Frank Bruni cooked up (!) quite the enlightening editorial in Saturday’s NY Times about the recently deceased fitness guru Jack LaLanne, tracing the ways LaLanne was responsible for turning exercise into a religion, the gym into a temple, etc. I’ll spare you a diatribe about the superficiality of “discipline” for discipline’s sake – Bruni says/implies what needs to be said/implied – what’s more interesting here is that although LaLanne may not have come up with the outside-in approach to self-improvement (that particular ‘face’ has been launching ships since the Stone Age), he was certainly instrumental in figuring out how to market it. It would seem he casts a shadow of Charles Finney-like proportions. I for one was unaware how explicit the movement was, from its outset, in co-opting religious language (ht AZ):

That sense of failure you feel when you haven’t exercised in days? That conviction that if you could pull off better push-ups, you’d be a better person through and through? These… are [Jack LaLanne’s] doing, at least in part. What he left behind when he died last week, at the toned old age of 96, was not only a sweaty culture of relentless crunching and spinning but also the notion that fitness equals character, and that self-actualization begins with the self-discipline to get and stay in shape. In the post-LaLanne landscape, it’s not the eyes but the abdominals that are windows to the soul.

“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”

The message that perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues is captured in health club slogans like ones used by the Equinox chain over recent years: “Results aren’t always measured in pounds and inches.” “My body. My biography.” “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” The same idea is encoded in the language of personal improvement. A “new you” usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills.

In his own way, Mr. LaLanne was also a moralist, proselytizing about diet and exercise. To go back and look at his language is to be struck by its religious flavor.  He once compared himself to Billy Graham, saying that while Mr. Graham (no relation to Sylvester) was “for the hereafter,” he was “for the here and now.” He called what he was doing a crusade, adding, “To me, this one thing — physical culture and nutrition — is the salvation of America.” And he admitted that exercise wasn’t always pleasurable or diverting. You did it because it was right and good and true — because it would better you. The Protestant work ethic pulsed through every one of his jumping jacks.

There’s a bullying strain to the modern fitness ethos, a blurred line between cheerleading and hectoring. And it’s hard not to wonder whether that kind of intimidation — in addition to the social and economic realities of diet and exercise — helps explain the paradox that for all the newfangled aerobic machines and reduced-rate January gym memberships, Americans aren’t noticeably haler and healthier.

When exercise comes wrapped in value judgments, does it wind up entangled in an anxiety that threatens the very resolve to get fit? As Mr. LaLanne was siring new methods for shaping up, he was fathering something else, too: a potent, and in some cases immobilizing, strain of contemporary guilt.