New research published in the American Anthropologist reports the results of ethnographic research on a branded version of functional fitness. Brooklyn College anthropologist Katie Rose Hejtmanek suggests that the shift toward intensive, functional fitness programs exemplifies the American “audit culture” of the post 9/11 world and demonstrates the preoccupation with a coming apocalypse, termed ‘necropolitics,’ of elite, white Americans facing an uncertain, neoliberal future.
There is a growing body of evidence that exercise is an underappreciated response to major depression, first-episode psychosis, and attention deficits. Enthusiasts attest to its ‘life-saving’ qualities, which include a renewed sense of self-efficacy. Most of this research studies people whose mental health problems make it difficult to get any exercise at all, thus showing the massive benefit of small steps toward increasing bodily health and agility.
On the other end of the spectrum, toward excessive exercise, lies functional fitness. It is a type of exercise fad that emphasizes strict standardization and intensity. Psychologically, it represents uses of exercise described in eating disorder literature as asserting control over one’s body as a response to physical and emotional experiences that overwhelm one’s limited resources for coping.
This ethnographic research studies BranFunFit training centers and workout culture to highlight the ideology of disaster and wartime preparation (metaphorically referred to as the “zombie apocalypse”), motivating its white-collar adherents. The author links BranFunFit training, the zombie apocalypse, global transitions of power, and neoliberal shifts affecting hegemonic positions in the United States.
The intense audit system, culture, and subjectivity encouraged by BranFunFit training squares with fears about a pending apocalypse for which the daily workouts prepare participants. She claims that such participation expresses racial and class-based tensions exacerbated by neoliberal precarity in the United States.
Zombies and the apocalypse have historical roots in US society, leading to zombie apocalypse fears in post-9/11 America. Per the American cultural tropes of self-realization, one’s survival depends on one’s own resources and limits and relies on personal preparedness, to which BranFunFit provides an answer.
The author links this gym brand’s emergence to a historical summons to fitness by US presidents, drawing in those who are supposed to represent the United States – fit, white males. An ex-US combat trainer created the regimen shortly after 9/11. Though there are gyms all over the world, the community of BranFunFit practitioners in the US is economically elite (six-figure incomes), educated (40% with postgraduate degrees), and white (86%).
In audit culture, discipline is cultivated through standards, and the body is trained through competitive classes, coaches, logging, and group documentation of workouts. Daily workouts named after war veterans and natural disasters illustrate how BranFunFit is a performance measurement system replete with a complex knowledge base of techniques.
“One assesses fitness levels—one’s physical capacity, what the body can endure—based on the ability to intensely perform workouts linked to war, death, and natural disaster,” Hejtmanek explains. “What one eats, how one counts food, how much one sleeps, how much water one drinks, what supplements one ingests, one’s body weight, one’s perceived daily stress levels, and one’s personal records are all measured, documented, and come to define not only one’s daily exercise routine but also how hard and smart one is training and how fit one’s body is.”
According to the author, these activities are meant to mediate insecurity and risk of pending worlds in which global power and dominance have shifted.
“BranFunFit’s efforts to train to survive such a world is a moral framework that doubles down on capitalist agendas, individual and hegemonic masculine work, and postcolonial racial hierarchies rather than turning toward social organizing or a commitment to others more broadly.”
While survivalist or millenarian ideologies are commonly known to be religiously motivated or simply paranoid, this framework of zombie apocalypse survival via BranFunFit is “located within a secular community that represents America’s elite citizenry.” The focus on standards or “audit systems,” disciplinary technologies focused on instilling new norms of conduct, is cross-cultural. The zombie apocalypse survival framework, however, is unique to America.
The survivalist framework bespeaks a calculus of life that perceives another’s existence as an attempt on one’s own life–a distinctively wartime sentiment. Those who benefit from racism, patriarchy, and capitalism understand the upending of these systemic injustices and the “Others,” the “living dead” at their doors, as threats to their lives. The comfort of an individual and group survival of the fittest, in this case, proves more bearable than facing the psychic burden of race-based stress and other burdens of impending social transformation.
BranFunFit is a fitness practice organized as an audit system, encouraging participants to govern themselves and others according to rigorous standards. Rigorous training answers to a pending world where a racialized Other is responsible for upending the current world order. Forging a practice of life through fear of death constitutes an elite response to a world and psyche shot through with terror, economic precarity, and border and cyber insecurity.