We might think of fitness gyms, kettlebells, and yoga classes as modern fads—or things we forget about when our New Year’s resolutions sputter out by February—but exercise is older than civilization itself.
Modern humans are descended from hominids that roamed the eastern plains of Africa over two million years ago. Until around 10,000 years ago, human beings lived in small hunter gatherer societies that lived a nomadic, rather than sedentary existence. Very few of these societies remain, but studies of hunter gatherers indicate that people in such cultures have a much higher caloric expenditure, and have lower rates of obesity, diabetes and chronic disease than those of us who live in the so-called modern world.
Humans became significantly more sedentary approximately 10,000 years ago, when ancient societies around the world discovered agriculture. Agriculture ensured a regular crop, plus harvest surpluses that could be stored in lean times, rendering hunting and gathering unnecessary. Still, humans in these ancient civilizations had a much higher caloric expenditure than most of us living in 2019. It was during this time that some of the oldest forms of exercise were created. The ancient Chinese civilization developed martial arts exercises such as Gong-Fu and Tai Chi, whereas in India Hindu priests strove to unite the mind, body and spirit through exercises now known as yoga.
Ancient civilizations also encouraged physical fitness during times of war and territorial expansion. Ancient Persia was one of the first societies to implement a rigorous program of exercise for its subjects. In the Roman Empire, every citizen was required to maintain a high level of physical fitness to maintain and expand the realm.
But nowhere in the ancient world was physical fitness prized so much as in ancient Greek civilization. In Athens, Greeks practiced gymnastics in indoor facilities known as palaestras and were supervised by paidotribe, the ancient precursor to the fitness coach.
Human lifestyles became even more sedentary after the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, as more people moved to the cities to work in factories. After the Civil War, however, Dioclesian Lewis introduced the “New Gymnastics” to promote health and fitness. It was also during this time that the first scientific studies on exercise were published.
Throughout the 20th century politicians, such as Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy promoted exercise. Kennedy broadened the scope of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness by renaming it the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Another major influence was the work of Dr. Ken H. Cooper, who stressed the disease preventing aspects of exercise.
Today, when we go to 24 Hour Fitness or swing kettlebells, we aren’t merely toning our muscles, we are participating in an activity as old as the human race.
Cooper, K. & Blair S. (2019) Exercise. In Encyclopedia Brittanica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/exercise-physical-fitness.
Dalleck L. & Kravitz L. (2002) The History of Fitness. Retrieved from https://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/the-history-of-fitness.