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The Brains of Brawn

A new book explores the history of fitness trends. Also read: Why You Should Not Be Running

Hannah Sternberg


April 9, 2014 - 10:00 am
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If you’re a skeptical gym rat — someone who likes to stay fit, but raises an eyebrow at flash-in-the-pan fitness trends — your curiosity will be piqued by a new book on the history of fitness and exercise in America.

Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shaped Fitness History by Jonathan Black is a fascinating whirlwind tour through fitness history, starting with a brief review of ancient Greece and the first Olympics before fast-forwarding to the Chicago World’s Fair.

I went into this book expecting to learn many damning things about gurus who offer false promises of health and pleasure with one hand while taking all your money with the other. What surprised and encouraged me, as I read, was that many fitness pioneers seemed genuinely interested in making people healthier, and helping them to feel more confident and empowered. Mixed with that impulse was, of course, the desire to sell something to those people, and pressure to achieve body image goals — for the bulk of fitness trends, that meant simply fitting into fashionable clothes, but for some of the larger than life (literally) it meant sculpting a body that would make a Greek god quake in his sandals.

The most rewarding strands of the book told the stories of the great bodybuilding pioneers — men (and a few women) who took big muscle out of the circus ring and onto the beach. The personalities that created the American bodybuilding scene were as epic as the muscles they grew. The feuds between lifters, posers, dopers, and hopers is as thrilling as the rush of endorphins after a heavy lift (at least, I think so, remembering that one time I tried it).

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I have never competed in sports to "look good". I just enjoy competition, and I love the feeling I get when I accomplish tremendous feats without having to depend on others. I have been competing in triathlons of all distances for the past 18 years, and when I get my physical exams, I always rank about 15-20 years younger than I actually am. The intellectuals can knock it all they want, but my wife isn't complaining!
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