Do you sometimes berate yourself by thinking that you “should” work out? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why? How can you create a truly healthy and loving relationship with exercise and your body? In this podcast episode, Dr. Cristina Castagnini speaks about the book Fit Nation and America’s obsession with exercise with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela Ph.D.


Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D., is a historian of contemporary American politics and culture. She is the author of CLASSROOM WARS: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015), and FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession (University of Chicago Press, 2023).

She is co-producer and host of the acclaimed podcast WELCOME TO YOUR FANTASY, from Pineapple Street Studios/Gimlet and the co-host of PAST PRESENT podcast. She is a columnist at the Observer, and a frequent media guest expert, public speaker, and contributor to outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and the Atlantic.

Natalia is Associate Professor of History at The New School, co-founder of the wellness education program Healthclass 2.0, and a Premiere Leader of the mind-body practice intenSati. Her work has been supported by the Spencer, Whiting, Rockefeller, and Mellon Foundations. Visit Natalia's website, listen to her podcasts, and connect on Instagram.


  • “I should work out”?
  • Times are always changing
  • Identify your fitness!

“I should work out”?

Why “should” you work out? Of course, exercise in the form of walking and stretching can be greatly beneficial for mental and physical health in general, but why do you feel that you “should”? What for?
This notion that “I should work out”, which is something that almost every American feels in one way or another … that’s the sort of sense … is relatively recent. (Natalia Mehlman Petrzela)
Only a few decades ago, it was considered strange to be working out to simply strengthen your body. People many decades ago lived more active lifestyles in general, from sitting less and walking more to being outdoors more often, and so there was no “should” when it came to getting even more exercise.
There’s this really screwed-up irony where we are a nation [that’s] obsessed with exercise … we have an industry that’s [worth] over $30 billion … and most Americans actually don’t exercise. (Natalia Mehlman Petrzela)

Times are always changing

Beauty ideals and people’s perceptions of beauty shift constantly. Every 50 to 100 years the whole image is different. Chasing the societal standard of beauty will have you constantly changing your body to “fit in”, which can be incredibly damaging to your overall health in the process, a terrible irony.
At that point [some years ago] to be attractive was to look like you had access to caloric food and to leisure because most people were working with their bodies doing manual labor and they couldn’t afford to eat a lot of food! So, if you looked like you were hanging around, eating chocolates and steaks, [people thought], “Wow, you must be successful!” It is so different from today. (Natalia Mehlman Petrzela)
With industrialization, there was a lot more access to food. Suddenly, there was a change from encouraging food to restricting food. Women were predominantly encouraged to minimize their exercise so as not to build muscle, but if their exercising made them thinner, then it was acceptable. This double standard carried on for a while, but the feminist movement which grew in America from the 1970s pushed back on these ideas.
There’s this empowering celebration of women’s strength and ability to take time for themselves to work on their bodies … the messaging, today still, is very confusing around that: what is pressure and what is a privilege? (Natalia Mehlman Petrzela)

Identify your fitness!

Fitness and health are terms that have been misused and thrown around so much that many people aren’t sure what they actually mean, or stand for. You need to sit down with yourself and be truly honest, loving, and open with yourself and your needs. Without being concerned about what other people think you “should” do, what do you want to do? What do you like doing? What will help you to feel like the best version of yourself?
[You] can take control each day of some aspect of [your] physical health, and I think that’s a really powerful part of this story as well. (Natalia Mehlman Petrzela)
How do you want to care for and enjoy your body while living a good, happy, and fulfilled life? Remember, there is so much more to life than aesthetics. Enjoy your body, love it, and care for it with genuine appreciation.



  I am a licensed Psychologist and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist. While I may have over 20 years of clinical experience, what I also have is the experience of having been a patient who had an eating disorder as well. One thing that I never had during all of my treatment was someone who could look me in the eye and honestly say to me "hey, I've been there. I understand". Going through treatment for an eating disorder is one of the hardest and scariest things to do. I remember being asked to do things that scared me. Things I now know ultimately helped me to get better. But, at the time, I had serious doubts and fears about it. If even one of my providers had been able to tell me "I know it's scary, but I had to go through that part too. Here's what will probably happen...." then perhaps I would not have gone in and out of treatment so many times. My own experience ultimately led me to specialize in treating eating disorders. I wanted to be the therapist I never had; the one who "got it". I will be giving you my perspective and information as an expert and clinician who has been treating patients for over 2 decades. But don't just take my word for it...keep listening to hear the truly informative insights and knowledge guest experts have to share. I am so happy you are here!


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