One respondent to my previous blog on why there are few men in group exercise classes was frustrated about the movement content of group fitness classes: ‘I have two left feet. I can't always do the steps as they have been performed by the instructor, but I thought that as long as I was moving it would be okay. It turns out that I was wrong. If I did not do the steps exactly some member of the class would get extremely upset.’ These types of classes, the respondent felt, target a specific demographic, but nevertheless, provide a lucrative fitness market. Another response specified that group fitness ‘attracted those that are concerned that everybody in the group act as a unit.’

The group moving in unison definitely characterizes many group exercise classes. Music provides the ‘beat’, the speed, for each exercise. Many exercisers find music a positive motivator and use music during their individual workouts while on the treadmill or resistance training. In these cases, however, the exercisers use their own music that does not necessarily provide the rhythm for the movement. The first respondent obviously felt frustrated having to adjust to movement defined by the instructor and faithfully and precisely followed by the group. Another respondent also argued that such ‘group action’ is not conducive to producing exercise leaders, but rather creates mindless followers. At the same time, the ability to work as a member of a team is often considered a positive characteristic in many work places: team players are favored. Many sports also necessitate seamless group work and collaboration between the different players. Can there be a connection between learning to move seamlessly as a group and a lack of individual initiative and leadership skills?

According to French philosopher Michel Foucault (1991), there is a definite connection between learning to move as a unit and becoming an automatic follower. Foucault called these types of individuals docile bodies: a body that is useful, but obediently never questions the ‘correct’ way of behaving. While Foucault did not study sport or exercise, many scholars have applied his analysis of bodily discipline to examine the effects of exercise beyond its physical benefits.

Foucault was concerned with a detailed analysis of how various training techniques can discipline. For him, training techniques, although apparently innocent, can be used to control individual’s behavior. He asserted that it is important to carefully analyze the small details of everyday practices to fully understand their effects. Discipline, and thus control, Foucault explained, is tightened by the effective use of space, time, and different exercise techniques.

First, Foucault explained, effective disciplinary practices require specific enclosed spaces. For example, a health club or ‘a gym’ serves as a specific enclosed space for fitness practices. These spaces are further partitioned for different purposes. For example, fitness studios are closed off from the cardio-vascular machines, resistance training machines, or the free weights area. According to Foucault, such organization provides individualized spaces for different purposes, but also allows for detailed supervision of each individual exerciser. Foucault further argued that individualized space is designed to rank its users. For example, a group exercise instructor stands in front of the class with the more experienced exercisers typically in the front row and the beginners hiding in the back. While disciplinary space fixes positions, it allows exercisers to circulate, but only within the preplanned spatial organization.

Second, Foucault argued, individuals are controlled by timetables that assure the effective use of time in purposefully defined space. These timetables are further broken down into smaller elements to increase the effectiveness of the time use and consequently, the control of the bodies involved. Most group exercise classes, for example, are broken down into clearly defined segments (warm-up, activity, cool-down) to use the time effectively to provide multiple fitness benefits in the shortest possible time. In addition, many instructors give advice regarding the correct execution of each exercise. All participants repeat the exercises identically in synch with the music. They move in precise unison leaving, ideally, no body part idle.

Finally, Foucault noted, each exercise contain successive segments with increasing complexity. The more complex segments also become lengthier. For example, choreography in exercise to music classes often consist of successive step patterns (combinations) that become increasingly complex and longer as the class advances or the participants’ skill or fitness level increases. In this tightly controlled, disciplinary environment, it is no wonder that new comers can feel they have ‘two left feet.’ Many instructors offer modifications for beginner, intermediate, and advanced participants. According to Foucault, however, in a space where everyone is to move in precise unison, opting for modification singles one out. Therefore, exercise modifications also serve to rank the participants from beginner to advanced.

According to Foucault’s logic, group exercise classes carry the characteristics of making docile bodies: they are settings in which exercises are prescribed and imposed on individual bodies carefully following the provided instruction for the most utility of their time. It is easy to assume that participants are mindless followers of ‘group action.’ Some researchers demonstrate, however, that ‘individualized’ gym activities are no less disciplinary. For example, Aycock (1992) observed that the spatial organization of a weight training gym into individualized use of each machine space and the detailed, progressive training programs carefully divided into sets with correct repetitions, rests, and amounts of weights, produce similar disciplinarity. Furthermore, the execution and amount of weight used visibly ranks the exercisers from beginners to ‘regulars.’ Aycock added that the presence of the mirror, similar to group exercise classes, provides a chance for self-surveillance, but also allows for constant surveillance of others in the space. Foucault identified such surveillance as a part of ‘panoptic’ control: the exercisers are continually controlling themselves but are also subjected to (often) invisible control of the other exercisers. In this space, the control is no longer assigned only to certain supervisors, instructors, or gym managers but everyone becomes a part of maintaining the control system. Based on this control certain types of bodies and exercise forms that produce these bodies become normal and the constant supervising gaze effectively judges anyone deviating from this normalcy. Exercisers not conforming soon become aware of being judged as not quite belonging to the space and either leave or work hard to become normal exercisers.

Physical activity settings outside of the enclosed gym space are not devoid of disciplinary techniques either. For example, Denison, Mills, and Jones (2013) demonstrate how a similar disciplinary logic defines endurance running training. Training sessions are broken down to carefully planned segments during which precise timing of each repetitive run and recovery period maximize the training effect. Detailed progressive training plans culminate into competition which clearly ranks each runner. In the absence of mirrors, the watch becomes the ever present controller of one’s body and performance. According to Denison, runners or their coaches do not often question the importance of precise timing or the progressive increase of mileage needed for a winning performance.

From Foucault’s perspective, sport and fitness practices effectively discipline bodies into docility: an invisible gaze ensures that athletes and exercisers self-survey their bodily flaws and take personal responsibility to continually work towards externally defined normalcy. Individual bodies are made into useful, efficient, obedient and unquestioning bodies, docile bodies. They are effective workers, but externally controlled bodies who have internalized the need for discipline. What if one wants to break from the docility and not be a mindless follower of group acts?

One could deduct that favouring natural settings instead of purpose built enclosures and doing random, unplanned physical activities could reverse the situation. However, as Denison demonstrates, opting for natural environments does not by itself liberate one from bodily discipline. It is also difficult to define entirely ‘unplanned’ exercise: going for a walk is still planned and recommended as a healthy exercise. Another answer would be to quit exercising entirely. Foucault reminded, however, that there are many disciplinary spaces in society beginning from schools and work places. Therefore, it does not seem plausible to avoid all this type of control in society, but its effects can be lessened.

Many exercisers also enjoy resistance training, endurance training, or group exercise classes. While some like the discipline of this training and their status as ‘normal’ exercisers, these exercise forms do not always need to produce docile followers. Exercisers can learn to think more carefully about how they use space, time the exercises, and the types of exercises they do. Group fitness instructors and personal trainers should be taught to think carefully and conceptually of the types of exercises they include in their sessions instead of resorting to simply following training manuals or repeating popular work outs. What these types of sessions would consist of is a topic for another blog.

 Works cited:

Aycock, A. (1992) The confession of the flesh: Disciplinary gaze in casual bodybuilding. Play and Culture, 5, 338-357.

Denison, J., Mills, J., & Jones, L. (2013). Effective coaching as a modernist formation. In P. Potrac, W. Gilbert, J. Denison (Eds.). The Routledge handbook of sports coaching (pp. 388-399). London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Penguin Books.

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