Feeling Athletic, Online.

von Helen Ahner

April 26, 2022

Working Out and Emotional Work in Times of Lockdown and Social Distancing

Spring is here. With it come efforts to wake up the body from hibernation and get it in “beach”-shape: Discount stores advertise special offers on sports clothing, equipment and nutrition, fitness studios promote their programs, and people romp about doing sports in the parks and on the sidewalks. The eager observer of everyday life finds fitness spirit not only in magazines, on billboards and in the form of sweaty bodies around town, but also online. Social media platforms “challenge” their users to earn a six-pack in 30 days, to learn how to run a marathon in 365 days, or to gain more confidence by increasing their mindfulness within the next two weeks. Such challenges aim to alter the body and, equally important, to level-up the mind. They are not all about the muscles, but also about the feeling through which an exercising body can flourish and bloom.


Online, one can find plenty of advice on how to feel athletic, and even more reasons why such emotions are desirable: They promise success, beauty and health. They help one become “the best version of oneself.” Fitness influencers invite their fans to optimize their “mindset” and equip them with the means to do so – be these practices like journaling and documenting gratitude that come with a “mindful” lifestyle, or the pragmatic invocation of an “post-workout high,” imagined as the result of a hormone cocktail sparked by exercise. All of these practices aim to pay attention to and amplify one’s feelings, to make one’s experience more positive or more extreme. What exactly it means to feel athletic and what feelings are associated with this can vary, but, in the world of fitness influencers, one thing at least is clear: Getting, being or staying fit is as much a matter of emotions as it is of physique.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic, unimpressed by any fitness spirit, continues to impact everyday life. Infection numbers are high and even though hygiene regulations have been relaxed, the pandemic continues to affect activities in gyms and sports clubs. Total lockdowns and the complete suspension of athletic competition are passé, but still the effects of the last two years are felt. COVID-19 not only altered sports; it was and continues to be a threat to people's emotional states. As the Max Planck Society’s Covsocial project discloses, the much-discussed mental effects of the pandemic – social isolation, uniformity of working-from-home life, anxieties about an uncertain future and crisis fatigue – have indeed led to an increase in depressive feelings. But the study also demonstrates that sport has become a major coping strategy to soothe those unsettling emotions. Keeping both fit and healthy has become a matter of personal responsibility and has been stylized into a weapon in the fight against the virus. It is also a highly emotional matter: Beside appeals to wash your hands, wear masks, get tested and keep your distance, staying emotionally and physically healthy is now seen as one’s individual responsibility and one’s contribution to society’s effort to tackle the pandemic. Accordingly, the German government's #besonderehelden campaign was harshly criticized for heralding an unhealthy, inactive couch-potato lifestyle that would not protect people’s health as declared, but would, in the long run, ruin it. In this series of short films, shot in the style of a historical documentary, people were celebrated as special heroes of the pandemic for doing nothing during lockdown but order fast food and lounge on the couch. Given that (childhood) obesity increased steadily during the pandemic, promoting such a lifestyle in the spirit of health seemed inappropriate, if not cynical, to many. In the debates that followed the campaign, it was emphasized that – especially during a pandemic – taking care of body and mind was essential, that lying on the couch did not serve this purpose, and that the government ought to reinforce the focus on health, not counter it.


Long Known Wisdoms

The idea that a healthy body and a healthy mind (a term that includes emotional life) belong together and that taking care of both is a necessary contribution to the health of “society” or “nation” is by no means new. It gained widespread acceptance in the long 19th century and found one of its most prominent expressions in the Lebensreform movement. Its members strove to maintain a “natural” way of living, which pertained to their diet, education, housing, clothing and of course their notion of maintaining a healthy body. Some elements of the lifestyle, such as the “superfood” (as it would be called today) muesli and regular exercise, were so influential that they became part of everyday life beyond Lebensreform. In the 1920s, sports clubs and associations sprouted up all over the place and many people used their leisure time for athletic pursuits. Sports and gymnastics were also among the various activities promoted as a means of tackling “neurasthenia,” a rapidly proliferating “disease” that was considered a result of the modern lifestyle.


The 1920s also produced some of the first female sports stars and – if you will – fitness influencers. One of them was Dutch-American physician Bess Mensendieck. She invented, established and promoted a style of gymnastics in Europe and North America that was specifically tailored to women and provided instructions for the self-optimization of “posture” in daily life. Her gymnastics teachings were so popular that the verb “mensendiecken” even became synonymous with gymnastics in Weimar Germany. Although it was important to Mensendieck that her program focused on the body and only the body, the intertwining of sport and emotion was very present in the reception of sport – and particularly women’s sport – at the time. Exercise would not only prepare the body for giving birth to healthy children, but also enhance job performance (yes, that discourse was widespread in the 1920s!), lift the spirit, evoke “cheerfulness” (Frohsinn) and increase the joy of life – effects that were highly valued, since “modern” life supposedly brought with it much sorrow and gloom that would, among other things, decimate female attraction. These ideas, which included a certain ideal of femininity (think of current discussions of toxic positivity), are still operative today. In fact, they bear much similarity to the body politics of the pandemic.


In pandemic times, as in times of “nervousness,” exercising – online, offline, and in all its hybrid forms – serves as a form of (prescribed) emotion management, as sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes it. People adapt and alter their emotions according to the feeling rules they know exist in (social) situations. This is hard work, and exercising can become a tool to manage emotions accordingly. It becomes part of what Hochschild calls “deep acting”: changing emotions from the inside-out, for instance, by working and manipulating the body. In the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping up spirit and health has become mandatory for many as a result of political appeals. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a guide for “healthy individuals” to stay fit during quarantine. The stated goal is not only to keep the body in shape, but also to stay “calm” and increase “mental health.” To achieve this, the WHO suggests using “online fitness courses” that flood digital platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.


Digital Sport Emotions

These programs, as well as the WHO promotion of the “healthy individual,” existed long before COVID-19 and will most certainly exist long after the pandemic (if there ever will be an “after”). During lockdown, online fitness courses gained popularity and garnered a large number of views. In 2020, 27.5 million Germans were members of a sports club, while 11.7 million were members of gyms1 – places and organizations focused on getting people together in specific locations to exercise communally. During lockdowns and in the face of moral calls for social distancing, such gatherings could no longer take place. Early studies show that during the pandemic many of those who used to play team sports switched to online home workouts2 – if not by choice, then by the force of circumstance and the power of peer pressure or, more euphemistically, team spirit. Home workouts don’t just happen in isolation; they can be combined with digital gatherings such as video calls or the sharing of sport experiences with the team via messaging services, social media or fitness apps. These new forms of exercise go hand in hand with the search for new ways to express one’s emotions to teammates and fellow athletes, find new ways to cheer, and create a feeling of communality: Cheers are transmitted digitally in the form of emojis, high fives are mimicked in front of the webcam, and photos showing the sweaty and exhausted athlete are shared and commented on by teammates via messaging services. During online training sessions using video conferencing tools, panting, suffering and athletic success are performed in front of the webcam, making the emotions that accompany the workout visible and legible to the other participants. This changes the expression of emotions – in terms of digital training, they must now above all be digitally transferable and thus visible. This also affects the experience of sporting emotions – one's own and those of others. The audible and tangible physical co-presence is replaced by a digitally transmitted visual presence of fellow athletes and a very isolated athletic body, which is the only one that can be perceived with all senses. Nevertheless, a sense of shared athletic emotion is made tangible by referencing practices known from “before” the pandemic (such as the high five) and by clearly depicting the “expected” feelings (such as pain or the “burn,” but also pride and joy) whose experience is meant to unite the athletes.


Fitness influencers had become experts at communicating sports emotions digitally long before the pandemic, and they earn a lot of money with this expertise. They've developed a repertoire of expression that the new digital athletes are now accessing and adopting, just as they do the emotional expressions of their professional sports heroes, whose athletic and emotional performance they follow with fervor. Online athletes can even choose from a variety of emotional styles that different fitness influencers build their image and success on: There is the drill instructor who yells at you from the screen, the body-positive trainer who encourages you to feel comfortable with your body and enjoy its movements whether they meet the standards or not, the fun coach who makes working out feel like a party, the mindful yoga guru who invites you to get into a spiritual and calm mood, and so on. Each and every type of online fitness not only comes with a certain visual and auditive style, but also includes a certain emotional style that it is committed to and that its followers work to achieve and display. Drill instructors provide anger and shame dramatically designed to make you work harder and increase your performance. Party instructors stimulate so much joy and ecstasy that you may even forget you're exercising at all. Yoga instructors give you the tools to achieve a balanced, calm and harmonious feeling. In addition to their training programs, influencers provide insights into their daily lives and let their followers see how the athletic feeling translates into a general lifestyle. Followers might try to achieve this (emotional) lifestyle by sharing and posting content similar to that they consume, by spending money on the products advertised by the influencers, but also by simply feeling and experiencing in the way suggested to them, namely in the emotional style they have achieved through their training.


All workouts have one thing in common, though: After exercise, athletes should feel healthy, confident and proud. There is not much room for emotions deemed negative, at least not at the end of the workout. They should have magically dissipated and been washed away by just the right amount of sweat produced during exertion. These fitness offers clearly follow the logic of self-optimization and are understood and used in this sense by many who accept them. Through the eyes of a social scientist, the simplest conclusion is to see here yet another symptom of neoliberalism, which turns people into entrepreneurial subjects committed to constant work on the self. This analysis of the present cannot be dismissed out of hand, but it is not sufficient for fully illuminating the phenomenon. There is more to discover here than neoliberalism and biopolitics. As journalist Melanie Mühl has written in her FAZ article citing the sociologist Anja Röcke, self-optimization renders the self a shapable, malleable entity. In doing so, it can enable creative freedom in shaping oneself, self-sufficient pleasure, and self-induced satisfaction on an everyday basis.


It is important to continue to look with critical eyes at the fitness industry, whose constraints and often unattainable ideals can put people under enormous pressure – most recently, the social media phenomenon “That Girl” was criticized in this context. But it's also important not to lose sight of what people do with fitness services in their everyday lives, what they use them for, and how they put them to work for their own purposes – whether it's the 1920s sportsgirl who used exercise to gain confidence and an emotional style that felt empowering, or the online athlete who maintained community in times of social distancing. Feeling athletic has many facets and serves many purposes. Providing pleasure is one of them and should – with all necessary criticism – not be dismissed.


1 Michael Mutz and Markus Gerke, “Sport and exercise in times of self-quarantine. How Germans changed their behaviour at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 56, no. 3 (2021): 305-316. 

2 Giorgio Borghi, Maria Caire and Raffaella Ferrero Camoletto, “Doing Sport Online? Managing Sport Training During COVID-19” Italian Sociological Review 11 (2021): 635-652.

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