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Academic prompts attacks from Don Jr and death threats for book looking into racist side of exercise

A historian says she’s been receiving death threats after describing the findings in her latest book that some early 20th century fitness enthusiasts promoted exercise as a result of their eugenicist beliefs.

“I have spent the last days getting – and reporting – death threats, insults, and other ugliness [because] I supposedly believe ‘exercise is racist’,” New School professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela wrote on Twitter on Monday. “If you know me or my work, you know that’s ludicrous. I am about the most enthusiastic fitness booster out there.”

The outrage began on Wednesday, when TIME magazine interviewed Professor Petrzela about her new book Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession, along with the headline, “The White Supremacist Origins of Exercise, and 6 Other Surprising Facts About the History of US Physical Fitness.”

In the conversation, the historian described how early fitness boosters in the US promoted physical activity as a way for white women to give birth to strong white babies, racist ideas influenced by the eugenics movement and rising xenophobia amid rapid immigration.

“They’re saying white women should start building up their strength because we need more white babies,” Professor Petrzela told the magazine. “They’re writing during an incredible amount of immigration, soon after enslaved people have been emancipated. This is totally part of a white supremacy project. So that was a real ‘holy crap’ moment as a historian, where deep archival research really reveals the contradictions of this moment.”

Conservative outlets and online commenters quickly seized on the article, portraying the research as liberals suggesting all exercise is racist.

Donald Trump Jr, the son of the former president, railed against the claim.

“It’s either white supremacy or climate change. Literally everyting is one of those things. Good, bad, or indifferent, they will blame it on one of those things,” he said in a video posted on social media.

“They wabt to get rid of exericse,” he added. “They don’t want physical fitness, and I assume it has to do probably with not wanting people to be self-sufficient or masculine.”

The historian argued this is a misinterpretation of her work.

“I said I didn’t realize how much early strength training enthusiasts (like B. MacFadden) promoted fitness as a way to encourage white women’s fertility,” Ms Petrzela wrote on Twitter. “This is SURPRISING because fitness today is relatively diverse.”

“If you barely read past the headline or this ‘reporting’ but took time to send me antisemitic memes+ violent misogynist fantasies-or if you’re a big follower account who encouraged this-I wish you a more fulfilling 2023…” she added. “Try the gym, it’s great for mood + mental health!”