New book reveals the evolution of women’s fitness


Fitness is big business; globally, the total market share of the fitness club industry alone is over $87 billion, according to 2021 findings from Statista, a market and data research firm. (That same report identified the recent standout fitness trends as fitness trackers, HIIT, group training, exercise classes for older adults, and bodyweight training.) 6.1 million Americans take part in exercise classes at least twice a month. 

It’s hard to remember a time when exercise wasn’t a big part of our lives — and sweating wasn’t something any respectable woman would do (in the first half of the 20th century, doctors allowed light calisthenics for women, but cautioned against more strenuous exercise, fearing that it might make a woman’s uterus fall out.) 

“While fitness culture today can feel sleek and sometimes sterile, the story of how women’s exercise developed in the twentieth century until now, I discovered, is weird and messy and awkward and glamorous,” writes Friedman in her new book, “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World,” author Danielle Friedman (GP Putnam’s Sons). “It’s rich with cinematic characters and forgotten pioneers of what we now call self-care. But more than that, it’s the story of a paradigm shift in the way women, so long accepted as the ‘weaker sex,’ came to view their bodies.” 

Bonnie Prudden, an American mountaineer, teamed up with Dr. Hans Kraus to develop and administer a 90-second physical fitness evaluation of American children. Only 58 percent passed.

The book takes a fascinating look at the world of modern exercise and some of the main female players in it, from the barre phenomenon to marathons, the ’80s aerobics craze to Instagram fitness influencers.

Author Danielle Friedman
Author Danielle Friedman
Lindsay May for Classic Kids Photography

One section introduces readers to Bonnie Prudden, an American mountaineer and descendant of Davy Crockett who teamed up with Dr. Hans Kraus to develop and administer a 90-second physical fitness evaluation of American children.

American young people failed the test at a dismal rate of 58 percent, while their European counterparts in Italy, Austria and Switzerland had only an 8 percent failure rate. Eventually the report would find its way to the Oval office of President Dwight Eisenhower, where it would become known as “The Report that Shocked the President.”

Eisenhower called for the creation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, and thus the Presidential Fitness test — that staple of nearly every American public school experience — was born, pull-ups, shuttle runs and all.   

Leave a Comment