Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Roberta Sassatelli (1999) 'Fitness Gyms and the Local Organization of Experience'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 8/10/1998      Accepted: 16/9/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


One of the peculiarities of fitness gyms is the succession of people who try and follow a training programme and are not able to stick to it. Based on ethnographic research I try to account for this phenomenon. For regular participants, fitness training is not only important for the kind of body it will hopefully produce in the long run, but also for how it is lived in the present. I will try to show that the way gyms are locally organized - spatiality and interaction rules during training - is as important for exercise adherence as the culturally shaped ideals which sustain fitness culture. In particular, gyms need to provide not only for the substantial body objectives pursued by clients but also for their expressive demands. They need to offer not only competent trainers, but also training spaces where clients may feel secure enjoying a measure of discretion and sober informality. Still, the correct attitude towards fitness work-out is not a passive lack of desire. Fitness work-out asks for the demonstration of a particular kind of desire: each client can and must learn to concentrate only on him or herself in the attempt to improve his or her own exercise performance. Elaborating on my fieldwork, I propose that the more participants in fitness measure themselves against each other and a fantasized body ideal the less will be their capacity to continue attending the gym regularly. The more the desired objectives are perceived as vital, the more participants will feel inadequate, and the more difficult will be for them to concentrate on performing each and all movements and, consequently, to construct and continue a fitness programme. The possibility of filtering body ideals while pursuing an activity which is aimed at their achievement is decisive in protecting individuals from the dangerous exposure of their inadequacies. I conclude on the nature, importance and consequences of this paradoxical construction of experience.

Body Projects; Fitness; Interaction; Involvement; Leisure; Pleasure.


With the growth of gyms and health centres in the last two decades, the social sciences have started to consider fitness training as something culturally important, something which needs to be rescued from the often a-critical and operative approaches of sport psychology and physical education. Sociologists, in particular, have focused on the body ideals associated with contemporary cultures of physical exercise in the gym. Fitness clearly responds to specific, culturally shaped body projects. Likewise, regular participants in fitness have very good reasons to join and train, reasons about whose worth they have to satisfy both themselves and the others. Few sociologists would however be comfortable with these reasons being reduced to body objectives imposed on participants by hegemonic cultural forces, no matter what are participants' actual experiences.

In this paper I start precisely from the empirical observation that, for regular participants, fitness training is not only important for the kind of body it will hopefully produce in the long run, but also for how it is lived in the present. Based on ethnographic work, I will try to show that the way gyms are organized - both their environment and the interaction rules operating during training - is as important for clients as the culturally shaped ideals which sustain fitness culture. In a word, I will try to account for an experience which is shared by most regular participants I have encountered, and which is well summarized in the words of one of them:

'the gym is important because I will not train at all at home. To go to the gym is to say "I train"; it's a place where, for an hour, no one will disturb you and then you do train. I know that gymnastics is good for me, but if I have to do it by myself, laziness wins'.

The Study and its Rationale

Fitness gyms have become rather popular, both because of their visibility in urban contexts and commercial images and because of the increasing number of participants in all Western countries. This is true also of Italy, especially the Centre-North, where I have conducted fieldwork in two different fitness gyms. Different from bodybuilding centres, fitness gyms contain a variety of exercise techniques and a colourful mix of people. As suggested by one of the most popular Italian fitness handbook, these gyms also place emphasis on the 'pleasure' of training, on 'well-being' and on the absence of 'competition' (Castiglione and Arcelli 1996). Despite such distinctiveness, the provision of fitness via commercial channels varies widely in Italy, gyms being differentiated with respect to size, facilities, variety of training, cost, number and social attributes of clients and trainers. The two gyms which I have studied during 1994/1995 constituted the extreme poles of fitness supply within the same middle-class neighbourhood[1]. The selection of two extreme cases has been instrumental to identify some of the mechanisms which define the specificity of fitness gyms as social environments organizing participants' experiences in particular ways (Yin 1989). My purpose in this paper is thus far from comparing and contrasting the two cases. Despite very important differences among every gym, this paper takes the view that it is possible to isolate some features which characterize all of them. What I will be presenting is the description of a "type" of environment. In this sense, I try to develop some analytical generalization on those mechanisms which operate with regularity in at least two very different fitness gyms. I certainly do not claim to do more than interpreting meanings and tracing their emergence in specific contexts of actions.

Material for my analysis comes mainly from three sources, participant observation, informal interviews with clients and staff, and semi-structured interviews with clients. Firstly, I participated as a client in the activities of both gyms for more than six months for several hours a day at different times, following all the different techniques and instructors. Towards the end of this period I collected and integrated in my field journal several informal interviews with clients, instructors and managers. I also produced and tested an interview schedule as to make the stories to be collected from clients more comparable. Clients to be interviewed were later selected on the basis of "theoretical sampling" (Glaser and Strauss 1978). I have tried to account for both their diverse socio-demographic attributes and their different participation profiles. Data collection was combined with a first, partial transcription of the results which facilitated the selection and the number of interviews as to approach a saturation of the main themes. The full transcripts of twenty-eight interviews with clients and the field notes were analyzed together. In a wider project, they have been integrated with the results of a qualitative analysis of specialized handbooks and magazines. Here, instead, I start from observation and participation in order to consider how the environment and the structure of interaction may facilitate a successful socialization to fitness.

Training scenes and interviews have been useful to try and pin down the organization of experience as lived by those clients who manage to train regularly[2]. Sociological literature tends to discount the fact that not all clients continue training once they have confronted the gym. Recent US data pinpoint that, independent of their socio-demographic profiles and body objectives, more than the half of those who join exercise programmes drop out within three or six months (Dishman 1988; Robinson and Rogers 1994)[3]. Situational features and the way participants experience the training context seem to be fundamental to exercise adherence (Le Unes and Nation 1996: 527 ff.) Among my informants, clients who managed to attend only irregularly and discontinuously mentioned their difficulty to 'enter' the exercise and its local requests. The experiences of such clients show clearly that they recognize the 'rationality' of fitness work-out, its being 'useful', effective and efficient in producing a 'better body', and yet they 'don't get into it', they feel 'bored', 'exposed', 'alone', 'unfocussed'. In this view, I have shifted my attention from the socio-demographic attributes of fitness participants to the way in which physical activity is carried out, and from the objectives of each technique to the mechanisms which can make fitness activities involving.

This approach stands at some distance from current perspectives. Recent sociological works typically concentrate on gender differences and the physical ideals prized within some of the most noticeable - yet not necessarily the most popular - techniques. Usually, the aim is to expose the extent to which participants incorporate oppressive forms of masculinity or femininity. The success of aerobics videos, for example, has been interpreted as evidence that women are still the victims of a patriachical regime which obliges them to worry about their appearances. According to these feminist readings women spend their time training to the exclusive advantage of the male gaze and with the effect of reproducing an uncompromising, commercially promoted body ideal. The works of Giséle Amir (1987), Nichole Dechevanne (1981) Moya Lloyd (1996) and Joseph Maguire and Louise Mansfield (1998) have proposed that aerobics tends to segregate women, that it does not promote self-acceptance and that the preoccupation with fat is analogous to the obsessions which haunt women suffering from eating disorders. Bodybuilding, in its turn, has been correlated to the creation of sub-cultural circles where femininity and masculinity are reproduced. Alan Klein's ethnography on Californian bodybuilders, for example, shows that, with all its contradictions, bodybuilding embodies the most traditional male compensatory strategy, that of muscular growth (Klein 1993). Female bodybuilders on their part seem to challenge gender dichotomies, yet during competition they have to resort to conventional feminine postures, make-up and hair styles (Lowe 1998; Mansfield and McGinn 1993).

Despite their significance, the works focusing on gender and body ideals have limits. In particular, they concentrate on extreme phenomena - where training becomes the attempt to overcome eating disorders, the surrogate for personal and social realization and even a profession. Although important, these phenomena throw a biased light onto fitness, a recreational phenomenon which is not only widespread, but also evokes in its converts more mundane and ordinary, less dire and extreme meanings. Furthermore, there is a tendency not to recognize that women (just like men) are different as much as their experiences, and that masculinity and femininity are far from being monolithic and rigid descriptions. In any case, very few experiences can be characterized as solely oppressive with the result that labeling the aspirations of fitness participants as the product of ideological domination is itself ideological. Doubts about such univocal readings have been raised within feminism itself. Pirkko Markula (1995), amongst others, has shown that 'aerobicizers critical voices have the potential to alter the course of dominant practices' and has stressed the ambivalence of aerobics' curvaceous muscularity, its being an 'hybrid' of a traditional feminine image and a stronger, androgynous one[4]. All in all, attention to gender and body ideals is rarely combined with a sufficient focus on training settings and the way regular participants experience physical activity. It is precisely to try and fill in this gap that I have undertaken my research.

The Gym Environment

Fieldwork research often starts from the most trivial in order to grasp the micro-foundation of the social. What is trivial is then discovered as fundamentally implicated in our perception of reality. This is surely the case for places like fitness gyms. Like any client, the participant observer entering a gym encounters a place where he or she may train. Still, to sustain such simplicity, the gym is constituted as a relatively complex environment, both in terms of space and time. Fitness gyms sort body practices in functionally differentiated areas, i.e. dressing-rooms and exercise spaces. They also organize these spaces through time. Both gyms analyzed opened around mid-morning and closed in the late evening. They displayed similar patterns of attendance with peak hours in the afternoon, coinciding with the end of the working day. Although different people tend to participate at different times - with housewives and pensioners of both sexes in the mid-morning, students in the early afternoon, young professional men and women at lunch-time, and the most dedicated bodybuilders at the extremes of the opening hours when no classes are going on - gym crowds can rarely be reduced to one socio-demographic profile at any time. During my fieldwork, for example, both gyms were almost never attended by women or men only. Despite the resilience of a sexual division of gym labour, all techniques - from traditionally male domains like weights to more feminine fashions such as aerobics - attracted both male and female participants. Especially during peak hours, these gyms contained an amazing variety of persons engaging in a range of diverse techniques, with the regular clients, both male and female, being amongst the most innovative and omnivorous in their choices.

Of the pettiest aspects of the organization of time and space, two are especially worth exploring, being tied to the possibility that fitness work-out be perceived as all-important despite the complexity of the environment. Firstly, every gym offers different and distinct spaces of body exercise besides spaces where the body is prepared for the exercise. The changing-room helps clients to enter the spirit of training, sustaining its specificity and suspending other relevances, stripping individuals of their external identities, equalizing their bodies into the moulding object of a serial and yet personalized training. After training, the changing-room also provides a space where clients get ready for going back to everyday reality. Space divisions are thus articulated in a particular time sequence. Within it training emerges as the central moment, a time whose quality is guaranteed by relatively rigid margins. Purified from the conflicting demands of external relevances, the time of the exercise becomes a concentrated time, focused on a specific task and condensed in its own exclusiveness. Secondly, machine training (either with vascular or weight lifting equipment) and gymnastic exercise (comprised of aerobics, step-aerobics, callanetics, stretching, soft-yoga, etc.) are generally kept separate. We may regard these as two different modalities of training whose separation responds to different organizations of expressive behaviour. Within gymnastic exercise the focus of attention is openly shared by participants who are asked to look at the trainer, imitating his or her movements and following his or her instructions. Through the simultaneous reproduction of movements, the time of training is collectivized and the space is all invested by exercise. With machine training, by contrast, time is individualized and the training space is made out of a reciprocity of civil inattention (Goffman 1963). The continuation of the exercise relies on the capacity of each client to isolate from others and to focus on a personal sequence. The differentiation of these modalities of training is fundamental to the maintenance of a smooth interaction. In their consistency, both collectivization and individualization allow for a heightened perception of the exercise rhythm as officially prescribed, adding to the strength and coherence of the interaction domains which are thus singled out[5].

Starting from these two apparently insignificant features we may come to see that, no matter what are the specific objectives of clients, their preferred techniques or the spirit of trainers, every gym needs to provide a coherent, well-structured environment. Furthermore, the peculiarity of the fitness gym as a type of environment is that it is organized as to stress the centrality of training and the coherence of training spaces. The provision of dressing-rooms and the separation of different exercise modalities help clients to perceive the relevance of training. This, in turn, helps them considering the gym as a relatively straightforward environment. Thus, even an irregular client like Christine says:

'in a gym one immediately knows what is going on, there are no misunderstandings, one has to ... odd ideas must be forgotten, it's like one is somehow forced to work out, there isn't much else'.

The matter-of-factness with which Christine, a professional in her early thirties, pronounced her verdict on the gym coincides perfectly with the somehow crude spirit of the environment. Compared to the glamorous representation of work-out situations proposed by commercial culture, exercise scenes within fitness gyms are, for the most, rather dull and unspectacular affairs. Although different discourses - including the growing wealth of handbooks and magazines about fitness - contribute to define the gym as aimed at 'shaping the body', at 'taking care' of it and 'feeling good', once clients start training these dazzling objectives withdraw in favour of a correct, seamless and prompt repetition of movements.

For a better understanding of this point we may resort to another empirical study, one which concentrates only on women and aerobics. Reporting the views of women doing aerobics in the gym, Pirkko Markula (1995) has shown that they tend to look with some suspicion at aerobics videos. Videos are described as unrealistic, with trainers and participants too much made-up, too thin, and not enough real, fit or competent. Yet 'against their own judgement, many aerobicizers still desire to look like the flawless models' (Markula 1995: 445). Markula (1995: 449-50) claims that although 'aerobics, like dieting, is part of a complex use of power over women', although 'the voices of magazines and aerobics videotapes can dominate the public representation of the perfect aerobics body', those who actually participate 'struggle to give different meanings to the ideal aerobicizing body'. She concludes that aerobicizers in her study demonstrate a 'contradictory' relation with 'the body ideal': they do not aim at 'building transgressive bodies' and yet the training 'setting is quite different from the official discourse'. Rather than deprecate such discrepancies as part of the distress that women are obliged to endure in contemporary culture, I will try explore their nature. What I shall do in the following pages is to show that for both women and men, and for all kinds of fitness activities as offered in the gyms which I have studied, regular participants learn to articulate a number of paradoxical meanings. Regular participants of all sexes are best at coming to terms with the apparently contradictory demands of fitness. In particular, they seem to be able to concentrate on physical activity, suspending, as it were, its objectives.

Processing Desires

All regular clients who participated in my study agreed on saying that the gym is a protected space where one may 'take a break', 'disengage', 'detach oneself from normal commitments'. Likewise, they often described the time spent in the gym as 'cut-off from normal life'. These experiences are all referred back to the way physical activity comes to impose itself: regular clients seem to perceive fitness work-out as something rather absorbing and compelling. Here is the account of Pamela, a clerk in her early fifties who has trained regularly for more than three years. It illustrates well the quality of training experiences as testified by most regular clients, of all sexes and sizes:

P. It takes time to digest new things ... I got accustomed to the environment, the environment got accustomed to me: no one notices me any longer, I have got no kind of problem, even to work out with machines. All in all, I know I am rather comical, but I cannot care less! R. What do you mean? P. Well, at the beginning there is always this kind of shock, I told you, like a kind of spotlight on appearances, and then there was this trainer, she had a competition spirit, but after some time you stop taking it in; also things have changed here, there's much less fashion and fads now, people got much more relaxed, there's less of a competition spirit ... also because I've managed to add weights, which at the beginning was very difficult for me: I have found my way and I can concentrate on it.

Very different are, instead, the replies of Lois a young shop assistant who has managed to attend the gym only very irregularly, starting and dropping out for about two years:

R. Let's imagine that you have recorded yourself on a video while training, how would you describe yourself? L. What I see or what I feel? R. Both ... L. You know, I see myself worse in all circumstances, I notice all my defects, all possible and imaginable stuff: the mirror really makes you ugly! With the gym, if I had to observe myself while training it would be horrible; just, with oversize stuff is better, you see much less, I don't like it watching at me, you know, it gets at you ... R. You mentioned feeling, what do you feel? L. When it works, you know, like a good day, I listen to the music, I cannot think. Maybe when you are laying down doing abdominals, but then I just think 'come on: I must make it, go on'; but when I am standing up, there's no way, I just try to follow the exercise, then it feels like it works.

Training seems to work for participants when it filters all distractions, including one's attention to one's own appearance. Under these circumstances, it has the characteristic of a world-building activity which generates its own world of meanings. A particular kind of expressive behaviour - a basic dimension of interaction comprised of both verbal and bodily signals aimed at underlining participants' involvement in the ongoing action and their reciprocal positions - is characteristic of such world. Body demeanour in training spaces is obviously divergent from everyday life expectations. Participants need to commit themselves to postures and movements which would be considered inappropriate, and even embarrassing, in most situations. As an enthusiast like Amy, an articulate student in her late twenties, says with some satisfaction, the perfect gym for her is one where

'one can sweat at ease without feeling ugly, no one is there worrying about loosing her earnings, you know, it is not a sort of show ... like showing off labeled clothes'.

Amy's statement suggests that there are some rules of glance management during training which, although typically unspoken, are very important for clients. To look at oneself in the mirror or at the instructor is conceived as a normal request of fitness activities. This is so because such looks are compatible with applying oneself to the precise execution of each movement. What could otherwise be interpreted as a display of vanity and narcissism is, in fact, explicitly promoted by trainers who ask clients to control their own postures and movements. On the contrary, to observe the movements of a neighbour client remains an ambiguous modality of glance which may or may not be part of training. This is well summarized by the way Simon, a manual worker in his mid-thirties, replies to my questions:

R. Why have you chosen this particular gym? S. It's close to my house, of course, and, sure, here at least there isn't something like a display of branded sport gears, or a display of muscles in the mirror ... I didn't know to have a good body, now I start to have a nice body, but I don't go to the gym to watch myself in the mirror, to admire my body, whereas there [in the gym I went before] it was appalling ... R. What do you mean? S. Yeah, it was some kind of a bodybuilding place, but I quitted it almost immediately, too many muscle-mad people ... here instead there is a good atmosphere R. A good atmosphere? S. I got the impression it's all normal people, that's it, normal: it's all people, also those doing aerobics, that come here because they need to take some exercise or because they want to, not because they want to show themselves around ... there instead, even women, [it was] all a show-off of bumps everywhere.

Simon's words help us considering that the substantial objectives pursued by clients may indeed conflict with their expressive demands. Observing the training scenes of two very different but equally successful gyms, I have been persuaded that, in order to thrive, gyms need to provide not only for the former but also, and more fundamentally, for the latter. They need to offer not only competent trainers, but also training spaces where clients may feel secure enjoying a measure of discretion and sober informality.

The result of such requirements is that, both during gymnastic exercise and machine training, eye contact is typically avoided. Desires - for a better body or for the body of another - are to be kept under control, they are, as it were, partially removed. Thus, if their eyes repeatedly meet, clients tend to divert them rapidly or exchange a reciprocal signal of support. Both male and female participants may also arrive to justify verbally glances which are not officially prescribed. In these circumstances clients typically haste to refer to training, furnishing or asking advice about what movements they are doing or alluding to their performances, often with some irony. Their justification strategies make their glances at others' bodies, to some extent, neutral and innocuous, re-classifying them as related to physical activity. I have elsewhere shown that during training clients and instructors tend to refer to their bodies in a peculiar way, suggesting, for example, that the body may or may not be 'adequate' to the task, it may or may not 'have energy enough' or 'keep rhythm', its movements may or may not be 'coordinated' (Sassatelli 1999). All this, helps stressing that bodies are relevant only in so far as they are training instruments: all other body specifications - being sexualized or racialized - must be continuously filtered or translated as tension release devices which participants may occasionally deploy to gain some distance from their role as defined by the training scene (Goffman 1961: 85-152).

Still, the correct attitude towards fitness work-out is not a passive lack of desire. A fuller understanding of training experiences requires some consideration of the resources available for clients to keep working out. Fitness work-out does not demand the denial of desires altogether, it rather asks for the demonstration of a particular kind of desire. If clients cannot openly compare each others' performances and bodies, each client can and must learn to concentrate only on him or herself in the attempt to improve his or her own performance. In both gyms observed, trainers incited clients to continue the exercise using metaphors of combat and challenge. During a difficult step sequence fat is 'burnt' and 'attacked', at the end of an aerobics class all participants have to 'hold on up to the breaking-point'. Machine training also requires that each participant 'pushes to the limits of one's own strength'. In the exercise spaces clients are thus asked to enter a world where there is no competition with other participants, at least officially. This is so not because every one is or will be equal, but because everyone is provided with an equivalent body whose performances can and should be the object of a continuous self-challenge[6]. In all fitness activities which I have joined, trainers tended to prize effort, zeal and labour. They also stressed that the 'mere fact' of going to the gym 'when there are so many other things to do' was 'really a proof of value' and insisted that 'the only important thing is to put yourself into it, all the rest will follow'.

Hence, we may consider that fitness training be inspired by a self-agonistic motivational logic. A motivational logic is not to be understood as the actual individual motivation for training, but as the form which motivation can and should take when subjects enact their desire during physical activity. Self-agonism works as to process desires, like a discourse on motives which stimulates the local re-construction of individual desires in a prescribed form (Burke 1963; Wright Mills 1940). Now, we may notice that it is precisely the intrinsic relevance of the exercise which is stressed by participants being asked to 'do ever better and ever more'. Regular clients themselves assert that if they are 'absorbed' in carrying out each movement, this is precisely because they are engaged in a self-challenge where 'only doing better is important'. Thus a devoted convert like Amy points out that body ideals and body projects are kept in the background while training:

'I am not really looking for the result. I don't want to become like Cindy Crawford in a month, I don't have an external goal, but I put myself into trial, I challenge myself ... then, I see that if I go to the gym for a month I get more toned muscles and I get fitter'.

Nothing contrasts more with this account than the experiences of irregular clients. Although recognising that self-agonism is fundamental to enter the spirit of training, clients who quickly get disaffected or manage only an irregular attendance find such attitude difficult: they are 'not engaged in doing every day a little better' and tend to think 'too much of the parts of the body' which 'must be improved'. From the content of their narratives, these clients seem to swing between the wrong motivations and the impression of being 'forced' to train. Despite all her matter-of-factness Christine, for example, tells me in a confidential tone:

'I am lazy, but I do not think it is because of this [that I cannot train regularly], you see, it's that I do not get the feeling for it, I don't feel pushed to do every day a little better of the day before, when I'm there sweating I just think that I should get a better body, like my hips or that ... There are people here who really get into training just for the sake of it; one may push to do every movement better and better, but I really think it's ridiculous: you see, if you think about it these are rather ridiculous exercises, you will never ever repeat them on the beach; so what, doing them better is useless - well, really it is useful because you want to go to the beach with a proper bump! That's it, maybe I just cannot forget it, it feels ridiculous ... even boring'.

To be sure, those who regularly practice improve their exercise performances. Some complicity can develop amongst habitual clients which may, as a result, disconnect from other participants. Similar processes have been observed by Alan Klein (1993: 46-80) in bodybuilding centres, where prestigious positions are occupied by professional and semi-professional bodybuilders who train together and disengage from all those converts who have not developed similar bodies and capacities. Observing an aerobics class for women only Joseph Maguire and Louise Mansfield (1998: 117 and 123) have also maintained that 'established women are relatively empowered in the aerobics context via access to exercise knowledge, increased fitness and the achievement of acceptable bodies' as to 'displaying their slim toned bodies' to the expenses of the 'outsiders' that are not as much fit, cannot follow properly and experiment shame and powerlessness. Still, in all activities of the two gyms which I have studied, the creation of privileged and exclusive groups has emerged as marginal. This is so not only because, when they exist, these processes concern a tiny minority of clients, but also, and more fundamentally, because, like seduction, voyeurism or exhibitionism, competition amongst clients and the creation of exclusive élites are kept latent. During training, both in classes or with machines, regular clients themselves control such attitudes. Despite being proud of their capacities and carrying on their bodies the visible signs of their efforts, many enthusiasts stigmatize, no less than trainers, overtly competitive or narcissistic manners. Such conducts are defined as 'fanatic', 'abnormal', 'excessive'. Invited to tell of a particularly gratifying event, many of these clients have recalled situations where trainers dedicated time just to them, providing personal advices. Indeed, in the two cases I have considered, those gym enthusiasts wanting a competitive confirmation of their superiority ended up training out of peak hours, or tried to develop a sustained exchange with one particular trainer at the margins of the exercise spaces and outside classes, often speculating of a career as themselves trainers.

As we shall see, the lack of challenge with external opponents and the difficulty to get one's own achievements appraised and weighted is replaced by novelty. The fitness gym seems to deny scarcity - of desires, capacities, honours, and so on. This type of environment is rather founded on the generation of a pluralistic abundance which offers non-competitive gratifications. As suggested by regular clients, in order to continue training when exercise capacities improve, one needs to get ever new incentives, to try more difficult things, to explore new techniques and trainers. And yet again, all this avoiding the risk of becoming ridiculous and of feeling excluded or exposed.

Framing and pleasures

In the foregoing discussion I have tried to resume one of the key insights of classical microsociological theory in order to illuminate the experiences of participants in fitness and the interaction arrangements which facilitate a successful initiation to the gym. Borrowing Erving Goffman's words (1982: 8), it is 'reductive' to claim that 'all macrosociological features of society' are an 'intermittently existing composite of what can be traced back to the reality of encounters' or that encounters are determined by such macrosociological, substantive features as values and socio-economic positions. Deploying a distinction between the procedural and the substantive, I have thereby shown that body ideals are but a small part of the meanings which are put at work during fitness activities. Different from irregular participants, regular clients are able to get involved in physical activity, to feel at ease, to find ways of enjoying what they are doing well beyond the objectives which have brought them into the gym. These experiences are facilitated by a particular organization of interaction. Although never guaranteed, involvement cannot be understood as purely an accidental impression or as the result of some stable psychological traits. Indeed, having observed how regular and irregular clients live the training scene, I propose that involvement be produced by expressive behaviour and self-agonism working as practical rules which 'frame' the exercise.

The notion of 'frame' is particularly useful as to understand how physical activity imposes itself upon clients' attention. Goffman (1974: 10-11) has deployed this concept to indicate those 'principles of organization which govern events - at least social ones - and our subjective involvement in them'[7]. As we have seen, training is not only the product of the availability of a well-structured, ad hoc environment, the gym. The numerous techniques of the fitness gym are also the product of a particular 'frame', of a 'context of understanding' and a set of 'organizational premises - sustained both in mind and in activity' (Goffman 1974: 247 and 39) which orientate participants' perceptions inside such context. This is true, to some extent, of every social occasion, in so far as they are relatively coherent scenes defined by a set of taken-for-granted meanings. Still, we may regard fitness work-out as a 'framed activity' proper. Much more than in other ordinary situations, physical activity in the gym furnishes relatively clear indications about what is right or wrong in the specific situation. This happens thanks to the prominence of the framing function: while they are working out it is crucial that participants can continue remembering that what they are doing is to take part in a fitness session. Fitness activities are thus characterized by their relative immediacy, their almost surreal clarity. This is - like in play - the result of the capacity to sustain one particularly stringent frame while striving to 'get back to the absolute innocence of communication by means of pure mood-signs' (Bateson 1972: 183; See also Sutton-Smith and Kelly-Byrne 1984).

Involvement is thus both the affective product of a successful framing and a signal of the reality of the training scene. Properly expressed, each participant's involvement in the official focus of attention, the exercise, stabilizes and consolidates the definition of the situation[8]. With their involvement participants say to each other what their intentions and attitudes are. They may thereby get some confirmation of the world of meanings commanded by fitness work-out and ascertain the temporary irrelevance of other, different worlds. Expressive behaviour and self-agonism provide the 'transformation rules' which define what kind of involvement is appropriate and what is to be given value during training (Goffman 1961: 27ff. and 1974: 40ff). As we have seen, they block, select and transform some properties of everyday interaction and some attributes of the participants. Expressive behaviour shapes expectations so that individuals may concentrate only on working out, moving, observing and exposing their bodies to the glances of the others on the understanding that they are clients, ceremonially equivalent and formally equal. To underline the intrinsic relevance of physical activity, self-agonism asks people to abstract not only from their roles and external attributes, but also from the goals they are deemed to achieve through training. To summarize, we can say that the exercise frame asks to articulate a paradox: in order to continue training, it is important to filter locally those ideals and objectives which nevertheless legitimize fitness activities[9]. Success or failure to articulate this paradox accounts for clients' involvement in the exercise and for their capacity to continue with it. Involvement in the exercise indeed cuts out a procedural domain. Inside it, the proceeding of action according to locally relevant rules is stressed. What comes before and after the flow of action - the ends which action is aimed at and the desires which it hopes to fulfil - is suspended.

If we conceive of fitness work-out as a framed activity, we may easily see that something which holds true for play applies here as well. Not all people manage to train, just like not every one succeeds in playing. The question is not so much being able to play to the rules, but being able to play at all, to enjoy it. Framing indeed is compatible with some amount of alienation from interaction, provided that those who are not feeling involved do not repeatedly challenge the definition of the situation. As to the gym, this point is conceptualized by saying that not for all participants framing is successful affectively, that they may feel constrained, embarrassed or puzzled by the rules which define the training scene as a particular world of meanings. And, as we have seen, these feelings poignantly coincide with the experiences of irregular gym goers. Correspondingly, the role of the exercise frame is fully accomplished when, while they are training, people do not need to think about the nature of their actions and do not step out of the actuality of the exercises. When framing is successful, clients feel natural and at ease and the ongoing action is all relevant. For regular clients, in fact, physical activity is experienced as both important per se and as compelling in its actuality. As external long-term projects and allegiances have to be suspended, these clients seem to experience a condensation of perception onto the present.

Indeed, the analogy with play becomes more intriguing when dealing with how regular participants perceive the time they spend training. Although the gym is a relatively serious and consequential occasion, during training it offers a structured opportunity of experiencing a kind of involvement which is described with similar words to those typically associated with play (Csikszentmihalyi 1982; Goffman 1961). Regular clients define their involvement in the exercise as 'fun'. Barbara, a young university student who trains almost everyday since a few years, explains that it is precisely because she 'feels' she must 'give her best' that she has developed a 'real passion' for the exercise and that she gets 'a great time' out of it. She mentions many of the elements which are lived as fun:

'It's since I have started step that I got this passion. I enjoy it because when one has learnt the basic moves, each session can be put together then: one goes to the gym also because one wants to relax, [I mean] mentally, because one feels involved, if one had to stay there to learn all the moves! ... I feel I can do step at my best, it's in my essence now, there's a base which I recognize and then every time something new which pushes me on. I've got the chance of doing different things but of the same style which I like'.

Habitual gym goers maintain that the possibility of being 'involved' has 'helped' them to 'train regularly'. They not only qualify their sensations of involvement as fun, they also link fun to their capacity to carry on with fitness. Continuing her story Barbara reveals that she had 'decided' to go to the gym because she wanted to 'get slimmer'. Yet, not only has she realized that fitness 'tones' but 'does not make you loose weight', but also, and more importantly, she knows that she could not continue if she would not enjoy it:

'I do it also because of my body, because I've seen it changing gradually since I work out, but much of it is in the pleasure, because I enjoy myself; otherwise after a year, if it is only to slim down or to ameliorate your body, one does not go on, one gets bored: it's a rule!'.

Another enthusiast like James, a professional in his early thirties, plainly summarizes the extrinsic relevance of enjoyment: 'it's like that: only when I realized that it could be fun, I felt I could continue training'.

Involvement in carrying out the exercise that be, not only validates the work-out scene, it also validates the actors' capacity for exercising. Regular clients' narratives show that involvement fosters sensations of body 'control' as well as 'power', 'strength', 'agility', 'harmony', 'expressivity'. These are all feelings of 'accomplishment' which are easily classified as 'satisfaction' for one's own performance. Living the exercise as a meaningful present, abstracting from all those parts of themselves which do not fit with the exercise, knowing what to do and what is next, clients may obtain a confirmation of their value and they may come to deal with the situation more naturally. Frank, a middle-aged university professor who has trained for over a year, has learnt to 'watch himself' during physical activity and no longer feels 'uneasy like at the beginning': 'I know the environment better' - he maintains - 'and also I feel I can make it, I see that I get better at it; this gives me more confidence'. And so feels Anne, a part-time secretary herself middle-aged, who confirms that she 'gets quite a bit of satisfaction from following a new sequence' when she sees that she has 'learnt it', or from realizing that she has 'got to the end' of the session. In these situations, Anne continues, 'I say to myself: "well done, well done, it was tough!" ... It's a satisfaction, [it's] acquiring trust and confidence'.

Comparing the narratives of regular and irregular clients who have participated to my research, I shall now address the nature and importance of satisfaction. Satisfaction appears as correlated to regular clients having learnt to look at themselves in a particular way. All clients are invited to scrutinize their own training bodies in order to rectify their movements but without loosing confidence. When confronted with the mirror, most irregular clients tend to feel discouraged, whereas regular clients display a rather more complex attitude. It is precisely the most expert and loyal clients who maintain that it is important both to 'like oneself enough' and to 'criticize oneself as to be able to correct oneself'.

As it should now be clear, developing the ability to observe oneself in a critical but positive way, neither competitive nor self-destructive, is favoured by the way fitness work-out is framed. However, it is a precious skill, a real conquest to be constructed day by day. Even gym fans may occasionally experiment unpleasant sensations of inadequacy or embarrassment, both with respect to their bodies and their performances. Still, these clients have learnt to use some 'little tricks', which, as they say, allow them to 'get into' the exercises that be. Asked to describe how they cope with training, Pamela and Frank reply with a subtle giggle. Pamela appreciates discretion, and at the same time, turns her physical shortcomings up side down:

'I must be rather funny! I certainly do not have an athletic build, I've got a large bump, I've got a bump of almost one hundred [centimetres] and my waist is thin, but you see, it is something I like! I like fleshy women, plentiful in some parts, but clearly, seen with a tony doing some work-out, I smile at myself, but without any problem: I accept myself! If I really had to change something of myself I would make myself ten centimetres taller'.

A similar story is told by Frank, who reveals:

'I was not accustomed to watch myself in the mirror ... in the gym however one must look at oneself in the mirror to carry out the exercises. To see whether I am doing the right movement, I have then started watching myself ... Sure, I see some defects, but I also see things that I didn't expect: that I am taller than I thought, and still passable. Then, as I am going on, [I see] that I do all things better, [that] I am more agile and stronger'.

Regular clients suggest that the gym has made them more aware of their defects while providing ways to accommodate and overcome such defects. They have also ostensibly learnt to appreciate their capacity to carry out the exercises and seem to master their satisfaction in order continue with fitness. Satisfaction may thus be conceived as a second order pleasure, a pleasure which is linked to the acquisition of a competence to appreciate one's training performances.

This issue is much alive in the stories of freshers - clients who have encountered the gym since few months or weeks only - and, in particular, of those freshers who display and declare their enthusiasm and dedication. The case of Jenny, a middle-aged professional, is emblematical. Jenny has learnt very quickly to appreciate her improvements in following the exercises and to exploit the confidence thus gained to persevere. She declares with some eagerness:

'the first time I've gone to this gym, I've done just soft stuff and at the beginning even that was tough! Then, slowly, I have started to do other things, also step. I cherish seeing that I manage with it better ... this pushes me to go on even if I am tired'.

Luke, a sale agent in his late thirties who has quickly become a fitness devotee, says with some pride that thanks to the gym he has gained 'new energy': 'I can now do things' - he explains - 'that I can't believe I could do, not even when I was a teenager!'. Luke, who trains with machines, both steps and bikes and weight lifting equipment, is ironic about his performances. Still the satisfaction he has gained from performance improvement will soon be deployed to vary his training:

R. How would you describe yourself while you are training? L. [Laughter] A person that is close to dying of his efforts, someone who almost says 'I give up', but then when I get to the last exercise, I tell to myself 'this time I have made it, too!' R. What makes you get there? L. The will to do it. I have started with these steps, and the first day, two minutes and I was already finished! Now, instead, I'm up to thirty minutes, and I want to get up to sixty! It's a big boost, you see you can make it. R. So what are you plans? L. I will start going to some classes in October. I've got a programme which I would like to go on for very long: I start now to have some stamina; in order to get it and to be able to train well also doing classes, I needed to train first [alone], now, at my pace, I will start new things R. Why? L. Also to get a more balanced training, something which does some good to you all around ...

These narratives contrast with those produced by the most sceptical and dissatisfied freshers. When questioned about their fitness experiences, dissatisfied freshers tend to trace their efforts immediately back to extrinsic rewards. The link between efforts and rewards is not, in their case, mediated by satisfaction. Donna, for example, dislikes the lack of official competition, yet for her 'to feel that one has done something intense is very important'. Still her words illustrate how far from the spirit of training are the bits of gratification she may haphazardly get:

'sometimes I fell satisfied, sometimes I don't, it's just like it ... In general I cannot really follow all the steps they are showing you, then I feel like a couch potato and I don't like it. But, maybe, if I work with heavier weights than all the others I feel good; In that case, yeah, I feel that one is really doing something to make one's own body more toned, more energetic'.

In this story satisfaction is portrayed as an exceptional experience while the projectual tone typical of the most eager freshers disappears. Donna, on the one hand, draws on agonism and precipitates to the extrinsic advantages of fitness, on the other, she does not conceive of her fitness participation as a trajectory. On the contrary, she relies on what gets provided to her by an institution which she feels alien. In a word, she lives physical activity as an event which is beyond her control and does not think it an option to select techniques and to govern satisfaction in order to better manage participation.

If we try and gain some general points from these stories, we may say that for the most eager freshers the sensations of physical achievement experimented while training are classified as proofs of forgotten personal qualities. Satisfaction cannot and must not distract participants from performing with attention all movements. Despite being filtered, like other sentiments and motivations, by the sovereign importance of the prompt proceeding of action, satisfaction goes beyond involvement. Satisfaction is thus a first, essential link between the present of the exercise and the body projects which such present is directed to, between locally relevant motivations and extrinsic rewards.

Training Programmes

We may now go back to all enthusiasts, both freshers and experts, and see that they sapiently dose intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, with satisfaction, a second order pleasure referred to performance improvement, helping organizing the immediacy of physical activity in a programmatic manner. Enthusiasts are both gratified by their progress in training and learn to consider the time spent in the gym as part of a larger project. They both feel that they 'can make it well' and perceive that their efforts are 'useful', that they 'improve' their bodies. Enthusiasts are not only those who get properly involved into the exercise as a meaningful present. They also, as it were, obtain from involvement the capacity to treasure their performances thus attributing a diachronic dimension to the time spent training. It does not come to a surprise that, when they tell of their experiences, they also present a chronicle of their gym career and qualify training as a project to be accomplished. It is like a well-organized sequence of sessions that their capacity to get into physical activity becomes a training programme proper, a project aimed at gaining some body amelioration.

Now, we may appreciate the local organization of experience coming full circle. The bodily improvements that clients are after get altered in the course of their participation. This is both because, as they continue going to the gym, most clients construct training programmes comprised of techniques which give them some satisfaction and because their body projects change. As I have anticipated, in the two gyms which I have studied it was precisely habitual clients who had come to appreciate exercise techniques that they had not initially considered. These clients had learnt to 'appropriate' the gym, its various spaces and physical activities, often combining different techniques in an original way. Some had even come to select only those portions which they preferred within a particular class. This is precisely what Pamela had done:

'I never liked the initial bits, I don't like to do warming-up, aerobics, I hate it! [I take classes, but] I avoid the beginning with all the initial jumpings: they are boring! I prefer to do some weights, and then I get to the class when they do abds and bumps'.

Pamela's story continues with a plentiful of details which demonstrate how she has slowly learnt 'digesting' those 'novelties' which she preferred, unfamiliar as they might have felt at the beginning:

'weights and machines, it took me almost a year and a half to feel I really wanted to do them ... I work only on my legs and arms and, time after time, I have added more repetitions. I have much stronger legs and arms now, I have seen something, really, I have seen it: my legs from the knees up to my feet have always been slim, a bit crookedish, and with training, I got visibly thicker calves, as a result I've got much straighter legs, can you believe it!?'

By choosing techniques they feel comfortable with, regular clients seem to approach new bodily images, modifying objectives which they initially hoped for. We have already mentioned an enthusiast like Barbara shifting her earliest preoccupation with getting slimmer to an appreciation of 'tone', following a path that so many habitual clients, both men and women, have traveled[10]. A different but equally keen client like Frank recalls that when he decided to go to the gym, he had some doubts because he thought that the gym be a place to 'pump up your muscles'. Still, he started only with weights and anaerobic appliances. Very soon however, he tried some new techniques, and in a while he was already training his 'own way': still using machines, 'but without charging them with weights', and doing 'a lot of stretching, soft gym, and tai-chi'. He has thereby come to consider that:

'I made a mistake, doing all these exercises for arms and shoulders, too much on some spots. I'm sure, I was really exaggerating with my shoulders, Lory [one the gym trainers] tempted me into other things ... it's also because I have realized that I would have been much less in good form ... less mobility, less tone, you know, physical tone in general, less rapidity in all movements'.

For all their diversity, the trainers and managers in the two fitness gyms which I have observed insisted on a point: they stressed that clients should consider their gym as a place where each person has to find his or her way of training by using the array of techniques available and by making the most of all novelties. The possibility of choosing among different techniques is concretely underlined, yet again, by some apparently obvious minutia: all techniques are easily accessible; their place on the timetable varies over the week; small notices in the hall promote new techniques or machines, etc. Above all, the selection and/or combination of different techniques is symbolically supported by all of them being presented as close substitutes, i.e. alternatives whose efficacy is guaranteed. Although different in terms of both the individual resources they call forth and the physical qualities they promote, the activities of a fitness gym are portrayed by trainers as 'equally good' and 'positive', effectively 'available' to each client.

Such equivalence may be traced back to the gym being a commercial institution, thriving on the multitude of individual desires and trying to respond to all. This commercial vocation finds its expression in pluralism. Once again Frank verbalizes well this point:

'in the [fitness] gym there are many things to do, aerobics, weights step, soft gym, dancing ... a collection of things which all have a sole aim: how to take some exercise for someone who lives in a city'.

As Frank's apparently ingenuous words suggest, the gym pluralism means that the diversity of individual desires is both stimulated and governed by fitness. Even a young woman like Amy maintains that the gym helps appreciating a body 'in good shape', 'vigorous' and 'energetic', and that precisely because 'everyone can go [to the gym] and get these characteristics', the fit body appears to address and embrace all. There is thus a strong tendency to bond clients' multifarious desires to a minimum common denominator. The better body promised by fitness is, above all, a 'toned' body which 'keeps moving' by taking some 'proper', 'specific' exercise. Thus a recent handbook focusing only on stretching does not do without inviting the reader to consider that

'it has little importance which discipline one has chosen to practice. What we have to look forward to it's just a healthy physical form, with toned and resistant muscles, well oiled joints, all the organs functioning properly and, naturally, a good balance between height and weight' (Rizzi 1992: 8).

Although I do not have the space to develop this issue here, the stories of most regular clients reveal that a 'toned' body together with the possibility of 'relaxing tensions' and 'getting more energy' outclass their vague initial ambitions of beauty, thinness or muscularity (Sassatelli forthcoming). Rather than the absence of an aesthetic dimension, the prominence of the 'fit body' emphasises that some more subtle and less conspicuous ideals than those which have initially driven clients to the gym become important for people who continue training. For the purposes of this paper, we may thereby appreciate that the fitness gym not only realizes, but also specifies individuals' desires, with the local organization of experience contributing to making desires grow in a particular direction.

Concluding Remarks

One of the peculiarities of fitness gyms is the succession of people who try and follow a training programme and are not able to stick to it. As I have suggested at the beginning of this paper, there is evidence that many of those who join gym programmes drop out rapidly. The clients, trainers, and managers of the gyms which I have studied agree in claiming that many people sign up when they perceive the need of taking some care of their bodies, in moments when the body ideals which fitness is deemed to achieve are more pressing, both for social and personal reasons - i.e. in the late spring when people think of the beach or after a disease. Clients' desertions, nevertheless, cannot be appropriately explained by the sudden deficit of pressure, or by the impending triviality of the initial body objectives. Viceversa, if body ideals and objectives were the only thing important, if cultural pressures were all-powerful and the way physical activity is organized were irrelevant, we would not have many enthusiasts behaving as we have seen they do, i.e. learning to appreciate body ideals and exercise techniques different from those which they begun with, demanding and enjoying a specific world of meanings which pushes them to train.

Leisure studies and sport psychology have put forward the hypothesis that the perception of a wide divergence between expected benefits and concrete body features has a negative influence on training motivation, and have stressed that physical activity can discourage participants when it cannot be considered as a non competitive activity (Le Unes and Nation 1996; Markland and Hardy 1993; Roskies et als. 1986). Elaborating on these points and on what I have witnessed in my fieldwork, I propose that the more participants in fitness measure themselves against each other and a fantasized body ideal the less will be their capacity to continue attending the gym regularly. The more the desired objectives are perceived as vital, the more participants will feel inadequate, and the more difficult will be for them to concentrate on performing each and all movements and, consequently, to construct and continue a fitness programme. To be sure, from a structural perspective some categories of people have greater incentives to go to the gym because of the value that body capital has for them. A well-groomed body conforming to cultural norms is particularly important for young women, and those persons whose physical characteristics differ widely from what is culturally privileged (Bourdieu 1978; 1979 and Shilling 1993). Still, the possibility of filtering body ideals while pursuing an activity which is aimed at their achievement is decisive in protecting individuals from the dangerous exposure of their inadequacies. In a domain of action like gym training, which is otherwise defined as consequential and which is characterized by a limited and rigidly prescribed focus of attention, such a spirit is fundamental. We may now come and see how conducive, although never fully accomplished, is fitness framing. With its complex but relatively clear emotional structure, such frame is organized as to offer precisely those clients who are most interested in what they may gain from their efforts a possibility of getting involved in the ongoing activity by escaping their demanding projections. Here we understand to what extent encounters may provide social actors with rules and meanings which cannot be reduced to wider structural variables while being subtly and even paradoxically connected with these.

If we try to confront more critically the wider theoretical relevance of all this, two issues come to mind. Firstly, the limits of rational models of choice for understanding fitness are exposed. We may say that if the value of fitness work-out rests on the creation of a calculating self which bestows value on his or her practices, and who re-constructs his or her training story as a project of well-being, the reality of fitness rests on a body-mind involvement in the actuality of the exercise. As Barry Glassner (1989; 1990) has underlined, participants in fitness understand themselves as actors who organize their present so as to dispose of their future. Without a time which is organized for them as a meaningful present, though, they find it very difficult to stick onto their projects. It is only through the local production of a worthwhile present that fitness gyms manage to create a subject who may choose to discipline him or herself. As we have seen, experiencing physical activity as a present is both fundamental for the self who has good reasons to train, and arrives to influence these very reasons.

Secondly, a post-idealist, sociological view on pleasure and leisure is underscored. Gym scenes show very well how deceptive may be the notion of free time. Training in the gym is essentially a liberated time, an interval rescued from those conventions in Western societies which attribute to body restraint a positional function, and from the different embodied roles that people embrace, especially for their jobs. Fitness work-out, however, cannot be described as a time free from all regulation. On the contrary, it is founded on shared rules and on rigidly codified practices. However, while training is not an occasion for unfettered physical and emotional expression, neither it is a prison of deferred gratifications which participants can enjoy only when their bodies begin to conform to ideal measures. Precisely by appropriating the rules which frame fitness activities, regular participants seem to experiment some pleasure, both as immediate fun and as satisfaction for their capacities. The observer would miss the point denying the positive quality of such experiences, yet he or she would be equally mistaken not to see how serious and problematic they may be.

The time spent in the gym, in fact, is not a distraction without consequences: although it is perceived as leisure and opposed to work, it remains a productive time. As we have seen, the fun in fitness has very serious outcomes. On the one hand, it pushes people to train. On the other, it produces effects on the body which are positively valued in everyday reality. In this context accepting oneself is crucial for being able to change. Only learning to look at themselves in a critical but positive way, participants will be able to transform - often very modestly - their bodies. It is clear that these paradoxes contain ambivalent possibilities: on the one hand they may help individuals to live happily together with their contradictions, on the other, precisely because of this, they do not eliminate such contradictions and give way to aequilibria which are always unstable.


1 Some details of the two gyms may help the reader. 'Shape' was described by clients and trainers as 'well-known', 'up-dated' and 'fashionable'. Fees were slightly above average compared to the other gyms in town. During the period of fieldwork it had more than six hundred costumers, well distributed between men and women of all ages. There was a pool of eleven trainers altogether, for the impressive machine area and for the many different classes. Some accessory services such as massages were also provided. 'BodyMove' was for many reasons a very different place. Its architecture had an understated character and clients described it as a 'pretty much arranged', 'tiny and cheaply set up' environment also telling 'a sense of familiarity'. This was partly due to the smaller number of clients who were around two hundreds during fieldwork. Clients were also much more homogenous, with women accounting for approximately two thirds of the participants. The machine area was very small with new but few implements, while classes were widely differentiated including also yoga, tai-chi and modern dancing. Of the six trainers, all were women but one.

2 As for the actual presentation of the findings, the real names of the clients, instructors and managers of the gyms concerned have been changed to protect confidentiality. Unless a bibliographic source is indicated, words or phrases in quotes are drawn from interviews and conversations with clients and trainers or from gym scenes.

3 A recent study on loyalty to fitness has observed, for example, that some classical social determinants (age, gender and education) do not explain more than 22% of the variance in exercise adherence (Park 1996). More in general, on the limitations of gender, age, education and class distinctions to explain participation to physical activities see the literature review by Janet Stockdale (1989).

4 Similar points are also made by Regina Kenen (1987), Helen Lenskyi (1994) and Margaret Morse (1987/8). See also the works of Catherine Louveau (1981) and Michèle Metoudi (1997) stressing that men are increasingly under pressure for body presentation and that male and female body ideals are getting closer. For a critique of traditional feminist approaches which is internal to feminist theory see the influential works of Judith Butler (1990; 1993).

5 The rhythm of the exercise requires time to be precisely subdivided into exact and minimal units. These are underlined by trainers's instructions and\or by the built-in characteristics of machines. What it is interesting to notice here is not just the fact that similar arrangements are geared toward the docile usefulness of the body, as Foucault (1975) has vividly illustrated for disciplinary institutions. More important is the fact that to each movement is assigned a duration which becomes its condition of efficacy. Time is thereby thoroughly utilized, each single moment becoming quality time, time with a high rate of utility.

6. In this sense fitness is different from most traditional sports in whose practical discourse, as well summarized by Juha Heikkala (1993: 403) , 'discipline is justified because the goal (victory) demands it ... Victory refers to the core element of sport, namely competing' and is founded on the production of a 'momentary hierarchy of performances' and on the 'scarcity' of the positions 'at the top of the hierarchy'.

7 Developing Bateson's idea that play illustrates our capacity to make sense of situations on the basis of a message or a frame of meaning which guides our orientation within them (Bateson 1972), Goffman deployed the notion of frame in his own work on games (Goffman 1961) and later elaborated it in Frame Analysis (Goffman 1974) where he considers the experience of social actors as the enmeshing oscillation of a multiplicity of everyday life frames. The notion of frame has been appropriated by a host of disciplines which have placed a number of different emphases on it (Tannen 1993). For a critical discussion of Goffman's notion of frame see Gonos (1977) and Wootton and Drew, eds (1988).

8 Paraphrasing Bateson's well-know statement about the cognitive function of framing, we may say that properly expressed involvement works as a 'meta-communicative message', i.e. a message which guides the evaluation of the messages contained in the picture it has delineated. Participants' involvement, their obvious attention to trainers' movements, their concentrated faces, their sweated gears, their going on training despite meagre performances or poor physical qualities, contribute to re-state the message 'this is a training session' (See Bateson 1972).

9 Enthusiasts and regular clients' descriptions of their initiation to training indicate that, in order to enter the exercise, they need to take seriously, trust and endorse the continuous indexing of the activities within it as just part of a training session. This allows participants to take these very activities less seriously, to consider them as part of an encapsulated and highly specific micro-reality. Fitness work-out has thereby a particular emotional structure, both similar to and different from that of play. The spirit which participants are asked to embrace independently of their own emotions if they want continue training mirrors that of play. We may define play as a domain of non-serious seriousness, a specialized reality connected to the wider social world through a membrane which makes it inconsequential, and thus important in itself and highly involving. Fitness work-out is instead a domain of serious non-seriousness, a serious social domain which regulates its own seriousness as to facilitate attention to the proceeding of action. Still, we may consider that both emotional structures help to govern paradoxes and to break a series of double-binds (Bateson 1972; Elias 1983). In the gym some key double-binds may be indicated, such as the lower the training performance, the higher the difficulty to sustain the reality of training and thus to ameliorate performances; or that the more important the body projects pursued by training, the less individuals are able to concentrate in doing it.

10 Despite all differences among men and women, younger and older people, similarities are more significant. Although they often identify different critical spots, the male and female participants I have interviewed have identified these spots with their 'fattest' parts: they have declared to train in order to 'reduce fat' - which is seen as something 'useless'; and 'augment muscles' - which are described as 'efficient', 'reactive', 'elastic'. Fitness training does not help diminishing the body, even though gym goers are discouraged to develop an extreme muscularity. This has been noticed for women aerobicizers, but I have observed it also among male fitness participants. In the refusal of big and visible muscles there is thus something more than a 'patriachical domination over women' predicated on the idea that men are and should remain biologically superior, that is stronger and bigger (Bordo 1993; Dinnerstein and Weitz 1998; Lloyd 1996; Maguire and Mansfield 1998). Not only female fitness participants, like their male counterparts, do not desire a fragile slenderness, but also the 'fit body' mixes typically male body qualities (such as force) with typically female ones (such as coordination).


This paper is a revised version of an essay which has received a commendation by the ISA for the Young Sociologists Worldwide Contest, 1995-1997. I would like to thank all SocResONLINE anonymous referees for their truly useful suggestions. I would also like to acknowledge all clients, instructors and managers for their inspiring collaboration.


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