By Challenging Our Physical Bodies, We May Heal Our Civic Ones

Do we have a patriotic duty to get off our couches and exercise?

Sian Roper for Noema Magazine
Colm O’Shea is a clinical associate professor with New York University’s Expository Writing Program. Read more of his work here.

In 1819, philologist and theologian Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was jailed by Prussian authorities. His crime wasn’t suspect theological treatises but teaching gymnastics and calisthenics. Despite his relative obscurity in the annals of history, Jahn invented much of what is regarded today as modern gymnastics, systematizing elements like the vaulting horse, rings and balance beam that grace mainstream television screens every four years during the Olympics. How his instruction of formal exercise became so frightening to local authorities is worth examining in our time.

Since the Enlightenment, educational reformers had sought to revive the Greek gymnastic ideal, summarized by the Roman poet Juvenal as mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). As a result, European gymnastics had been slowly evolving, vaguely linked with the moral development of the young.

Jahn inherited this tradition, being a secondary school teacher. But since he was also a fervent patriot and veteran, he saw gymnastics as a crucible to forge a sense of solidarity and civic duty in the general population. Brooding on Napoleon’s shattering of Germany into a series of loosely connected states ruled by autocrats, Jahn became obsessed with the notion that Teutonic youth lacked the deep psychophysical reserves necessary to hold their national sovereignty intact.    

Like a 19th-century Tyler Durden, he set about creating a series of clubs (turnverein) for practicing gymnastics (turnen), and became known as the Turnvater (literally “Father of the Gymnasts,” partially because of his apparatus and technique innovations, but more so his paternal investment in his students’ moral development).

We don’t have video of how Jahn conducted himself, but he must have been formidably charismatic because calisthenics evolved over the decades to become something of a cult for both the working and middle classes, promoting physical skill and strength, along with tactical virtues like large group organization. Open-air clubs (Turnplatz) were guided by the “four Fs” in German, which translated roughly to “hardy, pious, cheerful, free.” The German gymnasts were also unusual for their time, as they  eventually encompassed both men and women in their ranks.

A political liberal with nationalistic fervor, Jahn demanded freedom of speech and a unified Germany free from foreign influences such as the control it faced under the First French Empire. His devoted following was overtly political: Jahn framed their physical training as preparation to fight foes foreign or domestic if needs be.

Prussia’s conservative aristocratic regime saw Jahn’s young gymnastic acolytes as a threat; they were bohemian and emphasized the informal/fraternal “du” form of address (as opposed to the formal “sie”) when speaking German. Worse, they demanded a representational government, a constitution, a unified Germany and universal suffrage (for landowners).

Prussian authorities implemented the Carlsbad Decrees, which created a police state, censored the press and involved heavy surveillance of oppositional movements. Jahn was arrested, and the regime implemented a ban on gymnastics that remained in place in most of Prussia until it was lifted by Prussia’s King Frederick William IV in 1842.

When Jahn was released six years later, he was forbidden from living anywhere near a secondary school or university. All gymnastics activities were moved indoors to small, more carefully controlled gyms, presumably to break up the rally-like mass meetings and alter the politico-gymnastic culture.

The visionary (and incendiary) elements of Jahn’s nationalistic impulses couldn’t be fully sieved out, however, and gymnasts were disproportionately represented among revolutionaries fighting in the Revolutions of 1848-49, which were broadly concerned with curbing monarchy and uniting Germany under a representative government.

Middle-class acolytes tended to focus on liberal principles such as freedom of the press, while the working class demanded more radical changes to brutal living and working conditions that were made famous in the writings of Marx and Engels. (Both men witnessed and wrote extensively on the 1848 uprisings.)

Divided by competing class goals, these revolutionaries were ultimately defeated by the aristocratic regime and forced into exile. Many fled to Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., where they became known as the Forty-Eighters. The U.S. settlers established themselves from Wisconsin to Texas, where they founded gymnastic clubs called “Turner societies” or Turnverein along with many civic-minded institutions such as public libraries, community fire-fighting groups, and labor unions. Many turnen became abolitionists in America, fighting as Union soldiers in the Civil War and serving as bodyguards at Lincoln’s inauguration and his funeral.

“This tendency to understand physical fitness as a personal pursuit, akin to a hobby and unconnected to the civic body, is exceedingly modern, and almost amnesiac.”

Today, gymnastics is characterized by its attention to precision, clean form and military decorum. One might never suspect its colorful, revolutionary history. In fact, we have moved so far from Jahn’s reality over the past two centuries that the regime’s response to his activities seems almost farcical. This tendency to understand physical fitness as a personal pursuit, akin to a hobby and unconnected to the civic body, is exceedingly modern, and almost amnesiac.

Jahn may have systemized calisthenics for a modern era, but as far back as the ancient Greeks, gymnastics was practiced as a discipline and understood not only as a physical system of conditioning but one of moral education and even ethical dedication to the state.

This ethical training dimension of gymnastics is why it was promoted by social reformers at Harvard University, notably the scholar Charles Beck, who was a disciple and translator of Jahn’s gymnastic treatise. (Upon arriving from Germany to Massachusetts, Beck became the first physical education teacher in America and taught the nation’s first gymnastics classes at the Round Hill School in Northampton in 1825. Although it was a short-lived experimental school, the idea of educating the whole person via movement training made a profound impression on the New England elite.) The concept of superior athletic discipline equating to civilizational superiority would later take hold in the Cold War competition for Olympic medals between the Soviets and the West.

Over recent decades, this concept has lost what purchase it once had on the public imagination. Since the military draft was phased out in 1973, the percentage of Americans with a personal or family connection to the military has steadily shrunk, particularly among the young.  Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Olympic contests, including in gymnastics, lost much of their political charge (although there remains a chilly edge to gymnastic competitions along ideological lines). Generations, especially in many Western nations like the United States, have grown up without the expectation that they will be called to defend their country in a large-scale war.

This may now be changing. With Russia and possibly China moving to expand their borders and the race for A.I. supremacy instilling an atmosphere of deep uncertainty, messaging from top military personnel in the west has shifted dramatically from its long post-war slumber to something more like pre-war prep. Fitness, in the sense of readiness for real physical challenge and hardship, may once again become a necessity for citizens of the industrialized world. 

This winter, British Gen. Patrick Sanders suggested that all citizens of the United Kingdom, not just those in its military service, should be prepared for the possibility of a land war in the coming years: “Ukraine brutally illustrates that regular armies start wars; citizen armies win them.” Also referring to Russian aggression, Dutch Adm. Rob Bauer, the NATO military committee chief, publicly noted that in the event of a land war, “it is the whole of society that will get involved, whether we like it or not.”

Some readers may bristle at these warnings, considering them alarmism or jingoist rhetoric from western military leaders. But the renewed threat of war (whether with China, Russia, Iran or forces unknown) should remind us of a fundamental question: What is worth protecting? Here George Orwell, in his “Notes on Nationalism,” creates a vital distinction:

Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must distinguish between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. 

With typical acidity, Orwell adds: 

In societies such as ours, it is unusual for anyone describable as an intellectual to feel a very deep attachment to his own country. Public opinion — that is, the section of public opinion of which he as an intellectual is aware — will not allow him to do so. 

Civic pride, in Orwell’s estimation, is not seen as morally sophisticated. Yet Orwell, whose left-wing bona fides are robust, was willing to aver his own civic pride and love of country.  Perhaps his concept of “defensive patriotism” can be the starting point for a consideration of whether our 21st-century populace, used to physical and material comfort, has retained a willingness for civic sacrifice to support what Sanders called “a whole-of-nation undertaking” requiring bodily fitness.

“As far back as the ancient Greeks, gymnastics was practiced as a discipline and understood not only as a physical system of conditioning but one of moral education and even ethical dedication to the state.”

Socrates And Street Workout Culture

Over the last few decades, a new competitive form of calisthenics, sometimes called a “street workout,” has burgeoned globally, especially in Eastern and Western Europe and North America. It even has its own governing body, established in 2011: the World Street Workout and Calisthenics Federation.

A kind of pared-down version of gymnastics, it is primarily performed in free open-air spaces like public parks, playgrounds or anywhere there are overhead bars to hang from. Participants range in age from young teens to a few “masters” in their 40s and 50s, and are mostly self-taught, with little to no formal training in the traditional, Olympic-style gymnastics.

Fueled by online videos of increasingly impressive physical exploits, this calisthenics community has set about establishing its own training methodology, rules and competitive categories. The internet, with its forums for research and discussion on best practices for technique, nutrition, sleep and other factors, has fueled a dramatic rate of athletic innovation.

Moves that once seemed impossible have become standard in a handful of years, and this without much in the way of top-down organization or monetary investment. Speaking personally, I have long been fascinated and inspired by this sudden sport — especially, by its minimalism. It can sprout up anywhere, with few requirements in terms of equipment or environment. 

Perhaps as a cultural holdover from the Soviet era’s focus on gymnastics, former Soviet bloc countries tend to produce especially impressive amateur calisthenic athletes; among these nations, Ukraine has stood out as producing some of the best. (Google “Ukrainian Street Workout” to see what I mean.)

Before the Russian invasion in 2022, I routinely bored my wife with YouTube videos of Ukrainian calisthenic virtuosity. “It must be something in the drinking water over there,” I joked. After Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian commitment to general physical preparedness riveted the world’s attention in a new and sobering way. As photographs of Ukrainian civilians receiving crash-course training in handling firearms appeared on the pages of American newspapers, I was not alone in my awe.

Here was a people, confronted with the starkest physical realities imaginable, rising to meet the moment. Exercise for me is a deeply personal pleasure, and in those Ukrainian street workout videos I’d always seen people taking a similar pleasure in not just moving but also improving themselves.  Now, I saw something else.

In Xenophon’s “Memorabilia,” Socrates admonishes a young man, Epigenes, to get in shape. Epigenes shrugs off Socrates’ advice to strengthen himself on the grounds that he, Epigenes, is not an athlete. Socrates lets him have it:

It is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit. But you cannot see that, if you are careless; for it will not come of its own accord.

The ancient Greeks, much like modern Ukrainians, had compelling reason to build outdoor training areas and promote a gymnastic culture of strength and competition: The wolves were always at their door, the calamity of invasion ever-present. Socrates’ advice to Epigenes starts out with this pragmatic consideration: Just because the state doesn’t force you to train doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. If conflict breaks out, fitter specimens have a better chance of survival — and, incidentally, of helping their comrades.

This, you might say, is the most basic, most primal rationale to stay sharp and conditioned. Soft people get crushed in an emergency. Socrates adds another layer, a plea to intellectual ambition: If you want to be good at thinking, you’d do well to condition your body. But it’s his final admonition, quoted above, about seeing “what manner of man you may become” if you challenge yourself physically, that captures my imagination most, because it applies to almost everyone today.

No matter our age, sex or station in life, what might any of us become if we set our own contests with the physical world on our own terms and pursued them rigorously? Following from that, what would our greater civic body look and feel like if most citizens were on such a curious quest as Socrates implores Epigenes to embrace?

“No matter our age, sex or station in life, what might any of us become if we set our own contests with the physical world on our own terms and pursued them rigorously?”

The Ethics Of Physical Literacy

The moment one links duty to the state with physical culture, of course, the red flags begin to wave. Jahn was a virulent anti-Semite, and it’s hard not to hear echoes of his ethnonationalism in the sinister concept of Hitler’s Aryan athletic ideal paraded to the world in the propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia.” In contemporary America, Christopher Mulvey writes about doing anthropology fieldwork at Barbell Strength Tribe, which he claims:

…smashes fascist politics and the body together by relentlessly linking bodily strength to human worth. Most pronounced was the hatred of “beta” males, who, untrained or incorrectly trained, and lured into crippling dependencies by the creature comforts and conveniences of modern society, fail to meet the gym’s standard for white men. Denouncing the “weakness” emblematized by contemporary man buns and yoga pants, the Tribe laments the degeneracy of these “beta” males. The health and well-being championed by functional fitness mean little when put up against the “real” reasons for proper athletic effort: strengthening the body to meet the threats of the current world, and creating the possibility of a “new” United States, founded on renewed masculine strength. On this view, a fascist orientation to the world makes sense: if white masculinity is in danger of dilution, all available methods must be undertaken to save it, beginning with the process of steeling the body from contaminating weakness.

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor in the School of Public Affairs and the School of Education at the American University, where she heads the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL), also makes this connection between the trained body and ideological purification:

Physical fitness has always been central to the far right. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler fixated on boxing and jujitsu, believing they could help him create an army of millions whose aggressive spirit and impeccably trained bodies, combined with “fanatical love of the fatherland,” would do more for the German nation than any “mediocre” tactical weapons training.

Wherever a threat of ideological recruitment into genuine ethno-state fascism exists, it must be taken seriously. The danger of this dynamic arising in martial arts and strength training should be continually alive to us. But that can’t be an excuse to ignore the far more pervasive danger (and the inarguable cost) of sedentary living.

By and large, the clearly established health risks of not moving enough are downplayed out of what we might call politeness. Perhaps inevitably, the multi-billion-dollar “fitness industry” which exploits our self-critical impulses without delivering much demonstrable improvement in actual fitness has generated a backlash.

The “body positivity” movement, at its best, is an antidote to the endless demand that we all participate in a perpetual low-grade beauty parade; we can instead accept who we are, it avers, and maybe even learn to love ourselves. But in the hands of certain extremists, the moral imperative to empathize with struggles of self-esteem becomes a cudgel.

To some, any statement affirming the value of a balanced diet or regular exercise is insensitive “healthism.” In such a situation, Epigenes can simply turn and berate Socrates for body-shaming him. Why should he explore what he’s capable of? Why can’t he just accept and love what he is?

What’s most offensive about commercial fitness messaging, I’d contend, is its fixation on vanity and self-regard; it encourages us to compare ourselves to models, celebrities and professional athletes, with inevitably discouraging results. Public health messaging, meanwhile, tends to glaze eyeballs with its blandness (I know I’ll stave off heart disease if I watch less Netflix — so what?). Socrates’ fitness-as-duty has the advantage of being both community-minded and exciting.

Or at least, it has the potential to be exciting if we are not put off by the aesthetics of words like “duty.” In Chuck Klosterman’s collection of essays, “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs,” he poses a hypothetical question to his friends: Faced with a choice between dating a person who was attractive and successful, or another person who was equally attractive and successful but also extremely patriotic, which would you choose? Overwhelmingly, his friends preferred option A. Why, Klosterman wondered in the essay, should categorical love of country be a deal-breaker to his college-educated, urban, left-leaning friends?

“Patriotism,” too often, conjures “tribal” associations (i.e., what Orwell considers the ugly us/them logic of “nationalism”). There’s something unsophisticated to a lot of urbane people about the patriotic — they’re parochial, un-cosmopolitan, deeply uncool. But the events of the last several years have spurred awareness of how quickly things can break down at any moment.

“There’s something unsophisticated to a lot of urbane people about the patriotic — they’re parochial, un-cosmopolitan, deeply uncool.”

Supply chains are vulnerable. Public order is more fragile than we often suppose. Whether we have the luxury of dismissing patriotism on the knee-jerk grounds we might have invoked when Klosterman’s book was published almost two decades ago is far from clear. And in a fragmented public, one roiling with ideological divisions and subsumed by competing (and increasingly incoherent) notions of “identity,” reaffirming our allegiance to a greater civic body might just be the boring, unsexy reintegration we sorely need.

Here, the advice of Socrates — to find out what might be possible if only one got sufficiently curious about one’s psychophysical limits — may align with the self-respect that comes, paradoxically, from putting away self-concern and aiming to contribute to the well-being of the state. Not everyone can, or should, commit to becoming a cop, firefighter or emergency responder, much less a soldier.

For reasons ranging from the pragmatic to the personal, most people are not cut out for physically heroic action. But our culture presumes that everyone is cut out for basic literacy. To be illiterate is, effectively, to be cut out of so many aspects of social life and robbed of potential intellectual freedom to such a degree that it’s considered an injustice.

In a similar, but arguably more fundamental way, our (increasingly sedentary) citizenry needs to learn how to use their bodies well from an early age. This entails developing a curiosity about and pleasure from our capacity for complex movement. There is a quiet form of excellence waiting to be recognized by becoming curious about what you can do when you select your own challenges (versus demanding that no external forces demand anything of you). 

And while it’s a fraught subject, I’d argue this is even more true for those with physical disability. The general human goal must surely be to improve from your starting position, whatever that may be. Paralympics and the various provisions made for wheelchair athletes in marathons are a good start. Real physical education means learning to optimize movement capacity for each specific and unique human body, with its various strengths and inevitable limitations.

Nils Posse, another calisthenics and gymnastics instructor who, along with Jahn’s acolytes, influenced the Boston health reform movement in the 1800s, made the argument for what might be called a form of physical literacy that, like academic literacy, was a fundamental right, albeit one that required some initial discipline to acquire.

In his book, “The Swedish System of Educational Gymnastics,” Posse argued that discipline should not be restricted to the military, but rather required of everyone to demonstrate the virtue of self-control. This could be done without, as he put it, “any encroachment upon the pupil’s ‘rights as a free citizen of a free country,’” for “[o]nly those who know what restriction means can truly appreciate liberty, and make good use of it.”  This is a common insight from Socrates to Jahn to Posse: The freedom that comes from education is a right to pursue, but it’s also a duty to acquire. 

President John F. Kennedy took up this refrain when he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was not advocating for a mindless patriotism, but pointing to a profound relationship between rights and responsibility: Civic systems that serve us improve primarily through people investing their personal efforts.

In the pages of Sports Illustrated in 1960, around the peak of the Red Scare, Kennedy wrote “The Soft American,” an article that outlined a general anxiety over European children radically outperforming their American counterparts in calisthenics. Strikingly, he reiterates what Xenophon’s Socrates says about the relation of the state to the physically engaged citizen:

But no matter how vigorous the leadership of government, we can fully restore the physical soundness of our nation only if every American is willing to assume responsibility for his own fitness and the fitness of his children. We do not live in a regimented society where men are forced to live their lives in the interest of the state. [Note: The draft was in place at this time but it was limited in scope.] We are, all of us, as free to direct the activities of our bodies as we are to pursue the objects of our thought. But if we are to retain this freedom, for ourselves and for generations to come, then we must also be willing to work for the physical toughness on which the courage and intelligence and skill of man so largely depend.

The upshot of this general anxiety around the lack of physical competence was Eisenhower’s Presidential Fitness Test. Initiated in 1957, it was a set of benchmarks that measured schoolchildren’s upper and lower body strength and endurance through basic exercises: pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, shuttle run, broad jump and a softball throw for distance.

“There is a quiet form of excellence waiting to be recognized by becoming curious about what you can do when you select your own challenges.”

Ultimately discontinued by President Obama, the test was not without its critics; many people harbored a lifelong anxiety around the fitness test. The takeaway consensus seems to be that the nation’s gym teachers were not properly trained to produce the desired changes in aerobic capacity or core strength that the test was designed to measure.

I didn’t grow up in America, but I too have vivid memories, dating to my boyhood in Ireland, of the sinking feeling prompted by the mere word “gym.” Gym class didn’t feel like an education so much as a simple sorting of the physically competent haves (think the Kennedys tossing the football around their Hyannis compound on Cape Cod) versus the have-nots, who live in urban areas with little-to-no green or dedicated outdoor recreation space. It was the opposite of empowering.

I didn’t want to go through life clumsy and weak, and so, with my mother’s blessing, I took a year out of school at 16, joined a gymnastics club and finally learned how to use my body effectively. The result of that decision and investment in my physical self, was a lifetime fascination with exploratory physical play, one that continues to pay dividends into my 40s.

I know that not everyone has the time or resources to make such a dramatic commitment to physical education. However, when I think of Jahn’s gymnastics cult, with their motto of “hardy, pious, cheerful, free,” I’m struck by how many contemporary Americans — perhaps those in their prime most of all — seem to feel the opposite: fragile, nihilistic, depressed, trapped.

To be clear, our economy can place serious demands on people to be highly sedentary — office workers and truck drivers, for example, don’t have a lot of leeway. Low-income citizens living in food deserts often struggle to afford a diet not composed primarily of processed food. Add to this that the state needs to make access to training grounds, physical education and quality nutrition far better than it currently is for many citizens.

This is to say nothing of improving environmental laws to protect us from having our air and water outright poisoned by corporate bad actors. Apart from all of the above, being sedentary and consuming unhealthy food and drink are, certainly, as Kennedy wrote, within one’s rights in a free country.

Nevertheless, the state and the citizen form a circuit; one cannot improve without the help of the other. Consider the ballooning costs of healthcare: The state has a duty to us, no doubt, but — except for the chronically ill or dying — the responsibility works both ways. If we saw a complete apathy about physical conditioning as a dereliction of duty to the collective body, might this not alter at least some of our choices?

Patriotism Vs Nationalism

Perhaps “the collective body,” as a phrase and an idea, offers the possibility of conceptualizing patriotism in a positive sense for those who, like Klosterman’s friends, don’t welcome the word. Or consider the distinction writer George Packer, echoing Orwell, drew between it and nationalism in a New Yorker interview:

Nationalism is a word I avoid as a positive. I think nationalism is destructive. It has an aggressive quality. … We are not just different but better, and in some ways we must crush you. Patriotism, to me, is closer to what I’m trying to describe because it’s like loyalty. … Just as you’re more loyal to your family than to people you don’t know. I feel the same about our country. And I know that that’s a tricky and maybe dangerous thing for some Americans, but the first thing I’d say is, if you suppress that in yourself, or if you refuse to acknowledge it in others, you will ensure [sic] that the worst versions of it … will have the field, because most people still feel that. And, if they don’t hear it from the side that wants equality and inclusiveness, then they’re going to hear it from the side that wants hierarchy and exclusion.

We live in a world of increasingly selfish motivation — atomized effort, let’s call it — where fitness is little more than another luxury or social status device. In this scenario, training doesn’t weave you into the larger civic body but pulls you further from it. Humans are not simply animals, but it’s difficult not to call to mind the notorious rodent studies for the National Institute of Mental Health by John Calhoun from 1954 to 1984.

“If we saw a complete apathy about physical conditioning as a dereliction of duty to the collective body, might this not alter at least some of our choices?”

The 25th iteration of his mouse experiment — “universe 25” — involved a massive set of mouse apartments and an exponentially increasing rodent population. The population peaked at 2,200 mice, resulting in aberrant behavior including asexuality and actions such as  eating each other’s tails. A group of what Calhoun termed the “beautiful ones” isolated themselves, refused to engage in breeding or socializing, and set about grooming themselves all day long.

Among the so-called fitness community, one sees a lot of Beautiful Ones. This is weirdly mirrored by those who argue fitness doesn’t, or “shouldn’t,” matter, who are also divorced from the realness of community and the realness of the world and the demands it makes of you. Both groups superficially oppose each other, but both represent a form of grooming in isolation.

Maybe I’m being naïve, but I can imagine a wellspring of loyalty — what Packer calls patriotism — capable of salving America’s 21st-century polarization. I return to Socrates’ dual prong with which he prods Epigenes: it is a sense of calling — of duty paired with curiosity. How excellent might you become if you experimented with challenging yourself?

That’s Socrates’ question, and it opens up a larger set of questions — questions about excellence, about merit, about standards in any field — that many of us have grown reluctant to grapple with. While there are legitimate concerns about meritocracy, in general, such as those voiced by philosopher Michael Sandel, I suspect that a large-scale dismissal of the ethical drive toward excellence would be devastating.  

“Excellence” as an abstraction becomes suspect when we hear undertones of judgment and discrimination. Yet what if “excellence” could be conceived of not as a menacing height, but as an inviting possibility? In 1957, at an otherwise ordinary high school in southern California, physical education coach and World War II veteran Stan Leprotti began a “physical literacy program” that has become the stuff of legend.

The program required all students at La Sierra High School to participate in a demanding, five-day-a-week calisthenics regimen and used colorful shorts as a ranking system to harness their natural competitive energies. White shorts were for rookies, with special attention to exercise technique given to children who significantly lagged in one or more fitness metrics.

One could rise to red, then blue, then purple and then gold by mastering progressively more difficult skills. A vanishingly small percentage of students managed to earn the ultimate rank: navy blue shorts. This required, among other things, that students be able to do 50 handstand press-ups, 52 dips, 34 pull-ups, and two consecutive trips up and down a 20-foot rope using only their hands.

The program ran from 1957 to 1983, when the high school closed. Over that time, only 21 students earned the navy trunks; nevertheless, pursuing a pinnacle of excellence seemed to have inspired children across the board. In an interview from that time, a young man going through the program notes: 

At first you wonder if you’re going to be able to keep up and do what’s expected of you. Then when you discover that you can, you start to get excited by the possibilities. There’s always another challenge — a higher level — to try to reach. I think that’s what kids are looking for today.

Like Turnvater Jahn more than a hundred years earlier, Leprotti had captured the students’ imagination with ideas of what they might become through focused effort.

Some readers might be concerned here about the potential for deleterious effects on the morale of students who struggled to distinguish themselves in such an intense program. For his physical education doctoral dissertation in 1975, entitled “Self-concept and Physical Achievement,” physical education coach Richard Chester Tucker studied schools like La Sierra.

He found that far from the bullying or ridicule some might assume would naturally follow from a ranking system based on different colored shorts, Tucker found the opposite: the kids worked as a team to improve, encouraging each other to rise up the ranks. This was a non-zero-sum competition against one’s own limitations — group morale vs any individual failure. 

The Greeks placed a lot of emphasis on the concept of aretḗ or excellence. It was the whole raison d’etre of the original Olympic Games: to see what the gods could inspire mere mortals to achieve. But while it’s easy to grasp what “excellence” means in the limited context of a javelin-throwing contest, it’s harder to grasp what is excellent (or dutiful) about athleticism in a world where modern warfare is conducted in places like Ukraine with American-supplied Javelin missiles.

“The concept of ‘food deserts’ has caught on, but what about being ‘movement-starved’? Can we collectively learn to move again, and in more compelling ways?”

Here, too, the concept of “duty” helps to illuminate the ethical position of any person capable of improving themselves, whether they are required to or not. One man who, like Jahn, had an outsized impact on the physical culture of his contemporaries was Georges Hébert (1875-1957). During his time as a French naval officer, there was a volcanic eruption near the town of St. Pierre in Martinique. Aiding in the rescue operation, Hébert was deeply impressed by the experience. In particular, he observed how keenly humans needed both physical preparedness and radical altruism in the face of such situations. His motto became: “Être fort pour être utile” (“Be strong to be useful”).

Again, like Jahn, Hébert focused on youth education and designed a carefully monitored set of progressions to promote what he called “natural movement.” The protocol prefigures the one Leprotti established in La Sierra, with climbing, jumping, throwing, swimming and some martial arts. There was also a focus on altruism and the spirit of collective effort.

Hébert favored exciting challenges that tested every level of athletic ability and developed obstacle courses (le parcours) that influenced 21st-century Parkour. His designs helped inspire the modern “adventure playground,” with their heights and other managed risks and the presence of playworkers, who, like park rangers, maintain and facilitate the play space but don’t intrude on the children’s work of self-challenge and discovery. 

Core to Hébert’s ethos was the democratization of physical activity, the conviction that it should belong not to an elite few, but to all. He made a high-profile break with Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, when he rejected the concept of the Games and the professionalization of sport in general. The world was becoming a spectator-oriented reality, he believed, instead of a participant-oriented one. His 1925 book “Sport Versus Physical Education,” argued that money, merchandising and spectacle would foster arrogance among athletes, promote passivity in non-athletes, and corrupt the spirit of self-challenge, altruism and civic-mindedness.

It’s hard to dispute Hébert’s prescience. I don’t claim some idyll of ubiquitous athleticism existed in Hébert’s time, or any other. But I do put stock in his vision: that aspirational concept of robustness twinned with selflessness, that impressed itself on him in a reeling town in Martinique.

The world has seen something of that awesome power of unity demonstrated in Ukraine. Perhaps it may seem grotesque, or glib, to compare that horrific and bloody conflict to an issue as diffuse as sedentary living. Yet in the United States, a recent shocking study found that more than half the population worries another Civil War will erupt in the next decade. From the study: 

Among 6,768 respondents who considered violence to be at least sometimes justified to achieve … specific political objectives, 12.2% were willing to commit political violence themselves ‘to threaten or intimidate a person,’ 10.4% ‘to injure a person,’ and 7.1% ‘to kill a person.’

We are as much in need of social cohesion as we are in need of better physical health. What if, per Hébert’s dream, the two fed each other?

The United States is further from that dream than many nations. Despite exorbitant spending on expensive collegiate sports facilities, top-level coaching for elite athletes and Olympic medal hauls, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 24% of the general U.S. population meets the basic standards for combined aerobic and strength conditioning; it ranks 20th in engagement with physical exercise, far behind global leaders like Australia, Taiwan, Norway and New Zealand.

One theory for why these particular countries are so much more successful is their cultures that place an emphasis on time spent outdoors (especially true in Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia). Studies suggest that people who exercise outdoors tend to do so for longer, and this matches with Jahn’s preference for free outdoor calisthenics.

One analyst posited that the Taiwan government’s focus on subsidizing low-cost public gyms while cracking down on private gyms with predatory contracts helped lead to the nation’s 406% boom in gym growth between 2013 and 2020. According to a report from the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Research Hub, these and other government policies improved exercise rates by 33%, making the island nation’s efforts a compelling civic model of fitness outreach. 

Meanwhile, despite the cultural differences between NATO countries like Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Greece and Austria, they each have a potential template for weaving physical fitness into the civic body along the lines of mandatory national service, whereby young citizens spend a year or more in either military or civilian service. To take the Austrian model as an example, about 40% of civilian service members work as EMTs, about 25% in social care, and then it breaks down into smaller niches working with refugees, disaster relief, agricultural assistance, and so on.

“If we and our neighbors are ultimately one social and civic body, then surely it is one of our primary duties, and a deep calling, to see what this great body is capable of, when we challenge it properly.”

What if every Western country instituted a national service and a substantial subset of those serving helped administer physical education and/or physical games in free public exercise parks? Let’s call it playwork. Alternatively, nonprofit volunteer groups could spearhead the initiative. (There’s no particular reason why this has to be an exclusively public or private enterprise.) The concept of “food deserts” has caught on, but what about being “movement-starved”? Can we collectively learn to move again, and in more compelling ways? 

National service in the form of coordinating play, or physical recreation, could also give direction to a lot of young men who, divorced from a sense of purpose, are dropping out of college, the job market and society at large. The routes by which we might approach building a better relationship between individuals and their physical bodies are almost limitless, and the potential obstacles are equally dizzying.

Long before we arrive at questions of what form the transformation would take and how it could be funded, we must acknowledge the near impossibility of forming a consensus on anything in the 21st century. We’re awash in contradictory information on virtually every subject; our political tribes seem almost to perceive different realities. Suggesting we undo this Gordian knot by exercising together is bound to strike many readers as naïve and impossible to implement.

My purpose here is simply to recount certain specific, limited scenarios in which the vision of a broadly positive, civic-minded physical culture has been achieved, and to pose the question: What fundamental perceptual shifts would be required to realize the same in any given community?

I come back to the particular qualities of gymnastics — its emphasis on individual excellence and clean form, dovetailing with a collectivist team spirit — and to the idealism of Turnvater Jahn. Around the same time that the Brothers Grimm were collecting folklore, Jahn the philologist coined the term volkstum (literally “folkdom”) which conveyed a sense of community. His aim was to unify a fairly ethnically homogenous people fragmented by a lack of shared nationhood.

The problem facing our own time is the reverse: ethnically and ideologically diverse people yoked together (tenuously) by an abstract notion of citizenhood. Even a single city block can house people with radically different cultural backgrounds and tastes in everything, including athletic modalities.

Still, I suspect that a 21st-century volkstum could evolve, divested of the uglier elements of xenophobia and nationalistic tribalism that characterized the fascist movements of the 20th century. It would be the physical language of small communities — people who live near each other, who run or swim together, or who spot each other in calisthenic workouts. Ultimately these neighbors will depend on each other if some physical threat befalls their community. It would be an antidote to the atomization of modern life, where we seal ourselves off into algorithmically tailored, non-physical pockets of comfort.   

Patriotism is paradoxical — it can be used for violent revolt or its opposite: profound societal cohesion across all geographic regions and class layers. More than 175 years after the gymnastics revolutionaries demanded a change to the semi-feudal ruling class in Prussia, we — in the West — are in need of another revolution: again, not just in how we relate to our bodies, but also in how we perceive our social reality. If we and our neighbors are ultimately one social and civic body, then surely it is one of our primary duties, and a deep calling, to see what this great body is capable of, when we challenge it properly.