Spiritual Exercises: Fitness and Religion in Modern America

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Religious Studies

First Advisor

Lofton, Kathryn


This dissertation observes how the structuring logics of American Christianity operate in the consumerist landscape of health, wellness, and fitness to understand how religion is enlisted in the politicized work of reforming the body. Anchoring this study in a multi-year ethnography of the CrossFit and SoulCycle brands and the communities formed around them, this ethnography shows how health, wellness, and fitness communities deploy religious language, ritual action, patterns of community making, and religious analogy to advance their social visions of health and the good life for a profit. In its historical register, this project brings to light the longstanding pressures and assumptions of white Protestant Christianity in shaping American body ideals and health standards, revealing an ableist, fat-phobic, and white body as representative of the American body-politic. While scholars of religion and embodiment have observed the overwhelming interest of American Christians in fitness, Spiritual Exercises pushes scholars of American religion to consider how secular fitness culture is a Christian formation that reproduces a social investment in whiteness. In its ethnographic register, this project follows how brand-loyal adherents make sense of the metaphysical claims that suffuse their fitness regimens by acting as on-the-ground religious innovators and theorists in what I call colloquial religion. I argue that instances of colloquial religion, in which adherents openly play with ideas of religion through figurative language, affective cues, parody, embodied practices, and the marketplace, is a form of theorizing that both describes and performs new modes of religious possibility.

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