What You Can Learn From The Surprising History Of New Year's Resolutions

Photographed by Ted Cavanaugh.
Like sequined tops on the sale rack and Christmas trees on the sidewalk, resolutions to hit the gym are a January fixture; the eggnog and holiday cookies have barely settled when sweaty selfies fill our feeds and the #fitfam exchanges snarky memes about the ephemeral “January rush.” If the numbers charting the admittedly slippery realm of resolution-making and -breaking are to be believed, we abandon those winter promises as reliably as we make them — almost half of New Year’s health-and-fitness commitments dissipate by midyear, according to a Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive Health-Care Poll — only to return in the same miserable, er, predictable annual cycle a few months later. But where did this ritual come from? And how do we break the pattern, either by fulfilling our New Year’s fitness commitments once and for all or by choosing better ones?

The True Origin Of New Year’s Resolutions

Setting intentions for the new year has historical roots as distant as ancient Babylon, but our Puritan ancestors embraced this tradition with particular self-denying gusto since it represented a sober alternative to drunken celebrations of the changing calendar. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s, however, that making resolutions became synonymous with swearing to not just eat less gluttonously — long a standard ideal — but to sweat more.

Actually, for most of American history, a scarcity of food and transportation would have rendered running in place or calorie restriction bizarre, if not insane, activities. But then industrialization happened, introducing new ideas about the body, gender, and affluence. Until the late 19th century, fatness had been positively associated with luxury available only to a wealthy few (mostly male) “fat cats” and leisured ladies. But modernization expanded access to food, transportation, and labor-saving technologies, not to mention the sedentary desk jobs that are now a middle- and upper-class norm. Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to gain weight. The social meaning of the fat body changed accordingly: By the 1920s, it signaled an inability to resist a range of newly accessible pleasures. Looking like you had the willpower to resist these now more widely available delights, rather than the means to enjoy them, became attractive — and, for women often judged on their appearance, an imperative.

New Year’s resolutions increasingly focused, as one 1922 Los Angeles Times headline declared, on “CARE OF THE BODY.” “Making a hog of yourself,” or even “swallowing a mouthful” within two hours of waking up, was as serious a betrayal of the Christmas spirit as greed or flashy gift-giving. Still, this “care” was largely about food restriction: A supposedly wise resolution for young girls aiming to be more virtuous in the new year was to steer clear of “overindulgence in physical exercises and games,” which might stress their delicate lady parts. Though “thin was in,” according to best-selling diet authority Lulu Hunt Peters, “reducing” wasn’t just about looking pretty: The stakes were moral and civic. Peters recommended that ladies establish “Watch Your Weight Anti-Kaiser Clubs” to demonstrate the self-control to resist indulging while others, like those in interwar Germany, were starving. When exercise resolutions slowly began to appear in the late 1920s, they were also directed primarily at these fragile ladies as a strategy to stave off flabbiness, as described in a January feature entitled “Of Interest to Women” in the Los Angeles Times. That “the flesh is weak” was assumed; what was not yet obvious was that deliberately sculpting that flesh with intense exercise would become the quintessential New Year’s resolution within a few decades.

Exercise became both a personal and a national priority during the Cold War, for men and women alike. Just in time for the new year, President-elect John F. Kennedy put the “soft American” on blast in the pages of the December 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated. Overweight people who fared pathetically on international strength-and-fitness tests thanks to “the age of leisure and abundance” were not only lazy and unattractive, JFK pointed out, but also a threat to “the vitality of the nation.” Kennedy’s administration advanced policies that funded public recreation, physical-education classes, and community centers, but he emphasized that it was up to every American to resolve to pursue the “physical toughness” of the “vigorous life” in an age of dangerously “easy living.”

It’s worth thinking about why fitness resolutions can feel doomed to failure.

Since Kennedy’s invitation (demand?) to sweat as civic duty, “the gym” in many forms has become a major part of modern life, even as only 20% of Americans work out regularly (but many more do mental gymnastics thinking about how they should work out — or resenting those who do). Jogging, with its no-frills appeal, became a sensation in the late 1960s. Yoga made its way from secluded retreats to YMCA schedules in the ’70s. By the 1980s, aerobics, barre, and countless dance-exercise formats became fixtures in private studios and at commercial gyms, which had barely existed before the 1960s when they cropped up in cities, suburbs, and office buildings (and are only multiplying today). These days, all of the above continue to thrive along with countless others, from circuit training to indoor cycling.

Why Are Exercise Resolutions So Miserable?

This explosion of fitness in American — especially women’s — lives owed much to feminists’ exploding ideas about female frailty and, as one woman described Jane Fonda’s contribution, “making it okay to sweat in public.” But for all the feel-good potential of women’s fitness, it’s hard to ignore the palpable misery in the annual New Year’s promises to exercise that have become standard since the '80s exercise boom. In 1986, a Sarasota Herald-Tribune article interviewed women who had somehow done the unimaginable: both “made a truce with their diet demons” and followed through on this newer challenge of regular exercise. “I have to go when I’m unconscious,” one woman confessed, claiming that she’d never endure the torture of early-morning runs if she were awake enough to think about the decision of leaving her bed. For the rest of the (all-female) interviewees, the fear of death (a parent who had succumbed to heart disease) or of fat (“I hate…to feel myself jiggle”) fueled their “fitspo.” Rather than liberating women from the tyranny of dieting, a more expansive exercise culture layered on yet another requirement to properly embodying modern womanhood — or, rather, another opportunity to fail at it. “New year, new you” became about the discipline to both restrict your food and hit the gym, a one-two punch that still dominates too many January issues of women’s magazines.

Resolving (again!) to become more fit is thus so irresistible because in our culture, a commitment to exercise doesn’t just reflect a self-involved desire to tone your abs; it’s a statement, a commitment to display your moral and civic fitness. And unlike doing a better job at the private tasks of balancing your checkbook or organizing your closet, fulfilling on your fitness resolution is often highly visible, whether literally embodied in your newly whittled waistline or pinged to the world via your check-in at your local CrossFit box.

How To Resolve To Exercise — & Not Hate Your Life

Does it have to be this way, though? Must exercise resolutions make us so miserable? Short answer: no.

But it’s worth thinking about why fitness resolutions can feel doomed to failure. Beyond the psychic impact of our current body-obsessed, Photoshopped, insta-filtered culture, there are structural reasons why it is arguably more challenging for many Americans to stay fit today than ever before. State and federal investment in physical education and public recreation programs has dropped since the grand promises of the early 1960s. The most affordable foods are the least healthful. The rise of unpredictable shift labor makes planning consistent workouts challenging for many. A luxury fitness sector has largely flipped the image of the wealthy fat cat; today more familiar examples of affluence are the slender green-juice swilling SoulCycle devotée or the toned triathlete outfitted with the latest high-tech tracking gear. Notably, the Obamas’ “Let’s Move!” campaign asks Americans to make the same commitment to physical activity as JFK demanded almost 60 years ago, except today the White House targets poor people of color rather than affluent whites.

But if the struggle is real, the “January effect” apparently is also. Just as the financial markets tend to rally, people also feel especially motivated in the first month of the year. This burst of energy is not to be ignored, especially in the wake of what many are (hyperbolically) calling “the worst year ever”; we need inspiration where we can get it. Rather than roll your eyes at the New Year’s resolution to get fit, it is worth getting real about why — beyond nailing the #sweatyselfie — you are committing to exercise, and how to keep it up all year.

Any gym rat can tell you that a commitment to fitness shapes your overall attitude and experience even more than it does your body shape. Busting out one more burpee than you thought you could or daring to attempt dance-cardio actually expands your sense of your capabilities, and in a low-stakes environment. At the same time, knowing when to hit snooze or take a day off from a regular routine calms the all-or-nothing terror that missing a day means you’ll never work out again or that you’re a bad person. Resolving to make exercise about pleasure rather than punishment, and fitness goals about self-fulfillment rather than squeezing into skinny jeans, increases the chances that fitness will help you lead a more satisfying life beyond the gym…and that you will be one of the few who might actually need a new resolution come December 2017.
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