Physical Fitness Throughout Our World’s History

By Tracy Wright

In 2021, physical fitness is often associated with state-of-the-art gyms, Peloton home bike rides and fitness apps. In primitive society, as we evolved as humans, fitness was necessary to survive. The early hunter-gatherer societies needed to move quickly to capture prey for food in order to survive.

Once society became more civilized, the need for constant movement waned. However, evidence of physical fitness can be found in ancient China and India. The great philosopher Confucius’ teachings recommended physical activity as a way to prevent disease, and in India, the foundations of yoga began as it aligned physical activity with the spirituality of Buddhism and Hinduism. Meanwhile, in Persia, the first example of a gym was born where Persians hosted aggressive calisthenics sessions with iron weights, according to the History of Health and Fitness website.

Greek and Roman Influences

The advent of serious physical training began in ancient Greece, known for bringing the world the Olympic games, a celebration of athletics and fitness.

“Perhaps no other civilization has held fitness in such high regard as ancient Greece. The idealism of physical perfection was one that embodied ancient Greek civilization,” said researchers Lance C. Dalleck, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D., in their authored paper “The History of Fitness,” which was released by the University of New Mexico. “The appreciation for beauty of the body and importance of health and fitness throughout society is one that is unparalleled in history. The Greeks believed development of the body was equally as important as development of the mind.”

In Greece, young boys trained in sites called palaestras where there was an “indoor facility for gymnastics, in addition to an outdoor area for running, jumping, and wrestling,” Dalleck and Kravitz write in their article. Athletic competitions were held in
Greece eventually leading to the first Olympic Games where athletes had to vow to train for a minimum amount of time. At first the sports featured in the Olympics were solely distance sprint and running competitions but eventually grew to include wrestling, boxing and chariot racing.

The great Roman empire also valued physical fitness as a paramount virtue mostly so citizens could be prepared for military battle. Military training consisted of activities such as running, marching, jumping, and discus and javelin throwing, said Dalleck and Kravitz. As their society became more grandiose and luxurious, the importance of fitness waned. Ironically, one of the reasons that the empire fell to Barbarian tribes was due to the tribes’ sheer physical dominance.

European Fitness: The Renaissance and Beyond

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the medieval and dark ages did not yield much in the ways of fitness, other than the peasants serving hard labor, according to an article written by Erwan Le Corre. But the dawn of the Renaissance sparked not only an interest in arts and culture but also on the physical body. Many philosophers taught that peak fitness levels were connected to high intellect. This time in history and these philosophies helped usher in fitness across Europe, said Dalleck and Kravitz.

After the Renaissance, physical education programs began popping up in countries across Europe, and the most popular emerging sport was gymnastics. In Germany, two central figures— Johann Guts Muths and Friedrich Jahn—were considered the founders of German gymnastics. Jahn, in particular, believed that physical strength and fitness were paramount in ensuring a strong country that would not fall to other countries as Germany had to endure when Napoleon conquered it, according to Dalleck and Kravitz. Jahn helped to develop the first gymnasium (or turnplatz) and invented gymnastics apparatuses like the rings, parallel and horizontal bars and the pommel horse.

In Sweden, Per Henrik Ling was also developing his own form of gymnastics but much more individualized to each body. Ling had a medical background and believed in the importance of physical education for everyone. In Denmark, Frank Nachtegall developed gymnastics programs throughout the country, eventually opening a private facility and training other fitness instructors.

British medical student Archibald Maclaren was a loud proponent of the benefits of exercise and fitness. He was particularly interested in the scientific connection to fitness and made several observations by studying the progress of physical activity. These included that physical fitness is the antidote for stress and fatigue and that optimal fitness levels cannot be reached just through simple recreation.

Fitness in America

Early colonial America did not have traditional fitness programs, rather, the daily grind of farming, hunting and raising animals provided enough physical rigor to colonists. After the Revolution, many national leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin touted the importance of physical fitness.

At that time, Catherine Beecher focused on exercise specifically for women, and designed calisthenics classes timed to music. Beecher’s exercise style undoubtedly influenced what we now know as modern- day aerobics, said Dalleck and Kravitz.

After the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution greatly altered U.S. society. Advances in working technology sent more people from rural life to city life, which was far less physically taxing. Eventually the cost of this lifestyle would take its toll when in the 1950s and 60s, people began suffering from ailments like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, according to Dalleck and Kravitz.

At the beginning of the 20th century, American presidents began to influence the importance and necessity of physical fitness. Theodore Roosevelt encouraged citizens to be physically active and frequently hiked and went horseback riding while in office.

After World War I, there was some national concern regarding soldiers’ fitness levels prior to the war. The national government passed legislation to improve physical education programs in the public schools. However, events such as the Great Depression and World War II shifted the nation’s priorities.

During the 1940s, Dr. Thomas K. Cureton used research to study fitness and developed fitness tests to measure things like flexibility, endurance and strength. He also discovered important findings on intensity levels needed to improve fitness. His research formed the basis of what we now know about exercise, said Dalleck and Kravitz.

In the 1950s, a series of tests that measured American children’s levels of strength and flexibility yielded poor results. When President Dwight Eisenhower learned of these results, he took action by forming the President’s Council
on Youth Fitness. President John Kennedy continued the emphasis on physical fitness by speaking openly about the importance of physical fitness and starting youth fitness programs. He is quoted as saying “Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence.”

Jack Lalanne was an icon of American fitness beginning in the 1950s when he premiered a national talk show that helped to promote all types of fitness including aerobics and resistance training. He developed fitness equipment like the first leg extension machine and cable pulley. His fitness-focused personality ushered in similar followers like Richard Simmons, Jane Fonda, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Suzanne Somers, Susan Powter and Billy Blanks.

Physical Fitness Today

Postwar America saw people more enamored with fitness than ever before, often turning to fitness fads and trends over the years. The 1980s and 1990s ushered in jazzercise, fitness videos, home gyms, step aerobics, kickboxing, Buns of Steel, and
the cycling craze known as spinning. Most recently we have seen the rise of the Latin dance fad known as Zumba and the high intensity box gym format of Crossfit.

“Fitness has evolved in some huge ways over the years. There seems to be something new marketed to the masses as the ‘best’ way to stay active and get healthy on a regular basis,” said Misha Patz, a health coach and personal trainer who owns MP Health. Patz is a certified professional trainer and health coach. “With the improvement of technology and the resources to carry out extensive research, we have been able to learn more and more about how the body works and the ways different types of fitness routines impact it.”

At Home Workouts

Today, with the rise of electronic gadgets, people can exercise virtually with the help of an online instructor. These include
the Peloton bike, the Nordic track rower, the SoulCycle, the Mirror and the Tonal Trainer. While this home-based equipment can be very convenient for users, there may be drawbacks.

“The flexibility of having a home gym or a workout program can be a huge benefit to those not wanting to spend money on a gym membership they will not use and can spare one the hassle of having to leave the house after a long day. While this sounds great, the sad reality is that I talk to people on a regular basis who have spent thousands of dollars on home equipment that has never been used. A major drawback of home-based technology is the lack of accountability and social interaction,” Patz said. “These home apps, programs and tech do not create an environment conducive to social interaction and can make it easier for those struggling to fall further into a season of isolation.”

Accountability and Personalization

Accountability to our own physical fitness also seems to become more apparent. With technology like FitBit or the Apple watch, it is easier for us to track our daily movement and see where we may be faltering. In fact, there are many free apps like My Fitness Pal that can track both activity and nutrition to help users accurately measure their whole-body health.

Fitness has also become increasingly personalized even as group fitness—whether it’s in-person or with other virtual users— becomes even more popular.

“In former years, people were encouraged to push their limits in order to maximize training results. The incorporation of modifications for individuals has been a way that fitness instructors have provided safe environments for anyone new to fitness while still offering the push others desire. This is very different than former years where no pain no gain was the motto or coaches were calling players sissies who wanted a water break. Once again, with the increase of research, we learned that hydration
is actually a key factor in performance, not a weakness on a player’s mindset. In the same way, personalized workouts have created a starting point for even the most limited individuals to experience a challenging workout without the fear of injury,” Patz said.

The Future of Fitness

New forms of fitness training include high intensity interval training with short bursts of high intensity training that can be performed in short amounts of time, perfect for those with a jam-packed schedule. We are also returning to nature more than ever too by taking our workouts outdoors.

“I expect that we will continue to see new home- based technology and virtual training options. In my opinion, one of the most underrated forms of exercise is outdoor walking. So much time seems to be spent indoors. We need nature and sunlight. We need to have time away from constant stimulation from devices and noise to think and breathe,” Patz said. “I have seen more clients change their lives by walking 20 minutes outside everyday than I have seen people make any change by working out hard for two hours, one day a week. It is not always about the intensity done randomly but by the consistent routine we choose to embrace. One of my favorite quotes says ‘The secret to your success lies in your daily routine’.”


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