Book Review: Flex Time

New and Notable

September 2023

Reading time min

Book Review:  Flex Time

Jörgen Schön/Getty Images

At the midpoint of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennet—who has been under the impression that he finds her objectionable.

At the midpoint of Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession (U. of Chicago Press), the Jogbra debuts to keen interest from women—who have been under the impression that distance-running gatekeepers find their participation objectionable. Indeed, author Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, MA ’06, PhD ’09, has just recounted how Kathrine Switzer, a stealth entrant in the 1967 Boston Marathon, was physically accosted at mile 4 by the race manager, who tried to throw her off the course.

“My enthusiasm for fitness always coexisted with a profound unease about the destructive dynamics present in essentially every exercise activity; access was far from the only problem.”

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela in Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession; U. of Chicago Press

Let us not torture the comparison between a 19th-century British novel and a 21st-century cultural history. But let us say that both books give us plenty to ponder about gender, class, and who gets to be in which spaces.

Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School, takes us on a journey from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—where a carefully powdered Eugen Sandow poses in the manner of an Italian sculpture and the upper crust begins to realize muscles aren’t just for laborers—to the boutique gyms of today, which run the gamut from the militaristic CrossFit to the enhance-your-spirit SoulCycle (where you can cap off your workout with a green juice). Along the way, we see Cold War exhortations to get in shape for civic reasons, the emergence of televangelists—excuse me, tele-exercise-evangelists—in the 1970s, and home fitness trends, from the VCR-era Jane Fonda’s Workout to the pandemic Peloton. 

The book is a brisk read that embraces delightful puns, from the author’s note “warm-up” to the conclusion that American workout culture is “not working out.” And yet Petrzela tells a tale of individualistic pursuit and increasing privatization in a society that comes to frame fitness as a moral issue and serves it up with a soupçon of body-shaming. Women toil while private equity profits. Low-income people of color are segregated in exercise deserts. People with disabilities are more likely to be the charitable beneficiaries of endurance events than participants in the events themselves.

By the end, I was a bit overwhelmed by the pains of the title and found myself searching for the gains. Unlike Petrzela, I’m not an Equinox instructor who is “always up for a workout.” I needed to remember why I exercise in the first place, so I hearkened to the wise words of a colleague: “It’s so I don’t die.” On that note, I’m propelling myself off the couch in search of a Jogbra, which I’ll be appreciating anew now that I know its origin story.

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at

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