Swedish researchers think training and health have become Western culture’s new religion. (Illustrative photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock/NTB scanpix).

Fitness is our religion

Society’s focus on health and exercise meet all the criteria of a religion, according to Swedish researchers.

Britta Pelters and her research colleague Barbro Wijima from Linköbing University have compared society’s focus on health and fitness training wth the ten points that Harold Y. Vanderpool, a sociologist, has listed as the basic characteristics of a religion,
Pelters is a senior lecturer in Health Education at the Halmstad University College in Sweden.

She thinks the current focus on fitness meets all the criteria of Vanderpool’s ten points. She hopes this will contribute to more critical thinking about new trends and a healthier attitude toward training and health.

Vanderpool points out that a religion comprises something sacred and meaningful. The Swedish researcher mentions, as an example, the World Health Organization (WHO), which defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”

“This definition describes the perfect image of health and can be viewed as a divine principle. Through the pursuit of health, humans have control of something, or they think they do. In this way, heath provides the need for reassurance in the same was as a divine forec,” says Peters to Samspel, Halmstad Univerity’s magazine for research dissemination.

According to Vanderpool a religion contains the following characteristics:
The sacred
A comprehensive world view
Moral values
A protective screen
Certain moods and emotions
Conviction the content of one’s religion is completely realistic and true
Harold Y. Vanderpool: The Religious Features of Scientific Medicine. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, September 2008, Doi: 10.1353/ken.0.0199.Abstract.

The researcher thinks this divine or holy ideal has a flip side; it can lead to shame and disappointment. After all, we all can be stricken with disease even though we have worked as hard as possible to eat, exercise and sleep properly.

Rituals, temples and priesthood

Fitness bloggers and others who offer advice and opinions about health, diets and lifestyle are the new priests of a fitness religion, asserts Pelters.

“Perhaps people are reluctant to be perceived as a health priest, but the role can easily be given to them,” says Britta Pelters.

The researcher thinks the Western health culture’s focus on genes and a long, healthy life can be categorised as a comprehensive world view. Maintaining a fit body becomes a moral duty.

According to Pelters, the health religion has its iconic locations ― gyms. These can be viewed as fitness temples. A good workout can consist of many rituals, including the consumption of special foods and beverages before and after training, and of course adherence to a stringent training scheme. The feeling of community is reinforced in this temple.

Pelters thinks this fitness religion is primarily a middle class phenomenon, as class members wish to be perceived as useful and successful members of society.

“However, when health becomes a class issue there is a risk for those who do not fit the healthy template. In a health religion society, they are subjected to discrimination. A person can be judged by their weight,” she says.

Sceptical to the religion concept

Mari Kristin Sisjord, a professor in sports sociology at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, is sceptical about defining an intenser focus on exercise and health as a religion.

“As I see it, a religion entails a belief in an afterlife and contact with a higher power.  I don’t think training and nutrition can replace this. When people say ‘My body is my temple’ we start getting close to a metaphor with religious overtones. But I think this is more about the worship of a realisable body and perfection, rather than a religion,” says Sisjord.

Although Sisjord disagrees about the use of the religion concept, she accepts many of the Swedish researchers’ arguments. She also thinks society’s current obsession with health and training can be approaching an unhealthy dimension.

“I agree that there is a huge focus on the body and fitness. This can have serious consequences, which among other things can lead to eating disorders. We need to be critical to the enormous stream of information. So-called experts slip through the internet and social media with advice that is not necessarily sound,” warns the Norwegian professor.

She thinks published research and advice from national authorities are the best sources for persons who seek information about health and nutrition.

She is aware that some people who are obese or otherwise fail to be “healthy enough” can feel stigmatized, but that said, it can be a positive thing for them that society has more focus on healthy lifestyles.

Sisjord agrees that the ideal of having a healthy body can lead to shame and demands of self-discipline. She views these as danger signs of being unhealthily concerned about health.

“The feeling that you have to be training, in the sense that it takes focus away from other important things, is a sign of teetering on the edge toward something unhealthy. It can also be troublesome when a person trains for the utility value, not for the intrinsic value,” says Sisjord.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

Translated by: Glenn Ostling

Scientific links

External links

Related content
Powered by Labrador CMS