Fitness as a Socialist Aspiration

Human bodies thrive on exercise. When we’re able to exercise regularly, we sleep better, our immune systems are stronger, we’re less likely to be depressed, our cognitive functions improve, and, all else being equal, we live longer. Everything we enjoy about life can be enjoyed more when our bodies work well. But often they don’t, and not just because of the vagaries of disease. The deeper problem is that political and economic conditions impair fitness and deny us the right to live our best physical lives.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, about 80% of U.S. adults (age 18 to 64) do not get enough aerobic and muscle-building exercise to maintain good physical health. Fewer than 5%, according to the Department of Agriculture, get even 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Insufficient exercise also tends to track social class. People in professional and managerial occupations, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, are most likely to meet recommended guidelines for participating in aerobic and strength-building exercise; those in production jobs are least likely.

Broadly speaking, it is the bodily fitness of the working class that has been and continues to be sacrificed for profit. This has always been true under capitalism, which treats workers’ bodies as inputs to production—resources to be used up in the creation of surplus value. Long struggles to resist the worst forms of bodily exploitation have produced real improvements in workplace health and safety over the last two centuries. Yet it remains the case, as an inherent feature of capitalism, that the physical well-being of workers is subordinated to the economic well-being of owners.

The fundamental injustice of this arrangement has been obscured by an ideological tendency to disparage concern for fitness as an expression of middle- or upper-middle-class white vanity, or to see it as a futile and neurotic attempt to stave off natural bodily decline and death. Lauding fitness is also sometimes dismissed as fat-shaming in disguise. But disdain for fitness, perhaps satisfying as snark or as a way to signal concern for the stigmatized, is not rebellious; in the context of capitalist relations of production it is an admission of defeat. We should not settle for an obesogenic environment or one that makes fitness a privilege. The more radical position is to see fitness as a human right, the securing of which will require resistance to capitalism’s consumption of our bodies.

In the short term, we need to organize to resist workplace regimes that demand too much time and energy, leaving us too harried and exhausted to exercise, or that make it impossible to move much at all, imposing a debilitating degree of inactivity. The right to be fit means not just freedom from toxins and mechanical safety hazards. It means being able to make a living without being so depleted by work that one is unable to live outside of work, or being so caged at work that one’s bodily capacities wither. Also necessary is continuing to fight for high-quality universal health care that includes coverage of therapeutic exercise, as well as diet and nutrition services.

In the longer run, we must democratize the economy and use more of our common wealth to build a robust public fitness infrastructure. Just as we need libraries to nurture our minds, we need walking and running trails, roads that are safe for pedestrians and cyclists, swimming pools, playgrounds, and fully-equipped public gyms to nurture our bodies. We must also ensure easy access to affordable, nutritious food. All this—features of a society in which everyone’s health is equally valued and everyone is equally enabled to pursue fitness—is part of what class struggle is a struggle to achieve.

Human flourishing does not require that everyone be fit for athletic competition. What I am advocating is the kind of fitness necessary to go beyond tasks of daily living and discover our physical potential, to revel in what our bodies can be conditioned to do, to play hard and do so pleasurably, well into old age. We are as entitled to this by virtue of our humanity as we are entitled to fully develop other aspects of what Marx called our species-being. A sound mind in a sound body is not just a goal for individual strivers. When we understand what will be necessary to achieve this for all, it can be a revolutionary demand.

Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at