Anne Vatter & Walter Bartl: Justifying Physical Activity (Dis-)Engagements: Fitness Centers and the Latent Expectations of (Former) Members. [Abstract]

Discourse surrounding healthcare constructs physical activity to be the moral obligation of individuals for preventing illness. Commercial fitness centers are the principle places for doing physical exercise and represent a commercial and relatively standardized socio-material setting aimed at helping to create a fit and healthy body. Despite their success, fitness centers in Germany have a customer turnover rate of 25 % and often appear unable to retain their members over the long term. Why do people who were once motivated to become a member of a fitness center turn their back on it? We argue that these disengagements can be explained to a considerable extent by the non-fulfillment of latent personal expectations. The discourse on health creates manifest normative expectations which actors on the fitness market respond to by providing functional environments (supply) and by developing individual physical exercise projects (demand). Yet, the establishment of personal routines, which is an integral element of the marketized good in question, could fail in the functional setting of a fitness center – a critical moment that brings to light personal latent expectations that are usually difficult to verbalize. This paper focuses on the justification of engagement in, and disengagement from, physical activity by analyzing qualitative interviews with (former) members of fitness centers. Regimes of engagement and orders of worth are two concepts from the sociology of conventions which enable us to disentangle typical tensions in this specific socio-material setting. Our analysis provides access to user experiences that are only rarely explicitly verbalized as a critique of commercial market providers. It also allows us to reflect upon preventive health policies aimed at the promotion of physical activities.

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