Fitness, Class and Culture: Social Inequality in Fitness Centres

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Anne-Lene Bakken Ulseth
Division of Sports, City of Oslo
Ørnulf Seippel
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences


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The gym culture and fitness frenzy have literally exploded here in Malmö. Commercial fitness centers are popping up like mushrooms in fertile soil, and they are open around the clock – unmanned at night, in all likelihood, but even in the early hours exercise diehards can be seen jogging on the treadmill, or lift heavy weights on machines that look like modern instruments of torture. And this is not a Malmö phenomenon, far from it; in major cities throughout the Western world, and in much of the rest of the world as well, a mostly new-found awareness of the links between health and welfare on the one hand, and the need for a sober lifestyle in terms of diet and physical activity on the other, has created a lucrative and growing market for fitness entrepreneurs. So, not only is participation voluntary, but the gym-goers are actually prepared to pay dearly for access to the fitness equipment and exercise positive environment of the fitness centers. As a commercial venture the gym is close to ideal, as its raison d’être is a sorely needed change of lifestyle, from the point of view of public health, moving from the sedentary life that has followed from the development of working life and media consumption cultures of the past half century, leading to an obesity explosion of unimaginable dimensions, on to a more active, healthy lifestyle which in practice means that a considerable part of traditional leisure time must be devoted to different forms of exercise – most conveniently, these days, performed in commercial gyms.

Just as poor health and, for example, obesity is strongly class-related, participation in physical activity is traditionally dependent on social background factors such as well above average income and education. Is this also true of everyday exercise at the gym? This particular topic is central to a Norwegian study of class- and culture-related determinants of fitness activities, in light of the tendency in post-industrial society of the traditional class markers to weaken, in favor of factors such as culture and lifestyle. Anne-Lene Bakken Ulseth and Ørnulf Seippel wondered how the fitness culture and activities in gyms reflect these new social dividing lines, and they chose to investigate participants in four ideal typical fitness activities, aerobics (collective, less strenuous), weight training (individual, more strenuous), spinning (collective, more strenuous) and stretching (individual, less strenuous), by means of a survey. Results of the statistical analysis of responses show, in summary, that both individual characteristics and social background variables affect the choice of fitness activity.


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