The precedence of the fit body: A reflection on fitness as new norm in recreational planning

As a researcher of recreational landscapes, I often find myself standing in front of various recreational amenities and facilities. As a way of getting to know the field of research I have made it into a habit to explore these facilities in a very bodily sense. I walk the walking paths, I bike the biking pats, I lift the weights in the outdoor gyms and I jump over car tires when given a chance.

Without reviewing my own bodily performance too deeply, I have an image of myself as having a capable body. I have the basic knowledge of how to use the equipment I face, I have enough muscle power to work with my body to overcome most challenges I meet in these recreational landscapes. Until I started to encounter new challenges.

To set this story of new challenges in place, I am studying Upplands Väsby, north of Stockholm, as a typical example of a welfare landscape. Like many other municipalities, Upplands Väsby, have a vast network of recreational facilities for physical activity and recreation dating back to the 1960s and the then rapid urban expansion. In the sports policy from 1976 one can read the following argument for why the municipality should engage in planning for active recreation:

The most obvious are probably the purely psychological effects of physical activity such as recreation and relaxation from the stresses of daily work. The improved physical condition further leads to a reduced feeling of fatigue and thereby increases well-being.[1]

From these previous official policies, physical activities and recreation comes to the fore as a strategy for coping and restoration, and ultimately a tool for social reproduction. The national slogan of Sports for all popularized in 1969, captures the spirit of the time, stressing that sports, in the form of almost any physical activity, should be accessible and feasible for all.

So what are then these new features, giving me new challenges, in a landscape previously geared towards restoration and reproduction? 

Old meets new in the recreational landscape. Weathered markings for running paths and the bright orange of the new obstacle course.

At the old sports ground where football pitches and swimming halls are located, a new concrete formation with climbing holds towers over a small outdoor gym. Colourful climbing grips are scattered over the raw concreate surface and beneath lies a coverage of sand to soften falls.  I am taken by surprise of these grips. They are small and hard to hold, offering little support. In combination with the rather massive overhang increasing the level of difficulty significantly, this wall is nothing for a casual workout. Being a somewhat experienced hobby-climber I find myself just standing looking at these grips. How, I think, how is it possible to even start climbing this wall? Next to this impossible climbing wall, there is a newly established parkour track. Here too the amount of strength and flexibility needed surprises me.

Warm up your fingertips, it’s time for some restorative exercise..!

Along a running path though a local forests I find a new tack for obstacle course racing. The running path is marked with the traditional coloured markings, indicating different lengths and routes. It is a familiar sight for any semi-urban recreational forest in Sweden. The obstacle course is bright orange and the obstacles requires strength, control, balance, bodily discipline, force and speed. I try to overcome one obstacle where the task is to wing yourself forward, holding in to vertical metal handles, or ‘nunchucks’, hanging from an overhead structure. I fail, miserably.

The dreaded nunchucks…

How then can one understand these new features? Am I simply just not fit enough? Yes perhaps. Or could this bean effect of a growing fitness culture, a new norm of the (very) fit body?

Sassatelli[2] definines fitness as embodied performances, where movements of the body is made not for an external ‘good’ or externa goal, but the goal is embodied, it lies in the shaping and modeling of the own body. Fitness is, in Sassatellis words, a performance geared towards body transformation and improvement. The growing attention to fitness, coupled with health and diet, is starkly visible in popular culture as well as in the streetscape of any urban area. Indoor gyms and fitness centres are in abundance, and perhaps is this what we now see spilling over to the outdoor recreational landscapes. Perhaps is this an instant of a wider sportification of society,or even as Jirásek and Zain Kohe[3] argues by expanding sportification with theatrification, thatevery day physical activities increasingly takes the form of performances, of performing the sporting, or fit, body. Clear is that these norms are something else than the restoration and coping mechanism of the 1970’s public discourse on recreation.

This reflection speaks to larger issues, beyond my personal fitness. The question of whether I am fit enough should be read as a broader question of whom are these recreational landscapes for, whom are fit enough to participate? What bodies becomes the norm when fitness takes precedence over recreation as leisure? If thinking of the term public health with these new specialized facilities in mind, I can only hope that equal measures are made to facilitate a recreational landscape for all, not only for the few.

Amalia Engström

[1]Sassatelli, R. (2010). Fitness culture: gyms and the commercialisation of discipline and fun. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Ivo Jirásek & Geoffery Zain Kohe (2015) Readjusting Our Sporting Sites/Sight: Sportification and the Theatricality of Social Life, Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 9:3, 257-270

[1] Upplands Väsby kommun. (1976). Fritidsplan 1976-1980. Upplands Väsby: Planeringsnämnden för social- och fritidsverksamhet

MSc in Sustainable Urban Planning and Design, currently PhD student in Landscape planning. Interested in planning for outdoor recreation, planning histories and urban greenspace.