Book review: Let’s Get Physical

Heavy sigh. 

You need to watch your weight.

There it is, the blunt, unavoidable truth, now that the holidays are over and the parties are done. You need to have cookie-calories shed, poundcake pounds lost, flan flab melted. Or you need to hide the scale in a closet, find “Let’s Get Physical” by Danielle Friedman, and then thank your foremothers for their activities.

Bonnie Prudden was on the top of the world.

At 42 years old, she had a new career (on TV!), her daughters were doing well on their own, and Prudden was enjoying a bit of fame doing something she loved: exercising. 

In that late summer of 1957, Prudden was a true anomaly. Women didn’t exercise in those days; they were too delicate and besides, exercise had the potential to damage a woman, physically. Women’s bodies were not meant for it. Nope, exercise was for men and boys. Period.

But there was Prudden – who was a bit of a rebel – and whose Institute for Physical Fitness (opened in 1954) and televised exercises both intrigued Americans, including politicians who “vowed to create a special council to improve the fitness of the nation’s kids.”

Fashions in the 1960s gave women more impetus to exercise, and they learned to love how it made them feel. Running – another thing women previously avoided – became popular, though the first woman to run the Boston Marathon was mercilessly heckled and assaulted, and sports bras didn’t become a thing until 1977. Title IX gave girls the chance to be as active and sports-minded as were their brothers and boyfriends. Aerobic dancing caught on, and it was fun! Jane Fonda made it okay to exercise to a video, though VCRs were rather pricey; women picked up weight lifting and body building, ThighMasters and Buns of Steel; they embraced various kinds of yoga for mind and body; and they know now that it’s not the metal in the muscles that’s important, it’s the overall health of the body…

Sit up straight, shoulders back, hiney tucked. There. That’s the perfect position for reading “Let’s Get Physical.”

Or you can sprawl on the sofa but you probably won’t want to, once you start this fascinating, lively book. Author Danielle Friedman offers not just a peek at women’s history, but also an oddly compelling urge to move. Readers will wish they could pace Bonnie Prudden through the streets of Manhattan again, or find a Jazzercise class somewhere. You might even be tempted to go looking for your old “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” tapes or the ThighMaster in the attic, because Friedman’s stories of empowerment and enlightenment are very contagious. It also helps that no weighted tire is left unflipped: readers also learn about the role of not-so-modern medicine in physical fitness, and how Black women have often been shut out of the gym altogether.

If you love to stay active and a look back at where we’ve sweated sounds fun, this book will make you very happy. Get “Let’s Get Physical.” You shouldn’t wait.

* * *

If you want to see peek at the other side of the locker room, check out “Sweat: A History of Exercise” by Bill Hayes (Bloomsbury, $28.00). Hayes takes readers back centuries to see how our physical health has become what it is, and why we’ve perceived it as both pain and pleasure through time. It’s a personal and historical look, literally sweatin’ to the oldies.

“Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World” by Danielle Friedman

c.2022, Putnam $27.00 / $36.00 Canada 328 pages