As exercise equipment maker Peloton Interactive Inc. struggles to reinvent itself, investors must decide whether it’s worth giving the fallen Wall Street star a second chance. Let history be their guide.
Not just the company’s history. Modern humans’ relationship with physical fitness provides a cautionary tale for future investors in the next big exercise craze — and rest assured, there will be another.
Why do Americans go to such extravagant lengths to stay in shape? The rise of the so-called physical culture movement in the late 1800s, along with its close cousin, “Muscular Christianity,” marked a newfound obsession with fitness in Western nations, particularly the United States.
These movements grew out of a strange amalgam of pseudoscience, theology and anxiety about the future of native-born Whites in late 1800s. Enormous numbers of immigrants were flooding into the US and many of these Whites expressed unease that “Anglo-Saxons,” as they referred to themselves, had become “overcivilized” and soft.
So native-born Whites increasingly embraced team sports, outdoor activities and mandatory physical education in public schools. Private groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, also promoted exercise, opening a network of gyms that mixed religion and fitness.
Still, most Americans had little interest in gyms and regimented exercise. After all, they had limited leisure time in those days and got plenty of exercise in their everyday life by walking or doing manual labor.
Moreover, some figures in the physical culture movement seemed, well, weird. Consider Bernard McFadden, a sickly child who renamed himself Bernarr because it evoked the roar of a lion. He made a fortune promoting a regimen of weight-lifting, calisthenics, restrictive diets and brisk walks. He also published a magazine called Physical Culture that became the unofficial voice of the movement. “Weakness Is a Crime,” it declared to would-be readers. “Are You a Criminal?”
The eccentric bodybuilder, who courted controversy by promoting exercise for both men and women, was eventually overshadowed by another fanatic with an exclusively male clientele: the Italian immigrant Angelo Siciliano, better known as …….