The History of Fitness

From primitive to present times, how fitness has evolved and come of age.

As we enter the 21st century, one of the greatest accomplishments we can celebrate is our continuous pursuit of fitness since the beginning of humankind. Throughout prehistoric time, the quest for fitness was driven by a need to survive through the arduous tasks of hunting and gathering. Today, though no longer driven by subsistence requirements, fitness remains paramount to people's health and well-being. This article will highlight the history of fitness, beginning with primitive man and leading to the foundation of the modern fitness movement.

Primitive Man (pre-10,000 BC)

Primitive, nomadic lifestyles required continual hunting and gathering of food for survival. It was quite common for tribes to embark on one- or two-day journeys to seek food and water. Following successful hunting and gathering excursions, tribes would often travel six to 20 miles to celebrate with neighboring tribes and then partake of dancing and cultural games that lasted several hours. This Paleolithic pattern of subsistence pursuit and celebration demanded a high level of fitness.

The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution (10,000-8000 BC)

This period marked the end of the primitive lifestyle and signified the dawn of civilization. This time was defined by important agricultural developments, such as the invention of the plow and domestication of plants and animals. These advancements made it possible for hunting-gathering tribes to obtain vast amounts of food while remaining in the same area, thus transforming primitive, nomadic peoples into agrarian (agriculture and farming) societies. Unfortunately, this era also coincided with the beginning of a more sedentary lifestyle, as daily physical activity decreased with fewer hardships to conquer.

The Near East (4000-250 BC)

Recognizing the importance of physical performance in the battle field, early leaders within the civilizations of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Palestine, Persia and Syria encouraged fitness among their peoples. Perhaps the best example of a civilization using fitness for political and military purposes was the Persian Empire, which implemented mandatory rigid training programs to expand its domain. As this empire became more affluent, physical activity became less important. At the point the Persian Empire finally collapsed, its society could largely be characterized by an overall lack of fitness.

Ancient Chinese and Indian Civilizations (2500-250 BC)

The Chinese culture recognized that regular exercise could prevent certain diseases. In fact, the philosophical teachings of Confucius encouraged participation in physical activity. Consequently, the Chinese developed Cong Fu gymnastics to keep the body in good working condition. Cong Fu exercise programs consisted of various stances and movements that were actually modeled after the fighting styles of different animals. The ancient Chinese also engaged in other forms of physical activity, such as archery, badminton, dancing, fencing and wrestling.

In India, the pursuit of fitness was discouraged because Buddhism and Hinduism put a greater emphasis on spirituality than on physical fitness. However, Hindu priests did develop an exercise program that conformed to their religious beliefs; that program came to be known as yoga. Though its exact origin has yet to be identified, yoga has existed for at least the past 5,000 years. Translated, the word yoga means “union,” a reference to the Hindu philosophy that strives to unite and develop the body, mind and spirit. By observing and mimicking the movement patterns of animals, the priests hoped to achieve the same balance with nature that animals seemed to possess.

Ancient Greek Civilization (2500-200 BC)

Perhaps no other civilization has held fitness in such high regard as ancient Greece. This civilization’s appreciation of the body and focus on health and fitness are unparalleled in history. The Greeks believed that development of the body was equally as important as development of the mind. Facilitating the growth of fitness were Greek medical practitioners, such as Herodicus, Hippocrates and Galen.

Gymnastics, along with music, were considered vital to the education of all Greeks. In fact, a common saying in ancient Greek times was “exercise for the body and music for the soul” (Wuest & Bucher 1995). In Athens, gymnastics took place in indoor facilities called palaestras (the precursors to health clubs) and were supervised by a paidotribe (similar to today’s personal fitness trainer). In Sparta, the government imposed special fitness programs for its male children to ensure they would become highly fit adult soldiers. Females were required to maintain good physical condition in order to produce healthy male offspring who could serve the state. The military-dominated culture of Sparta resulted in one of the most physically fit societies in the history of mankind.

Roman Civilization (500 BC-476 AD)

During its reign of conquest and expansion, the Roman Empire mandated that all its citizens maintain good physical condition and be prepared for military service. Everyone between the ages of 17 and 60 was eligible for the draft and trained in activities such as running, marching, jumping and discus and javelin throwing (Grant 1964)). This emphasis on physical training resulted in a society of strong, fit people who conquered nearly all of the Western World. However, the fitness levels of the general Roman population declined as entertainment and acquisition of material wealth became higher priorities than physical condition. A lavish lifestyle and physical decay eventually took their toll, and the Roman civilization was overcome by physically superior barbarian tribes from Northern Europe.

The Dark Ages (476-1000 AD) and Middle Ages (900-1400 AD)

In much the same way as primitive man, the barbarian tribes from Northern Europe depended on physical fitness for survival. Their lifestyle consisted of hunting and gathering food and tending to cattle. Therefore, despite the cultural and intellectual setbacks that occurred with the fall of the Roman Empire, fitness actually experienced a revival during the Dark and Middle Ages.

The Renaissance (1400-1600 AD)

The Renaissance gave birth to a renewed interest in culture and a glorification of the human body. Notables such as Martin Luther and John Locke espoused the theory that high fitness levels enhanced intellectual learning. The Renaissance created an environment that readied people for the widespread development of physical education throughout Europe.

National Period in Europe (1700-1850 AD)

Continental Europe underwent numerous cultural changes following the Renaissance. Fitness remained important and physical education programs expanded within the emerging European nations. Gymnastics enjoyed immense popularity during this era, especially in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Great Britain. Johann Guts Muths—known as the grandfather of German gymnastics—invented numerous exercise programs and the equipment on which they were performed. Exercise facilities called Turnvereins were built throughout Germany to house apparatuses designed for running, jumping, balancing, climbing and vaulting (Matthews 1969). In Sweden, Per Henrik Ling developed exercise programs tailored for different individuals and advocated that physical educators be schooled in science and physiology in order to understand the effect of exercise on the human body. Denmark’s Frank Nachtegall created a program called “Training Teachers of Gymnastics” for future fitness instructors (Matthews 1969). Meanwhile, Archibald Maclaren was developing Great Britain’s National Systems of Bodily Exercise and Training in Theory and Practice. Remarkably similar to present-day exercise recommendations, Maclaren’s ideas included reducing stress through physical activity and gradually progressing activity levels (Welch 1996).

America’s Colonial Period (1700-1776 AD)

The hardships of colonial life ensured that the early settlers regularly engaged in physical activity in order to survive. Colonial America remained an undeveloped country, and its people spent a great deal of their time and energy plowing the land for crops, hunting for food and herding cattle. With this lifestyle providing plenty of physical activity, settlers had no need for organized exercise programs.

America’s National Period (1776-1860 AD)

Immigrants who arrived in the United States during this period brought with them many aspects of their heritage, including German and Swedish gymnastics programs. But these programs failed to attain popularity, since America was less vulnerable to foreign invasion than European countries were, and therefore keeping fit seemed a less urgent requirement (Barrow & Brown 1988). This is not to say that the need for exercise and fitness was unappreciated. Leaders such as Benjamin Franklin recommended regular physical activity—including resistance training—for health purposes, while President Thomas Jefferson recommended more extreme measures: “Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather shall be little regarded. If the body is feeble, the mind will not be strong” (Personal Fitness Professional 2001). Individuals such as J. C. Warren and Catherine Beecher also advocated regular exercise, especially for women. And in fact, Beecher’s programs, which mixed calisthenics with music, bore remarkable likeness to modern-day “aerobics.” In general, however, little emphasis was placed on physical education during this period.

America Post-Civil War (1865-1900 AD)

One of the most important events with respect to modern fitness in the United States was the Industrial Revolution, which resulted in widespread technological advancements that replaced labor-intensive jobs. Rural life gave way to city life, which generally required less movement and lower levels of physical activity. (By the 1950s, with life-threatening diseases like cancer and diabetes becoming more widespread, the cost of industrialization and urbanization would become glaringly apparent.) On a more positive note, Dioclesian Lewis introduced “The New Gymnastics” following the end of the Civil War in 1865 (Rice, Hutchinson & Lee 1958). Other noteworthy advancements during this period included the development of anthropometric measurements to assess fitness progress, the launch of the first scientific studies on fitness instruction and the creation of organized fitness teaching methodologies.

America in the 20th Century

The 20th century heralded the beginning of a new era in fitness. President Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most physically fit president ever to occupy the Oval Office, used his power and own example to encourage U.S. citizens to be physically active. While president, he engaged in multiple forms of physical activity, including hiking, horseback riding and other outdoor endeavors.

World War I. With America’s entry into World War I in 1917, hundreds of thousands of military personnel were drafted and trained for combat. After the war was fought and won, disturbing information became available regarding the readiness of our troops: One out of every three draftees had been unfit for combat, and many of those drafted were highly unfit prior to military training (Barrow & Brown 1988; Wuest & Bucher 1995). As a result of these dismal findings, the government passed legislation dictating that physical education programs within the public schools be improved. However, the heightened interest in physical education and concern over low fitness levels would prove short-lived as the United States entered the 1920s and the Depression.

The Roaring ‘20s and Great Depression. Throughout history, the pattern has been evident that following a war, people tend to relax more and exercise less. The decade known as the Roaring ’20s was no exception and in fact earned its moniker because society lived more frivolously then than at any other time in recent history. Priorities centered on eating, drinking, partying and other forms of entertainment. With the stock market crash in 1929, fitness levels continued to decline. The gains that physical education programs had made through the passage of legislation following World War I were soon lost. Funding for these programs became limited and was eventually exhausted as the economy continued to falter. Despite this lack of interest in physical activity, it was during this period that Jack LaLanne first began to develop the programming and equipment that became the foundation of the modern fitness movement.

World War II. Like World War I, the “War That Would End All Wars” again underscored the low fitness levels among Americans serving in the military. When the war was over, the public learned that the armed forces had needed to reject nearly half of all draftees or give them noncombat positions (Rice, Hutchinson & Lee 1958). Once again, these embarrassing statistics helped focus the country’s attention on the importance of fitness. Other significant developments during this time included the application of research to fitness practice, particularly by Dr. Thomas K. Cureton at the University of Illinois. Cureton also introduced fitness testing for cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength and flexibility and identified exercise intensity guidelines for improving fitness levels.

Early Years of the Cold War. It is fitting that during this era, when the first wave of baby boomers were born, the focus of fitness shifted from adults to children. Early in the 1950s, tests were conducted on American schoolchildren to measure muscular strength and flexibility in the trunk and leg muscles. Close to 60 percent of American children failed at least one of the tests, compared to only 9 percent of children from European countries (Kraus & Hirschland 1954). In the competitive climate that marked the Cold War, these startling statistics launched a new campaign among U.S. political leaders to promote health and fitness among the nation’s youth. President Eisenhower responded in June 1956 by holding a White House Conference, which led to the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness and the appointment of a Citizens’ Advisory Committee on the Fitness of American Youth (Nieman 1990). During this period, educating the public about the consequences of low fitness levels became a goal of several organizations, including the American Health Association; the American Medical Association; the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; and the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (Barrow & Brown 1988). In 1954, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) was formed; throughout its history, ACSM has established position stands—based on scientific research—on various exercise-related issues.

The 1960s and Beyond. President John F. Kennedy was a major proponent of fitness and its health-related benefits for Americans of all ages. To reflect this concern, he broadened the scope of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness by changing its name to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and appointed Bud Wilkinson as its head. Kennedy also prompted the federal government to become more involved in national fitness promotion and started pilot youth fitness programs. Another major influence during this time was Dr. Ken H. Cooper, widely recognized as the “father of the modern fitness movement.” Cooper advocated a new philosophy that focused on disease prevention instead of disease treatment. Early in his career, Cooper stressed the necessity of providing epidemiological data to support the benefits of regular exercise and health. Data from thousands of individuals became the foundation for his “aerobics” concepts. Dr. Cooper’s message, programs and ideas established the model from which fitness has proliferated up to modern times.

Lessons From History

The history of fitness illustrates some fascinating themes that continue to resonate for those of us living in the 21st century. One common theme is that political and military leaders can help propagate the need for a fitter society—and that after a war, people tend to exercise less. In the wake of recent events, with American troops being deployed as we go to press on this issue, this is an important lesson to ponder.

Another common thread is the relationship of mind, body and spirit throughout history. At times, some cultures prescribed spirituality at the expense of the body, whereas others, like the ancient Greeks, believed a sound mind could only be found in a healthy body. With the world in turmoil, more and more people are seeking mind-body modalities as part of their overall fitness program.

Another interesting theme is the concept of exercise for the body and music for the soul. This concept has evolved harmoniously in present-day fitness programs, with music being a distinctive component of the exercise experience.

It is also timely to remember that history has shown that, as societies become too enamored with wealth, prosperity and self-entertainment, fitness levels tend to decline. Historically, physical fitness levels have also decreased as technology has advanced.

While the past cannot always provide ready solutions to these hurdles, we can learn some important lessons by understanding how fitness has evolved through the ages. By applying some of these lessons with your clients, you can help move the world forward to healthier times.

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Lance Dalleck, PhD

IDEA Author/Presenter
Jeffrey M. Janot, PhD, EPC, is an assistant professor of kinesiology in the department of kine... more less

Len Kravitz, PhD

IDEA Author/Presenter
Len Kravitz, PhD, is the program coordinator of exercise science and a researcher at the University ... more less
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January 2002

© 2002 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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