Science

This Year, We’re Going to Get Fitness Right. Join Us.

In 2023, we’re trying to understand how working out can achieve one incredibly simple goal: feeling good.

Woman lifting and pushing a big number 3.
Illustration by Pete Ryan

This is the first installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.

A lot of what we’ve been taught about fitness is actually diet culture wrapped in spandex. Treadmills and ellipticals feature calorie counts as prominently as they do distance “traveled.” At barre, Sculpt Society’s “strengthen lengthen tone” classes, the slimness and litheness of your body is on display, judgeable, as you do tiny movements that won’t leave you all that much stronger. Workout streaks can end up as a path to injury. Scientists have known for decades that working out isn’t a good way to lose weight, and yet, the same demand comes every January: time to make a plan for diet and exercise, to lose weight.

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Even when you set aside the weight thing, as increasingly many of us are trying to do, a strange focus remains at the center of how we tend to dissect exercise, particularly in the media: There is this idea that you can control your body through exercise—make it work better, make it last longer. You can start “bouncing your way to better health” by participating in a trampoline class. You ought to take lessons from an astronaut’s workout routines because, researchers explain, “long hours of sitting are not dissimilar, physiologically, to floating in space.” One recent paper suggests a connection between workout intensity and memory; another between working out and immunity; another caused national media to question whether we’re all really pickle-balling hard enough for it to “count” as a workout.

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This view of exercise might be best understood as “healthism,” a term coined decades ago by sociologist Robert Crawford. “The past few years have witnessed an exercise and running explosion,” Crawford wrote in a 1980 paper titled “Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life,” pointing to the proliferation of health magazines and “health themes” in newspapers. The idea is that we as individuals are held responsible for the health of our bodies, rather than health being a product of our larger environments, or say, the actual medical care we receive. We must improve ourselves through self-care, fruits and vegetables, vitamins, and physical activity. Sometimes these things are legitimately useful, but sometimes, well, they aren’t. They put too much onus on individuals, they can backfire, and also—the new glut of information and advice about what to do and when and for how long is growing to be truly too much for any one person to process. And today, we have available to us constant information on the latest studies as well as consumer technology to help us “improve” our bodies. Armed with a relatively inexpensive tracker, the ordinary jogger can become a data scientist of her own leisure habit … and then is left to interpret the meaning (if there is one?) of so many numbers. With arm patches that monitor the contents of our blood, even non-diabetics can track how our insulin levels respond to food and exercise in real time … though what the optimal fluctuations are for a healthy person is an open question. Exercise scientists, meanwhile, are working to figure out the perfect “dose” of movement, as though movement is just another pill we can and should be taking.

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The glut of advice and tips and tricks has meant that there is a whole lot of stuff out there to keep track of, and almost as much to debunk, on a scientific but also cultural level. If you’ve listened to Maintenance Phase, the popular podcast by Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon, you’re familiar with how rotten the promise of healthism has always been; in fact, it was in Gordon’s new book debunking myths about fat people that I most recently came across the term. On their show, Gordon and Hobbes joyfully take down everything from the President’s Physical Fitness test, in which kids are assigned a score for their performance in a series of challenges that may or may not be relevant to their actual well-being, to workplace wellness programs, which are essentially nothing more than a scheme to charge some people more for their health insurance. Many of our larger conceptions of exercise, Hobbes and Gordon make clear, are more about trying to wedge people into a narrow and artificial definition of well-being. But even if you try to ditch the dated messaging and try to simply “follow the science” around movement and health, it quickly becomes fraught: A study that came out as I was working on this piece failed to confirm that exercise actually has a positive impact on memory, despite the one published just a few months ago suggesting that it does.

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There is in health media an ouroboros: the flawed pieces of news, the articles debunking the bad or dated or limited science. (I have participated in it, a lot!) Take the idea that we should walk 10,000 steps a day, for example. The concept, according to Harvard Medical School researcher I-Min Lee, originated in 1965 in Japan with a pedometer designed to count—you guessed it—10,000 steps. It’s “an easy goal to remember,” Lee told Popular Science. But ultimately the number is just a marketing gimmick. There are dozens if not infinite stories explaining the problems with the 10,000 step rule, some arguing in favor of it, other pieces explaining that, well, 10,000 steps isn’t the answer, but—a 2022 JAMA paper suggests!—maybe 7,000 steps is. We must keep up with the churn of information about how exercise affects our bodies, and how we can keep doing it better, the news says. But so many of these little tips and tricks are derived from genuinely useless or at worst flat-out wrong science that we can also never stop dutifully swatting away the bullshit, either.

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It can be easy to miss the fact that we actually understand the core basics of exercise very well, in the same way that we understand the basics of good nutrition. Just as we all know that we are indeed supposed to eat vegetables, everyone knows that you should move. The interesting part is in the execution: How do we do this, pleasurably and sustainably? What are we trying to achieve with it? I think where it gets so complicated is when we try to make exercise the key to a million other goals—a better brain, a better body, a smaller body, a body that will live longer—the list goes on and on. I am interested in figuring out how we can make things simpler for ourselves—and how to use science and technology as tools that actually help, rather than muddle.

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The back-and-forth between bunking and debunking makes it easy to forget the best part of exercise, which is that—yes, haha, unfortunately—it makes you feel good. And maybe even more than that, it can be fun. Even if running or weightlifting or swimming isn’t always a total joy in the moment, the net improvement of exercising in your life isn’t that you become a different shape, or a well-oiled machine. It should be that you feel better. Not as confirmed by metrics, heart rate, your shape, or even your top speed, but simply for you.

This year in Slate, we’re going to try to go beyond both the exercise news cycle and the accompanying takedowns to talk about fitness in a different way, one that steps back to examine and further the role of movement in our lives, not just how it can bolster our health. We’ll consult studies, examine how business models warp our perception of what we “should” be doing, and stretch ourselves, sometimes quite literally. But most of all we’re going to seek to answer the question: Which aspects of moving in 2023 make our lives better? Not thinner, not longer, not even healthier—just good.

Read more Good Fit entries here.

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