The new fitness boom: amusing ourselves to life

Inge Kryger Pedersen
Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen


Brad Millington
Fitness, Technology and Society: Amusing Ourselves to Life
148 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2018 (Routledge Research in Sport Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-1-138-94803-7

We are in the midst of a new fitness boom, Brad Millington argues in his book Fitness, Technology and Society. Amusing Ourselves to Life. The 1970s and 1980s saw the first fitness boom, newly institutionalized in that fitness in gyms as well as fitness in the home saw an upsurge in interest. So, what has changed? An important answer has to do with the fitness market and “the age of the app” with its wearable health and fitness technologies. Fitness 2.0 is characterized by “the proliferation of interactive and highly personalized health and fitness technologies” (p. 1). However, this is not the only answer Millington gives the reader.

Showing the commercial involvement with fitness technologies is what makes up the bulk of Millington’s study, but it is demonstrated how fitness technologies have many dimensions and are also about health, sedentary work, the obesity epidemic, optimization, and having fun through ‘gamified’ experience. Fitness is where the “politics of life meet the politics of amusement” (p. 4), referring to the book’s subtitle. As the introduction chapter states, the “biopolitics of the present moment open up a ‘space’ for many actors interested in lifestyle change – people, companies, and ‘things’ among them” (p. 6). The book concentrates mainly upon companies and technologies, less upon “people”. I think we – scholars or students within sport, physical exercise, leisure, and health – need such a book, describing in details what kinds of technologies are produced and used by “people”, but also examining fitness and its technologies in a consumer societal perspective.

The book consists of a preface, an introduction, and five chapters, followed by the author’s conclusions. Some of the chapters are derived in part from other work by Millington. In chapter one, fitness 2.0 is briefly historicized in considering how health and fitness were understood at three historical moments: the gymnasium’s idea about bodily ideals in ancient Greece; the physical culture movement of the late 1800s; and the first fitness boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Chapter two concentrates on the political economy of fitness technologies to demonstrate the forming of a fitness-technology complex, whereas chapter three and four assess the functionalities of wearable activity trackers as important examples of fitness technologies. These chapters give critical insights into surveillance modalities and matters such as privacy and data security. Chapter five is purposed to deal with ‘lived experiences’, but is instead highly informative about knowledge on self-tracking and fitness dialogue on social media in the perspective of the concept of ‘healthism’. The conclusion chapter outlines eight characteristics of fitness 2.0, also to identify where fitness is headed in years to come.

Millington’s book is a very well written and important contribution to the field.Each chapter is followed by a rich reference list that is very useful for scholars and students within the field. Important terms and concepts, such as ‘fitness’ and ‘technology’, are all defined and sometimes also presented in an historical and critical perspective. Although the analysis draws only from English-language resources and refers especially to fitness in Canada, the US and UK, the account and the theoretical framework as well as the description of a consumer market that knows no bounds include more general insights, which should be relevant for scholars and students all over the world. Telling terms, such as ‘fitspiration’, ‘thinspiration’, ‘biohacking’, ‘dataveillance’, and ‘prosumption-as-consumption’ are presented and illustrate how apps and hashtags have opened for other opportunities to measuring oneself. An important element of the new fitness boom is that “it makes fitness into something that is not just for us, but about us” (p. 142, author’s italics for emphasis) and that in buying and selling, consumers become the thing that is bought and sold (ibid.).

Millington points at how measurement tends to replace intrinsic with extrinsic motivation, which makes activities like walking seem more like work.

Inspired by Latour’s body of work, the book’s goal is to account for the ‘actants’ appearing “when we scrutinize otherwise ‘blackboxed’ technologies”. Inspired as well by the STS (Science & Technology Studies) view that “the important role of non-humans in making society durable has been largely underestimated and underrepresented in scholarly accounts” (p. 14), may explain why chapter five does not work as well as the other chapters when it seeks to “pertain to lived experiences” (p. 108). Nor the field observations from an earlier study in retirement centres, which open the chapter link to the remainder of this chapter in a fluent way. The observations touch upon how Wii Bowling is put on the activities menu for retirees in retirement centres in Canada and thus thematize fitness within the technology scope of the book. However, when the chapter prioritizes a focus on the more cognitive engagement of fitness consumers (e.g. how they respond in surveys or present themselves on the social media) – or, in other words, on objectified bodies rather than embodied subjects – it could have been enlightening with the author’s reflections upon whether this focus is forged by the fitness culture itself?

Self-tracking is emphasized as an important dimension of the new fitness boom and, for example the Quantified Self (QS) community started in 2007. Chapter five underlines that consumers’ benefits in using devices like health and fitness apps should not be overlooked. Yet, chapter five notes that it is important to be aware of the unintended consequences of personal quantification. Citing Etkin’s (2016) research, Millington points at how measurement tends to replace intrinsic with extrinsic motivation, which makes activities like walking seem more like work. Again, we miss some reflections on the absence of lived experiences. How do fitness users themselves perceive and experience walking? Like work? Millington asks: “What motivates people to take stock of measures of physical activity such as heart rate and calories expended?” (p. 108). However, chapter five’s purposed agency perspective remains overlooked. Although the chapter likely would have appeared stronger without this purpose, quite different from the rest of the book, it is a very interesting chapter about quantifying the self and lived politics of self-tracking.

Physical exercises, sport and fitness activities have often and with an historical backdrop been scholarly handled as parallel to work and a question at hand is, why speak about a ‘fitness boom’ – and even a ‘new fitness boom’? Millington also emphasizes that the ‘new fitness boom’ is not a ‘fitness revolution’ (p. 138). He raises a number of relevant and critical questions in the discussion about a new fitness boom, and sums up in the conclusion chapter saying: “It takes the form of the first fitness boom and presses onward: fitness is more individualized, more interactive, more commodified than ever before” (p. 140). By emphasizing “the productive dimensions of technological mediation” different from “depicting technology experience as the negation of life” (p. 140), the analysis has in fact succeeded in showing “present-day technology experience to be mobile, interactive, and negotiated” (ibid.).

Paraphrasing Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1986), but substituting ‘death’ with ‘life’ in the book title, Millington wants to advertise another analysis than within the ‘repressive’ tradition of technology criticism in general. However, it should be noted that the book’s inspiration from Michel Foucault and Nikolas Rose and how it addresses ‘life’ is more in line with the ‘early’ Foucault’s focus on ‘discipline’ and Nikolas Rose’s approach to for example ‘optimization’, than the late Foucault’s notion of ‘self-techniques’. When Millington notes that his analysis “is suggestive of what happens when we subject health to a form of commercial intervention” (p.141), his view of ‘fitness’ and ‘health’ coincides with governmentality studies’ focus on bringing ‘life’ into calculations and interventions. Likewise, Millington seems to agree with Emily Martin’s acknowledgement in her book, Flexible Bodies (1994), that a new conception of ‘fitness’, i.e. desirable qualities figured in ‘health’, is being forged, namely a conception in which “just as surely as in nineteenth-century social Darwinism (although the terms and mechanisms may differ), some will survive and some will not” (1994:xviii) when he finishes his brilliant book with a recommendation (p. 143): “lest we find ourselves headless, the prospect of amusing ourselves to life should be taken seriously indeed” .

Copyright © Inge Kryger Pedersen 2018

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