Why Americans Really Go to the Gym

People lost more than fitness when their favorite gyms shut down.

Apu GOMES / AFP / Getty

On Wednesday, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela got in a line near her home in New York City’s West Village that snaked down the sidewalk and wrapped around the corner of the block. New Yorkers will queue up for virtually anything; I was once velvet-roped outside a budget pasta joint, among other indignities. But at 5:45 in the morning, Petrzela and her neighbors weren’t anticipating a sample sale or a particularly good bagel. They just wanted to work out.

That was the first day the city’s gyms were allowed to reopen at diminished capacity after nearly six months of pandemic shutdown, and people were really excited to get back on the elliptical before dawn. “I don’t know if I’m proud of that or not,” Petrzela, who worked at the gym years ago as an instructor before becoming a history professor at The New School, told me. Either way, she was happy to be back. As soon as she got through the door, she said, “the guy behind the desk said, ‘It wouldn’t be opening day without you, Natalia.’” After all the city had been through, Petrzela found it surprisingly poignant to see—and be remembered by—someone familiar.

In a quest for normalcy over the past few months of closures, the desire among gym-goers to get back at it has seemed subordinate only to people’s urge to return to bars and restaurants. Some gyms have moved equipment onto sidewalks or into parking lots to satisfy their most dedicated patrons and generate a little revenue. Yoga classes have popped up in parks. In New Jersey and California, gyms opened in brazen defiance of shutdown orders and hosted the occasional cluster of coronavirus cases. Other gyms quietly resumed conducting business as exercise speakeasies, inviting only the clients they believed could keep their secret.

I’ve spent my entire adult life listening to people complain about sticking to a gym routine, lament paying so much for a membership, or joke about hating exercise. Many of those people, of course, went to the gym anyway, which I always presumed was out of obligation to their health, to beauty standards, or to both. When gyms shut down, Americans’ purchase patterns soon indicated that many people were finding relatively straightforward work-arounds to their formerly gym-bound exercise habits. Bicycle shops across the country sold out of adult-size bikes. In many places, expensive Pelotons are still back-ordered up to eight weeks. Even simple hand weights and kettlebells have been hard to come by.

Months later, however, it’s become clear that for many former gym-goers, streaming classes and newfound running habits haven’t been able to fully replace their old routines. Although concerns linger about the dangers of huffing and puffing indoors with strangers during a pandemic, people have started to filter back into gyms in places where they’ve reopened, waving goodbye to their virtual-yoga teachers in pursuit of a more collective experience. Their eager return has revealed that physical activity and the desire to go to the gym may be related, but they’re not quite the same. The gym has taken on a role all its own in American life.

In the past 70 years, physical activity in America has transformed from a necessity of daily life into an often-expensive leisure activity, retrofitted into the foundation of people’s identities. As a concept, fitness was a response to the flourishing, sidewalk-free postwar American suburbs and what the fitness pioneer Bonnie Prudden dubbed “the tyranny of the wheel”: Americans went from strollers to school buses to cars, stripping out much of the on-foot transportation that had long characterized life in cities or on farms. “In the ’50s and ’60s, the body became a problem, and exercise developed—it had to develop—because people realized that we were all going to die of heart attacks,” Shelly McKenzie, the author of Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America, told me.

With new middle-class needs came new marketing. Jack LaLanne’s instructional exercise TV show introduced much of the country to the active pursuit of physical fitness in 1951, paving the way for workout tapes from fitness megastars such as Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda. In the ’70s, exercise began to leave the home, both through the popularization of jogging and weightlifting and in more organized ways, such as Jazzercise classes. The American fitness market has been thriving ever since, absorbing things such as yoga and ballet and creating whole new workouts, such as step aerobics.

Summer classes at a gym in Redondo Beach, California (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty)

Gyms, too, have flourished. There’s now a gym for virtually everyone with 10 bucks a month to spare, from the inexpensive Planet Fitness, which offers its members a low-pressure environment and a monthly free-pizza night, to Equinox, the ultra-expensive luxury chain that offers high-end skin-care products in its locker rooms.

No matter how they package it, these businesses aren’t just selling physical activity; they’re providing people with a way to adhere to expectations that the industry itself helped set. “Exercise, and especially public exercise, came to signify mental, emotional, and even spiritual health and virtue,” Marc Stern, a historian at Bentley University, wrote in 2008. In return for the effort, gym-goers attain the type of body that proves their virtue to all who see them.

That these physical standards are difficult to achieve is the point. “We live in a culture in which being industrious is highly, highly valorized,” Petrzela, the New School professor, who is working on a book about fitness’s place in American culture, told me. “Many people want to be perceived as people who value exercise, because it shows they’re committed to self-improvement, and to hard work.” Above and beyond movement itself, part of the satisfaction of gym-going comes from performing those values around other people who share them, and from achieving what that community regards as success.

This psychological cycle of work and reward means that there’s all the more to lose when gyms go dark. If you spent hours every week in Pilates class or carefully monitoring your protein macros in pursuit of gains, where do the energy and care put into those rituals go when you’re asked to stay home? “Those kinds of things really do matter to people,” Stern told me. “Many people view the gym as that space where they’re able to demonstrate their own willingness to try to control their life, and it’s especially important in a time when that kind of control is really absent.” For some people, exercising alone in their living room doesn’t grant that same sense of role-fulfillment. Proving something to others is often a big part of proving it to yourself, and that’s difficult to do when no one else can see you.

Even for people who would be physically satisfied by a solitary run, the gym can provide a clear advantage, after six months of lockdown: It’s not their home. They might be eager to return to the gym just because it’s an opportunity to spend an hour away from the family members they’ve been cooped up with for far too long, and because they see fitness as something they do only for themselves. “The home is not the place where I relax. It’s a place of multiple obligations,” McKenzie said. “If you’re a working family, and you have kids on Zoom school, that’s your priority right there.” She said that for a lot of people, starting a whole new at-home exercise routine is a psychological bridge too far. For many people, time spent working out before the pandemic was “me time,” an experience that can’t be re-created at home if your kids are watching you do a yoga video.

In some ways, though, the desire to return to the gym is as much about the presence of others as it is about a focus on the self. “A lot of people who are missing the gym are not just missing exercise, but they’re missing having another institution in their social life,” Petrzela said. There’s a certain pleasure in being a regular somewhere, no matter where it is; McKenzie referred to it as the Cheers effect. Some people have regained bits and pieces of those social interactions as certain types of local businesses have reopened. I, for one, can’t quite account for the level of excitement I felt when I first saw Beatrice, my favorite bartender at my favorite wing place, when the restaurant finally reopened. For some people, their Beatrice is at the gym. “A lot of us really come to enjoy a particular instructor,” McKenzie noted. “The minute the gym closes, you don’t see that person who may have been tremendously influential in your life.” Even if those instructors have been teaching online classes to bridge the gap, the connection just isn’t the same.

For people who had built a gym routine before the coronavirus changed everyone’s life, there is comfort in regaining one more psychological tentpole of normalcy, even if the circumstances—masks, lines, acrylic partitions, and fewer gym-goers allowed inside—are far from normal. You can watch all the guided yoga routines in the world, but the YouTube-famous instructor onscreen is never going to be excited to once again see your smiling face at six in the morning.