Book review: Let’s Get Physical; How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World by Danielle Friedman
I’m not sure who recommended this book to me and I wish I could remember so I could thank them and for quite a few reasons.
My first reason for enjoying this book so much:
Let’s Get Physical is an easy read thanks to Danielle Friedman’s relaxed writing style. The book is intended for general readers. Make a cup of tea or coffee (or pour a glass of wine) and settle in for a “really good read.”
Friedman is an award winning journalist and this book is a “captivating blend of reportage and personal narrative that explores the untold history of women’s exercise culture”
This could have been a fact driven and klunky book, instead Let’s Get Physical feels conversational and interesting as Friedman weaves stories about the characters, the culture of the time as well as the development of exercise clothing.
My second reason
I really enjoyed this book because it makes a truly worthwhile contribution to the study of the history of western fitness and physical culture, and especially from the female perspective.
Friedman shines a spotlight on many of the trailblazers who led the way as she introduces us to more than 20 female fitness evangelists and entrepreneurs.
Some are household names like Jane Fonda who made serious money selling her signature workout on VHS tapes. (As an aside, I personally find it fascinating that so much of that money went to fund the electoral campaign for Tom Hayden who was her husband for 17 years)
Some are not names I recognised and I particularly enjoyed discovering a cohort of amazing women including Judi Sheppard Missett, the relentlessly upbeat founder of Jazzercise, whose classes “changed the rhythm of women’s days.”
Her first classes were not popular and she suffered a 90% drop out rate.
So she asked her dropouts “what did I do wrong?”
They told her it was too hard and demoralising.
She realised that “This was a group of women who didn’t want to be dancers they just wanted to look like them”
Yes, they wanted to drop a few pounds – and they wanted it to be fun. Judi changed her approach and her classes took off and Jazzercise was born.
Bonnie Pruden was the first woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated – in 1957!
During her long life, she wrote 16 books on physical fitness and myotherapy and was still exercising in her hospice where she died 6 weeks before her 98th birthday. A truly inspiring and amazing woman.
Today Fitness is a multibillion-dollar industry and for many of us it might feel like “working out” is as accepted as it is expected.
It certainly wasn’t always this way.
In fact – according to Friedman’s recount of history – women only discovered exercise relatively recently.
For much of the twentieth century, sweating was considered unladylike, and girls grew up believing physical exertion would cause their uterus to literally fall out. It was only in the sixties that, thanks to a few forward-thinking fitness pioneers, women began to move en masse. Astonishing!
This brings me to my third – and possibly the most valuable for me – reason for enjoying this book.
I’m fascinated and intrigued by human behaviour and especially as applied to our health and wellbeing and the cognitive dissonance between what we know and what we do.
Two questions spring to mind:
- We know exercise is good for us and yet in general we do not engage as much as we need to
- We know eating healthy is good for us and yet similarly we do not eat as healthy as much as we need to
I’ve spent many years studying human behaviour and especially as relates to these 2 questions and it was with these questions in mind that I was keen to read this book.
What could the history of exercise teach us that would help to encourage more people to be more active today?
I’m not sure Friedman’s book answers my questions. It does however provide me with a useful perspective.
My key takeaway from the book:
It’s more than the moves or the exercise or the studio or the session times or the timetable
Judi Sheppard Missett discovered that her people wanted exercise to be fun.
When Lotte Berk began teaching Barre in 1959 she specifically wanted to advance what she called “the state of sex” by encouraging women to pursue sex for their own pleasure. This was long before the sexual revolution and the Barre attendees only ever whispered about the “sexual benefits.” It felt exciting and risqué.
As gyms only opened up to allow women to be members in the 1980s they also provided a “third place” where people felt welcome and a sense of community.
Jane Fonda was the first to produce VHS workout videos and brought exercise into the home.
My observation is that each of the examples in the book are new and different in their time and for their audience.
Today more than ever people have their own reasons for signing up for yoga, Pilates, Barre, the gym, a PT or running marathons.
Much of the recent research is showing that while body shape and weight loss continue to drive some fitness and exercise choices, there is a majority of people who exercise to manage anxiety, to sleep better, to feel strong in a world where so much makes us feel weakened.
Friedman finishes Let’s Get Physical by declaring that what she really is seeking is to “feel free.”
She describes the very real effect of “synchronous movement”:
“Research is discovering that when we move together whether slowly during yoga or ecstatically in a dance class, these neurochemicals have the power to bond strangers and build trust.
They increase pain tolerance.
They also make us feel connected to something bigger – synchronous movement can create the physical sensation of boundaries dissolving”
My final reason for truly enjoying this book is a very personal discovery.
As a teenager my sister was a long-distance runner. All through high school she ran – a lot. Reading this book I discovered that it was only in 1972 that women were allowed to run in the New York marathon.
Running only became widely popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Previous to 1972 that women were not permitted to run in any marathons. It was only due to extensive campaigning that women were allowed to run an olympic marathon for the first time at the 1984 LA Olympics. Truly Astonishing!
My sister was running long distance and competing in Brisbane in the mid 1970s. She still holds a distance record for her age from that time.
How was my sister running in the 1970s? and why was she running? I’d never really thought about that before. I know our high school had an exceptional Track Coach and I was thinking they were both in the “right time at the right place”
I asked my sister about the running, and she said “That’s where I fitted in. I didn’t fit in anywhere else in school.”
“Fitting in” and feeling a sense of belonging.
As I reflect on this history of women and exercise, it seems to me that this sense of fitting in and a sense of belonging has always been important.
Is this the key to encouraging people to be more active? For people to find where they fit in?
I highly recommend Let’s Get Physical as a terrific read through the history / herstory of women and exercise.
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