9/11, and how current attitudes can err on the side of being compulsive or even obsessive. She follows the trajectory of American exercise awareness starting from the 19th century, discussing a range of phenomena from obsession over cultivating beach bodies to the impact of Title IX, including the impact of “boutique” fitness brands such as Peloton. Petrzela discusses how exercise has become a means for individuals to show status and wealth, problematizing the sociology of fitness because many people also consider lack of exercise a public health issue. This author does an excellent job exploring cultural trends and patterns related to exercise over time, offering insight on how exercise may represent not a health modality for all but instead an exclusive subculture. Petrzela raises interesting questions regarding the negative impacts of exercise behavior on US culture and prompts readers to critically assess what solutions or attitudes might be helpful for the future. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates. Graduate students, faculty, and professionals. General readers. —C. Hauff, University of South Alabama

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Sassatelli, Roberta. Fitness culture: gyms and the commercialisation of discipline and fun. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 236p ISBN 9780230507494, $85.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE June 2011

Informed by theorists such as Bourdieu but also cognizant of gender and class dynamics, Sassatelli (Univ. of Milan, Italy) has provided a rich analysis of contemporary Western fitness culture. Based on fieldwork, interviews, and examination of specialist publications and discourse, the multilevel sociological ethnography provides access to the voices of gym users as well as trainers and gym employees. This nuanced analysis gets beyond rational choice models, which are the foundational assumptions of health promotion, to look at the ways that consumption and identity are engaged in a productive enterprise of body management and gym membership. The work is particularly compelling when relating participants’ own feelings of inclusion in a gym, and the absorption or flow into physical activity that makes working out a pleasurable or even playful discipline. While long on the critique of prior studies and theories of body projects, fitness, and subjectivity, the book is perhaps short on a critique of capitalism and neoliberal subjectivities, which are instantiated by commercial gym cultures. This engaging exploration of what sustains gym membership as a consumer practice will be of interest to scholars of studies of consumption, the body, leisure, and health. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. —J. L. Croissant, University of Arizona

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Shurley, Jason P. Strength coaching in America: a history of the innovation that transformed sports, by Jason P. Shurley, Jan Todd, and Terry Todd. Texas, 2019. 310p bibl index ISBN 9781477319796, $40.00; ISBN 9781477319802 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE July 2020

This work by Shurley (University of Wisconsin–Whitewater), Jan Todd and the late Olympic weightlifting champion Terry Todd (formerly, Univ. of Texas, Austin) offers an interesting overview of the development of strength coaching in the US. This reviewer commends the volume as a must-read to historians, professionals involved in recreational weight training, and all others who are interested in strength training, whether as a form of recreation or as a profession. It should also be read by those curious about the impact of strength training on numerous other athletic endeavors. The book provides insight into physiological systems within the body aside from muscle that are influenced by strength training. It comprises seven chapters: “Before Barbells,” “Building the Barbell Athlete,” “Science Connection,” “Pioneers of Strength Training for College Sports before 1969,” “An Emerging Profession” (dealing with Boyd Epley and the NSCA), “Bridging the Gap,” and “Strength Coaching in the 20th Century.” The appendix provides an apt and touching remembrance of Dr. Terry Todd, who influenced a considerable number of professionals in the field of strength conditioning. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals. General readers. —A. H. Goldfarb, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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Wenk, Gary L. Your brain on exercise. Oxford, 2021. 208p bibl index ISBN 9780190051044, $29.95; ISBN 9780190051068 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE March 2022

This book is written so as to lead the undergraduate reader easily from one topic to the next, demonstrating that the author’s main intent is to foster understanding. An expert in neurobiology and psychopharmacology, Wenk (Ohio State Univ.) offers a clearly organized text to drive home the point that exercise has many positive effects on the body if done correctly at the proper intensity for a given person. At the same time he encourages skepticism about the popular idea that exercise benefits the brain, arguing for caution against misinformation found in popular sources (i.e., the internet). As he explains, a study may show association without showing cause and effect. Wenk discusses some details about how neurotransmitters are produced through diet, also arguing that over-the-counter supplements may not have their advertised effects. While acknowledging that we might in future know more about how exercise can influence brain function, and hoping that future research will confirm how mechanisms triggered by exercise can influence our brains, Wenk emphasizes that no one particular mechanism or substance is likely to be a game changer, because the relationships between physical activity, body chemistry, and brain functions are so complex. The text will be accessible for the layperson, explaining why contemporary claims about exercise may be flawed. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates. Graduate students. General readers. —A. H. Goldfarb, University of North Carolina at Greensboro