Natalia Petrzela is one of a kind: a historian and college professor with special expertise in the fitness industry, and also a coveted fitness instructor at intenSati in NYC. Her latest research traces the rise of “wellness culture” since the 1950s, asking how and why Americans have increasingly linked food and fitness regimes to the pursuit of self-fulfillment. We had a chance to chat with Natalia to learn more about her unique personal journey, plus her take on how the fitness industry has changed over time and where the current boutique landscape may evolve.
You’ve had an interesting journey from historian to fitness instructor. What led you to where you are today?
Early on, I embraced my identity as a “smart girl,” but felt completely intimidated in the physical realm. I was sixteen when I first signed up for Step Aerobics at the local Jewish Community Center. Within a few weeks, I couldn’t believe how much I craved the exhilaration that came from the classes. Almost a decade later, while writing my PhD dissertation, I sought distraction at the gym and fell in love with a mind-body class called intenSati. By 2007, I was a certified intenSati leader, bracketing my days of writing with teaching classes around New York City.
How are these two identities intertwined for you?
Leading group fitness felt surprisingly similar to academic teaching, which I had always loved. I found myself especially energized by applying tactics I’d honed in the classroom to the studio: engaging students not only with me but with each other, including students with wide-ranging ability levels, and adapting class content to different learning styles. The commanding presence I practiced leading intenSati came through in my teaching and presentation as well.
A life-size poster of me hung in the local Lululemon just blocks from campus and fellow faculty and students attended the gym where I taught.
It took me a long time to understand how teaching fitness squared with my academic life. I felt pressures from both sides to quit one discipline in favor for the other. A life-size poster of me hung in the local Lululemon just blocks from campus and fellow faculty and students attended the gym where I taught. How could I enthusiastically teach “mind-body” unity and encourage my students to carve their own paths, if I did not do so myself? And so I began bringing these worlds together, with my various projects today focused on unifying my intersecting passions for scholarship and sweat in some way.
As well-versed as you are on the fitness industry today and in the past, what factors would you suggest led to the boutique fitness boom, and in particular group fitness?
In the 19th century, there was a lot of fear that physical exercise — running and heavy lifting in particular — would be too strenuous for women, threatening to damage women’s fertility, give them bulky muscles, or cultivate unladylike traits like competitiveness and individualism. “Group dance,” which was all about the group and demonstrating grace, became a way for women to exercise without challenging dominant ideas about gender.
Fast-forward to the 1940s-60s and the closest thing to a women’s fitness studio were places called “slenderizing spas,” which were often adjacent to beauty salons and united the idea of luxury and beauty with women’s physical maintenance. The feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s allowed for more women to embrace physical fitness, ushering in the women-only gyms of the 70s and then the dance-aerobics craze of the 80s that responded to a greater demand for fitness while remaining conventionally feminine.
I mention women so much because I think the group fitness/boutique space has more to do with these origins than with the more male-dominated spaces of the weight-lifting floor or the sports field. Today, the space is still very female, but we see more men in boutique spaces. My hunch is that this more mixed environment also has to do with changing ideas about masculinity, where men can also work out without being seen as being overly attentive to physical appearance. That shift, along with the fact that boutique fitness is now seen as a luxury status symbol through which to display one’s spending power, has led to the boom.
How has the role of the instructor changed over time?
In the ’70s, when the fitness boom took hold, the job of fitness instructor held little prestige and was either a side gig or reserved for former dancers or athletes. As gyms multiplied and classes swelled, the field gained social and professional legitimacy. Soon, universities began investing in exercise science and kinesiology programs.
Beyond the academy, instructors were also taking their work, and each other, more seriously. Professional organizations like the ACE, IDEA, and AFAA all emerged in the 1980s and created a space where teaching fitness began to resemble a real profession. By the late ’80s and early ’90s, the group fitness craze was in full swing—one count estimates 22 million Americans took aerobics then—and it was all about the instructor.
As fitness became both more professionalized and also a more visible part of people’s lives in the 1990s and beyond, so prompted the rise of the “celebrity trainer.” Furthermore, the rise of mind-body formats encouraged participants to see their instructors as key to their overall wellbeing as opposed to just shaping their bodies, which also helped raise their esteem to something more like a therapist than a mechanic for your body.
In what directions do you think we’ll see the industry continue to evolve?
In terms of content, I think there is room for the more meditative/recovery formats to come into their own. Given the popularity of hard-driving HIIT and bootcamps formats in the last 10 years, this evolution is likely, similar to how the 1990s yoga boom followed the 1980s high-impact aerobics boom.
In terms of how we get our fitness, I envision two perhaps apparently contradictory trends: streaming options will hugely expand the availability of at-home/on-the-go offerings, but I also see fitness becoming a bigger part of our community life at social clubs, hotels, etc. Fitness is so key to people’s social lives that I think this will become an even more deliberate offering. Another hope I have is that this expansion of fitness makes it more inclusive—more options accessible to older people, the disabled, etc., rather than some kind of “fitocracy” that marginalizes those who can’t participate in traditional ways.
About Natalia Petrzela:
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D. is a historian of contemporary American politics and culture and is currently writing a book on American fitness culture. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford 2015), co-host of Past Present Podcast, a frequent media guest expert, speaker at universities and conferences, and contributor to national and local media. Natalia is Associate Professor of History at The New School, a co-founder of wellness education program Healthclass 2.0 and a Premiere Leader of intenSati. She holds a B.A. from Columbia and a master’s and Ph.D. from Stanford and is based in New York City.