Exercise and Fitness

Exercise, physical activity, and fitness are distinct but interrelated concepts (Caspersen et al. 1985). Physical activity is any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscle, while exercise is planned and repeated physical activity that is structured into individuals’ lives with the purpose of maintaining or improving some attribute of either health or skill (i.e., fitness). Exercise, therefore, is a subset of physical activity that is characterized by being patterned and purposeful, and fitness is a consequence of exercise. Exercise and fitness are of major interest because they are implicated in premature death, a wide variety of disease states, and quality of life (US Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS] 1996).

Sociological inquiry around exercise and fitness expanded and changed during the past 25 years. In the early to mid 1980s a small number of studies were catalogued in sociological abstracts delineating social status predictors of exercise and between group differences in beliefs about exercise. In the late 1980s to early 1990s research activity doubled. During this time researchers documented how different social processes such as victimization and job stress were associated with exercise among adults, and papers began describing exercise as a form of consumption. Research doubled again in the mid to late 1990s, with research continuing to illustrate differences in exercise patterns between different groups (e.g., class), as well as examinations of exercise within specific contexts (e.g., rural) and social groups (e.g., age and gender groups). Body image research and papers examining the role of exercise in the social expression of self also established a foothold during this period. Research doubled again from the late 1990s to the present. New strands of research in this period included comprehensive models examining determinants of exercise from multiple levels, the role of exercise (and other health behaviors) in health trends over time and health disparities between groups, and essays examining the political agenda underlying the promotion of exercise.

This broad summary of the literature illustrates three major points about sociological research around exercise and fitness. First, exercise has only recently become an explicit area of sociological research. Second, there has been exponential growth in exercise research beginning in the mid 1990s. This growth coincided with ongoing initiatives to promote exercise as well as ongoing evaluations documenting limited success toward those goals (McGinnis & Lee 1995). Finally, the majority of research is characterized predominantly as ‘‘sociology for exercise’’ or the application of sociological concepts and tools for understanding variation in exercise so as to better refine or develop techniques for promoting exercise and fitness (Thorogood 1992).

There are several issues and areas for additional sociological analysis that would contribute to advancing middle range theorizing about exercise and fitness. Two lines of future inquiry that are particularly important are out lined below. The first advocates more sociological analyses that expose the inherent values and assumptions underlying the meaning of exercise and the widespread promotion of exercise (i.e., sociology of exercise). The second line of advocated inquiry involves continued application of sociological concepts and tools to enhance understanding of exercise (i.e., sociology for exercise).

Critical analysis of the interests and values underlying exercise is needed. Consider two individuals: the first person walks 3 miles each day for diabetes control whereas the second person walks 3 miles each day to work. By definition (Caspersen et al. 1985), the first person is ‘‘exercising’’ while the second person is not; yet, the physiological (and presumably the health related) consequences of each person’s structured and repeated activity are similar. (Recent public health recommendations have shifted from physical activity with the explicit goal of health maintenance or improvement to simply regular sustained physical activity [USDHHS 1996]; nonetheless, discourse around exercise continues to prioritize leisure time physical activities that benefit cardiorespiratory health.) This example raises important questions, such as: ‘‘Whose interests are being served by widespread attempts to promote exercise?’’; ‘‘Which values are being prioritized through advocacy and surveillance of exercise?’’; and ‘‘What are the social consequences of defining exercise in terms of health intentions?’’ (Thorogood 1992).

A related area for critical analysis is an examination of the alternative approaches to health promotion that remain underdeveloped while social attention is directed toward exercise. Without question, exercise contributes to a variety of salutary outcomes; however, these same outcomes are frequently equally influenced by other factors. For example, results from the Alameda County study indicated that the nine year mortality risk for both women and men attributed to health behaviors (including physical activity) was comparable in magnitude to the mortality risk attributed to social integration (Berkman & Breslow 1983). Why is there widespread effort to increase the number of people who exercise, but no wide spread effort to increase the number of people who volunteer in their communities or participate in civic organizations? Likewise, a focus on exercise and what are typically considered individual lifestyle ‘‘choices’’ diverts discourse from other strong determinants of poor health such as social inequalities and poverty. To what extent does public attention toward exercise distract from other viable targets for improving population health? Answers to questions such as these will expose the values and interests underlying a focus on promotion of exercise, and they would offer important insight for building comprehensive theories of exercise.

A second line of future inquiry involves more dynamic and multifaceted applications of sociological concepts and tools for understanding exercise. Additional analyses in three areas appear particularly fruitful for theory building. First, additional analyses addressing the structure versus agency debate is essential for explaining trends in exercise over time, and for guiding attempts to increase rates of exercise. Kerry McGannon and Michael Mauws (2002) exemplify how sociological tools can be combined to explain how social and temporal contexts constrain exercise while they are simultaneously being created and recreated through individual activity and social discourse. Next, more research is needed that links exercise to social processes at multiple levels in the social ecology. Scholars have speculated exercise and other health promoting behaviors have been undermined by macrostructural changes such as modernization and deindustrialization (e.g., Kumanyika et al. 2002). However, very little empirical support exists corroborating these claims, nor is there documentation of the mechanisms through which these changes might occur. Finally, more research examining the complex influence of multiple social structures and processes on exercise is needed. Catherine Ross’s (2000) analysis of neighborhood crime, neighborhood poverty, individual poverty, and fear of victimization illustrates the relevance of multifaceted models of exercise, and it exemplifies the convergence of sociological methods of sampling, measurement, and analysis that allows for this type of research.

Sociological analyses around exercise and fitness have accelerated over the past 10 years; yet, sociology has much more to offer for building theory that adequately explains exercise. Two lines of future inquiry for advancing exercise theory have been advocated. The first involves critical analysis of exercise. The goal of this sociology of exercise is to more clearly expose the interests, values, and assumptions underlying exercise and the widespread promotion of exercise in the population. The second line of advocated research involves the continued study of exercise using sociological concepts and tools. The goal of this sociology for exercise is to move toward a more dynamic and multifaceted understanding of exercise. Results from each line of inquiry alone are insufficient, but together they provide the building material for useful theories of exercise.


  1. Berkman, L. F. & Breslow, L. (1983) Health and Ways of Living: The Alameda County Study. Oxford University Press, New York.
  2. Caspersen, C. J., Powell, K. E., & Christenson, G. M. (1985) Physical Activity, Exercise, and Physical Fitness: Definitions and Distinctions for Health-Related Research. Public Health Reports 100: 126-31.
  3. Kumanyika, S., Jeffery, R. W., Morabia, A., Ritenbaugh, C., & Antipatis, V. J. (2002) Obesity Prevention: The Case for Action. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders 26: 425-36.
  4. McGannon, K. R. & Mauws, M. K. (2002) Exploring the Exercise Adherence Problem: An Integration of Ethnomethodological and Poststructuralist Perspectives. Sociology of Sport Journal 19: 67-89.
  5. McGinnis, J. M. & Lee, P. R. (1995) Healthy People 2000 at Mid Decade. JAMA 273: 1123-9.
  6. Ross, C. E. (2000) Walking, Exercising, and Smoking: Does Neighborhood Matter? Social Science and Medicine 51: 265-74.
  7. Thorogood, N. (1992) What is the Relevance of Sociology for Health Promotion? In: Bunton, R. & Macdonald, G. (Eds.), Health Promotion: Disci plines and Diversity. Routledge, New York, pp. 42-65.
  8. US Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) (1996) Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Atlanta, GA.

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