It'll help your cardiovascular efficiency and all that good stuff.
—MIKE LOVE OF THE BEACH BOYS, asking the audience at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, Nev. to stand and clap hands during a rendition of Surfin' USA
People are healthier, and it's due to dietary changes and exercise. Of course, this is based more on faith than data.
—ROBERT M. CUNNINGHAM JR., Blue Cross/Blue Shield consultant
Actually, there has been no real revolution in fitness.
—JOHN H. DAVIS, executive director of the National Recreation and Park Association
Considering all the attention it has attracted, it's surprising how little we know about that cultural phenomenon most commonly referred to as the fitness boom. One of the things we don't know is whether it even exists. Madison Avenue copywriters and the authors of magazine cover stories have been breathlessly proclaiming the reality of such a boom for perhaps five years now (which means that it actually would have had to begin some time earlier), but one sometimes suspects that this is merely to see how many variations on the name they can come up with. The results so far include fitness craze, fitness binge, fitness mania, fitness revival, fitness upsurge and, yes, fitness revolution. Other variations include wellness boom and health boom.
To say that the U.S. is caught up in a fitness boom, however, is to imply that Americans have become fitter, and while there are plenty of people around who swear that this is the case, the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. There's reason to believe that whatever wonders the fitness boom may have worked for certain individuals, it hasn't made society as a whole fitter at all. This generally overlooked fact is just sitting there, practically begging to be recognized. To uncover the unhappy truth, it's necessary only to ask the right people.
Older folks? Most Americans over 50, says Dr. Ronald B. Mackenzie, medical director of the National Athletic Health Institute in Inglewood, Calif., are in "a dismal state of fitness." Young adults? A substantial number of them, says Assistant Chief Michael J. McNulty, former commander of New York City's Police Academy, "can't run or do sit-ups or push-ups. The current generation is flabby, out of shape." Schoolchildren? Jim Waters, who runs a youth ski and soccer program in Denver called Buffalo Sports, Inc., notes a "trend toward unfitness" among children and says, "My experience is that they're not in shape, no more than adults are. They're stiff, and they don't know that their muscles are tight. They don't know what it feels like for them to be loose."
The situation is pretty much the same throughout the population. In November the Los Angeles Times ran an account of a health facility in San Diego where injured athletes go for training, and where ordinary citizens go to exercise. The Times confidently reported that the establishment, the San Diego Sports Medicine Center, was "an outgrowth of the fitness and wellness boom." But the newspaper also quoted the center's co-director, Dr. E. Lee Rice, as saying, "We live basically in an obese, unfit society. We are as a people unfit." There's the contradiction again: A society supposedly in the midst of a fitness boom is unfit.
As this contradiction indicates, there's another side, a down side, to the fitness story. There's something going on with fitness in the U.S., all right, and whatever it is—O.K., let's call it a boom—it has such staying power that it's already entering its second generation. Having grown accustomed to seeing hordes of citizens running through our parks and streets, we're now rubbing our eyes at the spectacle of people exercising by, for example, hanging upside down in gravity inversion systems intended to improve circulation and ease tension on the spine. As though the proliferation of corporate exercise programs and private health clubs weren't enough, we're assured that an explosion in home gyms is about to begin. Now that enough of us have tried (and frequently abandoned) the Stillman and Scarsdale diets, it's time to shape up in the company of Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda, whose workout regimens have supplanted Stillman and Scarsdale on the bestseller book lists.
But this boom is in large part illusory. To begin with, it's much more of a factor in some social, economic and age groups than others. The much ballyhooed growth in the number of private health clubs and employee fitness programs has been paralleled by a less widely recognized decline in the availability of traditional fitness programs in parks, recreation departments and, above all, schools. This shift in emphasis from the public to the private sector is reflected in the fitness boom demographics: Participants in it are more likely to be rich than poor, executives than blue-collar workers, white than non-white, college graduates than high school graduates, adults than children. The myth that the boom is a democratic phenomenon has been nurtured in part by the gratifying increase in the number of women participating in it. But women have moved into fitness activities largely to the extent that they've advanced into the upper middle class, to which the boom is geared. Poor women, like poor men, aren't exercising; cuts in phys ed programs put schoolgirls on the sidelines just as they do schoolboys. As one close observer of the fitness scene, University of Michigan Physical Education Professor Guy G. Reiff puts it, "They say that everybody's running and working out, and maybe guys with dough are, but I'm not sure much of this is reaching the shoe clerks and the guys carrying lunch buckets."
What these demographic data mean is that the action in fitness has simply gravitated toward where the profits are. In fact, it might be said that we're experiencing not so much a boom in fitness as in the business of fitness. Yet even here, appearances are deceiving. Nobody seems to notice the fitness activities that go into decline. The tennis boom is over, rollerskating is on the skids and bicycle sales in the U.S. plummeted last year to an estimated 6.7 million, down from a peak of 15.2 million in 1973. The fitness boom obviously contains a good deal of bust.