The packed and pulsating health clubs familiar to January gym-goers are a far cry from Ben Franklin’s candlelit eighteenth century, when a scarcity of food and transportation would have rendered running in place or calorie restriction bizarre, if insane activities. Nearly three hundred years after Franklin crafted his famous thirteen virtues, however, it is around January 1 that Americans most passionately pursue his principle of resolution to “resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.” And, they do so overwhelmingly at the gym. (Just as overwhelmingly, they struggle; less than half are still steadfastly sweating by midyear.)
Setting intentions for the new year has historical roots as distant as ancient Babylon, but Franklin’s Puritan ancestors embraced this tradition with particular gusto since it represented a sober corrective to drunken celebrations of the changing calendar. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s, however, that making resolutions became synonymous with paying for the privilege to exert oneself to exhaustion, often on top of a day of work.
Paradoxically, despite our current body-obsessed culture, it is arguably more challenging for many Americans to stay fit today than ever before. State and federal investment in physical education and public recreation programs has dropped. The most affordable foods are the least healthful. The rise of unpredictable shift labor makes planning consistent workouts challenging for many. A luxury fitness sector has largely flipped the image of the wealthy fatcat; today more familiar examples of affluence are the slender green-juice swilling spin devotée or the toned triathlete outfitted with the latest tracking gear. Notably, the Obamas’ “Let’s Move!” campaign asks Americans to make the same commitment to physical activity as President John F. Kennedy demanded almost 60 years ago, except today the White House targets the working rather than the leisured classes.
So, should you drop your New Year’s resolution to become more active? No, but in order to succeed it is worth thinking about why, beyond steep membership discounts and residual guilt over holiday indulgence, you are resolving to exercise. Will your reasons motivate you to stay the course?
Three centuries later, Franklin’s virtues remain a powerful guide.
For one, if you’re more excited about posting #sweatyselfies than the workout itself, think of humility. If you are burning a hole in your wallet thanks to the multiplying array of $200 leggings and $35 boutique fitness classes, consider frugality. A pair of sneakers and the open road is all you need for a run (free YouTube and affordable streaming options abound as well)! If you think of exercise primarily as a way to work off a midnight beer-and-pizza binge, temperance is instructive. This one is just as important in terms of binge-watching your favorite shows or playing unending rounds of Candy Crush on your phone; not only does consuming more media keep you sedentary, but studies also show the more we watch, the more we eat. One of the oldest and truest fitness maxims is that “you can’t out-exercise a poor diet,” and nothing is more discouraging than a cycle that prevents you from feeling the results of your hard work at the gym.
Franklin’s virtues are most likely to inspire an enduring fitness resolution, however, when we use them to empower rather than police our promises. A regular exercise commitment potentially brings welcome order to your whole life; signing up (and even pre-paying) on Sunday night for three fitness classes during the week incentivizes you to extricate yourself from your emails early enough to just get it done. Countless opportunities to sweat for a cause – from cancer research to education to hunger – even allow you to combine self-improvement (which can sometimes feel indulgent) with a noble commitment to generosity, which, while not on Franklin’s list, definitely compliments the other thirteen.
Finally, and most importantly – Franklin’s call to lead a virtuous life was about cultivating these values across all pursuits, all year. The New Year’s fitness resolution need not be as ill-fated and isolated as it often is today, especially since any avid exerciser knows that a meaningful commitment to wellness shapes your overall attitude and experience as much as your figure. Whether you’re busting out one more burpee than you thought you could or daring to attempt dance-cardio, you’re building the all-important muscle of industry in using your time wisely to expand your sense of your capabilities and learn new skills. At the same time, knowing when to practice moderation to hit snooze or prioritize spending time with friends translates into a commitment to fitness that fosters tranquility rather than terror you’ll miss a day or gain a pound. When you resolve to make exercise about pleasure rather than punishment, and your fitness goals about self-fulfillment rather than squeezing into skinny jeans, chances are you will not only lead a more virtuous life far beyond the gym, but you’ll be one of the few who might need a new resolution come December.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of History at The New School and the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015). Her latest research is on the history of wellness culture in the United States and she writes a “fitness history” column at Well+Good. She is the co-founder of experiential wellness education program HealthClass2.0, a Premiere Leader of the mind-body practice intenSati, and a host of the new Past Present podcast. She tweets from @nataliapetrzela.