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The History of Fitness
Lance C. Dalleck, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.

As we enter the 21st century, one of the greatest accomplishments to be celebrated is the continuous pursuit of fitness since the beginning of man’s existence. Throughout prehistoric time, man's quest for fitness has been driven by a desire to survive through hunting and gathering. Today, though no longer driven by subsistence requirements, fitness remains paramount to health and well-being. This article will highlight historical events and influential individuals who have shaped the history of fitness beginning with primitive man up to the foundation of the modern fitness movement.

Primitive man and fitness (pre-10,000 B.C)
Primitive nomadic lifestyles required the continual task of hunting and gathering food for survival (1). Tribes commonly went on one- or two- day hunting journeys for food and water. Regular physical activity apart from that necessary for hunting and gathering was also a principal component of life. Following successful hunting and gathering excursions, celebration events included trips of six to 20 miles to neighboring tribes to visit friends and family, where dancing and cultural games could often last several hours. This Paleolithic pattern of subsistence pursuit and celebration, demanding a high level of fitness and consisting of various forms of physical activity, defined human life (2).

The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution (10,000-8,000 B.C.)
The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution marked the conclusion of primitive lifestyle and signified the dawn of civilization. This historic period was defined by important agricultural developments including animal and plant domestication, and the invention of the plow. These human advancements made it possible for hunting-gathering tribes to obtain vast amounts of food while remaining in the same area, thus transforming primitive man into an agrarian (agriculture and farming) society (3). This era in history symbolizes the beginning of a more sedentary lifestyle, as man began to alleviate some hardships of life while. simultaneously decreasing daily physical activity.
Ancient civilizations - China and India (2500-250 B.C.)
In China, the philosophical teachings of Confucius encouraged participation in regular physical activity (4). It was recognized that physical inactivity was associated with certain diseases (referred to as organ malfunctions and internal stoppages, which sound similar to heart disease and diabetes) were preventable with regular exercise for fitness. Consequently, Cong Fu gymnastics was developed to keep the body in good, working condition. Cong Fu exercise programs consisted of various stances and movements, characterized by separate foot positions and imitations of different animal fighting styles (5). In addition to Cong Fu gymnastics, other forms of physical activity existed throughout ancient China including archery, badminton, dancing, fencing, and wrestling.

In India, individual pursuit of fitness was discouraged as the religious beliefs of Buddhism and Hinduism emphasized spirituality and tended to neglect development of the body. Consequently, the importance of fitness within society in general was relatively low. However, an exercise program similar to Chinese Cong Fu gymnastics developed, while still conforming to religious beliefs, known as Yoga. Though its exact origin has yet to be identified, Yoga has existed for at least the past 5000 years. Translated, Yoga means union, and refers to one of the classic systems of Hindu philosophy that strives to bring together and personally develop the body, mind, and spirit. Yoga was originally developed by Hindu priests who lived frugal lifestyles characterized by discipline and meditation. Through observing and mimicking the movement and patterns of animals, priests hoped to achieve the same balance with nature that animals seemed to possess. This aspect of Yoga, known as Hatha Yoga, is the form with which Westerners are most familiar and is defined by a series of exercises in physical posture and breathing patterns (5). Bedsides balance with nature, ancient Indian philosophers recognized health benefits of Yoga including proper organ functioning and whole well-being. These health benefits have also been acknowledged in the modern-day United States, with an estimated 12 million individuals regularly participating in Yoga.

The Near East (4000-250 B.C.)
Early political and military leaders within the civilizations of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Palestine, Persia, and Syria, realizing the importance of fitness to the efficiency and performance of military forces, encouraged fitness throughout society (6). Perhaps the best example of a civilization utilizing fitness for political and military purposes is the Persian Empire. Persian leaders demanded strict physical fitness from its people, which was accomplished through the implementation of rigid training programs. At the age of six, boys became property of the Empire and underwent training which included hunting, marching, riding, and javelin throwing. Fitness training to improve strength and stamina was not intended for health benefits, but rather to create more able soldiers to help expand the Empire (5). The Persian Empire during its height, with its policy and emphasis on high fitness, eventually encompassed all of the Near East. However, emphasis on fitness levels throughout the Persian civilization decreased as affluence and corruption entangled political and military leaders. The downfall and collapse of the Persian Empire occurred at a time when society could largely be characterized by an overall lack of fitness.

Ancient Greek Civilization (2500-200 B.C.)
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. 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. Physical well-being was necessary for mental well-being, with the need for a strong, healthy body to harbor a sound mind. Many founding medical practitioners facilitated the growth of fitness throughout ancient Greece, including the likes of Herodicus, Hippocrates, and Galen (7).

Gymnastics, along with music, was considered to be the most important classroom topic. A common saying in ancient Greek times was "exercise for the body and music for the soul (5) ". Gymnastics took place in palaestras, which were sites of physical education for young boys. The palaestra consisted of an indoor facility for gymnastics, in addition to an outdoor area for running, jumping, and wrestling. When adulthood was reached, typically between the ages of 14 and 16, the site for fitness training switched from palaestras to gymnasiums (8). Exercise in the palaestra and gymnasium was supervised by the paidotribe, who is similar to the modern fitness trainer. This idealistic fitness situation existed most strongly within Athens, which has been characterized as a democratic society most similar to the United States.
The Spartans of Northern Greece valued fitness even more than the Athenians. However, the heightened interest in fitness within Spartan culture was primarily for military purposes. During this era, Greek states were frequently at war with each other. Fighting skills were highly correlated with physical fitness levels, making it imperative for individuals to maintain high fitness levels. Spartan society required males to enter special fitness programs at the age of six. From this point until adulthood, the government was responsible for the child’s upbringing and training. This upbringing consisted of rigorous training programs that ensured all boys would grow into highly fit adult soldiers. Females were also required to maintain good physical condition for the purpose of being able to have strong offspring who could serve the state (9). The military-dominated culture of Sparta resulted in one of the most physically fit societies in the history of mankind.

Roman Civilization (200 B.C.-476 A.D.)
The Roman Empire was the antithesis of the ancient Greek civilization with the overall physical fitness condition of the Roman civilization highest during its time of conquest and expansion. During this period, all Roman citizens between the ages of 17 and 60 were eligible for the military draft. Therefore, it was imperative for all citizens to maintain good physical condition and be prepared for service. Military training consisted of activities such as running, marching, jumping, and discus and javelin throwing (10). This lifestyle resulted in strong, fit people who conquered nearly all of the Western World. However, the fitness levels of the general Roman population declined as individuals became enamored with wealth and entertainment, such as the gladiator battles. Materialistic acquisition and excess became higher priorities than physical condition. The lavish lifestyle and physical decay eventually took its toll as the Roman civilization fell to the physically superior Barbarian tribes from Northern Europe (11).

The Dark (476-1000) and Middle Ages (900-1400)
The crumbling of the Roman Empire, which was conquered by Barbarians from Northern Europe, symbolized the beginning of a millennium of intellectual standstill. However, these occurrences were beneficial with respect to fitness. The lavish lifestyles of the Romans had resulted in the complete deterioration of the society's fitness level. The barbaric tribes from Northern Europe possessed similar characteristics to primitive people. Their lifestyle consisted of hunting and gathering food, and tending to cattle (12). Physical activity and fitness were prerequisites for survival. Therefore, despite the cultural setbacks that occurred with the fall of the Roman Empire, fitness experienced a revival during the Dark and Middle Ages.

The Renaissance (1400-1600)
Following the Dark and Middle Ages, the rebirth of cultural learning from the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations gave rise to the Renaissance. Accompanying this time period was a renewed interest in the human body. Once again, the ancient Greek ideals, which glorified the human body, gained widespread acceptance. Many individuals, including Martin Luther (religious leader), John Locke (philosopher), Vittorino da Feltra, John Comenius, and Richard Mulcaster (physical educators) maintained that high fitness levels enhanced intellectual learning (13, 14).

Civilizations that recognized the importance of fitness needed an avenue to convey this knowledge to their people. Therefore, fitness and physical education share a common bond. Physical education became the tool used to spread the value and benefits of fitness throughout society. School programs, primarily in ancient Greece, had previously recognized the necessity for curriculums involving physical education. The renewed appreciation for human life, which evolved during the Renaissance, created an environment which was ready for the widespread development of physical education throughout Europe.

National Period in Europe (1700-1850)
Continental Europe underwent numerous cultural changes following the Renaissance. Fitness remained important and continued to follow trends initiated during the Renaissance. Physical education programs expanded within emerging nations of Europe. Intense feelings for nationalism and independence created the atmosphere for the first modern fitness movement, which came in the form of gymnastics programs. Gymnastics enjoyed immense popularity during this era, becoming especially prevalent in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Great Britain.
The growth of gymnastics in Germany can be primarily attributed to the work of two physical educators: Johann Guts Muths and Friedrich Jahn. Guts Muths is generally referred to as the "Grandfather of German Gymnastics." He invented numerous exercise programs and the equipment upon which they were performed. His lifetime works and achievements are found in two books - Gymnastics for the Young and Games.
Friedrich Jahn earned the title of "Father of German Gymnastics" for his long-lived work. It was early during Jahn's lifetime that Napoleon conquered much of Europe, including Germany. With its downfall to France, Germany was subsequently divided into separate states. Jahn's passion for German nationalism and independence became the driving force behind his creation of gymnastic programs. He believed future susceptibility to foreign invasion could be prevented through physical development of the German people. Shortly thereafter, exercise facilities that housed apparatuses designed for running, jumping, balancing, climbing, and vaulting called Turnvereins developed throughout Germany (4).
Per Henrik Ling developed and introduced his own gymnastics program to Sweden which consisted of three different areas: 1) educational gymnastics, 2) military gymnastics, and 3) medical gymnastics. Ling, who had a strong medical background, recognized that exercise was necessary for all persons. He maintained that exercise programs should be devised based on individual differences. Ling also believed physical educators must possess knowledge of the effects of exercise on the human body. Ling used science and physiology to better understand the importance of fitness (4).
Frank Nachtegall, who initially started teaching out of his home, introduced and helped popularize gymnastic programs throughout Denmark. He was especially concerned with development of gymnastic programs within school systems. Childhood interest in physical activity sparked Nachtegall’s fascination with fitness. Eventually he taught in a private facility, which was devoted entirely to physical training and later became director of a program designed to prepare future fitness instructors called Training Teachers of Gymnastics (4).
Within Great Britain, medical student Archibald Maclaren spread the word on the benefits of fitness and regular exercise. Marclaren, like Per Henrik Ling of Sweden, was fascinated in the scientific components of fitness. His lifetime works in these areas are recorded in National Systems of Bodily Exercise and Training in Theory and Practice. Marclaren made several observations based on his work, which are remarkably similar to present-day exercise recommendations. Firstly, Marclaren believed the cure for weariness and stress was physical action. Secondly, he noted recreational exercise found in games and sport was not sufficient for attaining adequate fitness levels. Finally, Marclaren realized both growing boys and girls required regular physical exercise. In agreement with Ling, Marclaren also recognized the need for individual variation in fitness training programs. Furthermore, he documented the importance of progression of exercise (15).

America – Colonial Period (1700-1776)
Hardships of colonial life ensured that regular physical activity continued to be a lifestyle priority, however during this period no organized exercise or fitness programs existed. Colonial America remained an undeveloped country characterized by much unexplored land and wilderness. Lifestyles during this era consisted largely of plowing the land for crops, hunting for food, and herding cattle (16). This lifestyle provided sufficient levels of physical activity with no additional need or demand for exercise to maintain fitness levels.

United States - National Period (1776 to 1860)
Fitness in the United States during the National Period was influenced by European cultures. Immigrants brought many aspects of their heritage to the United States, including German and Swedish gymnastics. Constant threats to independence and nationalism from foreign invasion were dynamics prevalent in Europe and not the United States. German and Swedish gymnastic programs failed to attain the same levels of popularity as in Europe (9).
However, early leaders in the United States were conscious of the need for exercise and fitness. Benjamin Franklin recommended regular physical activity, including running, swimming, and basic forms of resistance training for health purposes (17). President Thomas Jefferson acknowledged the necessity for fitness, although maybe to a somewhat extreme measure: “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" (18).
Early Physical Education in the United States
Within Europe, schools had been an important medium for spreading the need for fitness to society through physical education programs. However, in the United States, the educational process focused primarily on intellectual matters. Schools concentrated on teaching traditional subjects including reading, writing, and arithmetic. Physical education remained missing from the public education system for the better part of the nineteenth century (15). Despite the relative lack of interest in fitness existing during this era, J.C. Warren and Catherine Beecher made significant contributions to the future of fitness in America.
Dr. J.C. Warren, a medical professor at Harvard University, was a major proponent of physical activity. Warren’s medical background gave him a clear understanding of the necessity for regular exercise, with his recommendations including exercises such as gymnastics and calisthenics. Furthermore, Warren began devising exercises for females (5). Catherine Beecher specifically devised fitness programs to meet the needs of women. Among her many different programs was a system of calisthenics performed to music (9). Though not formally recognized in name, Beecher's programs of the mid-nineteenth century bear remarkable similarities to modern-day aerobics.

United States – post-Civil War (1865-1900)
One of the most important events with respect to modern fitness in the United States was the Industrial Revolution, which resulted in widespread cultural changes throughout the country. Advancement in industrial and mechanical technologies replaced labor-intensive jobs. Rural life changed to an urban lifestyle. The new city life generally required less movement and work compared to rural life, consequently decreasing levels of physical activity.
At the turn of the century, the most common causes of death were from influenza, polio, rubella, and other infectious diseases. Risk of disease and mortality from infectious diseases were alleviated with the discovery of Penicillin. The cost of industrialization and urbanization became glaringly apparent starting in the 1950s and 1960s. An epidemic of hypokinetic diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type II diabetes, never before prevalent, began to be recognized as the leading causes of disease and death (19). The lifestyle improvements brought in part by the Industrial Revolution had apparently come with an unwanted and alarming cost to health.
Physical Education
Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, Swedish and German Gymnastics enjoyed a moderate growth in popularity. However, the most popular form of gymnastics during this time period was “The New Gymnastics,” introduced by Dioclesian Lewis (20). Individuals who played important roles in the development of fitness during this time period were Edward Hitchcock, William Anderson, and Dudley Sargent.
Hitchcock recognized the desired outcome of his fitness programs (combination of gymnastics and calisthenics) was improved health. He also introduced the concept of utilizing anthropometric measurements to assess fitness progress. Sargent added scientific research to fitness instruction and developed organized instructor teaching methodologies. The lifetime work of Anderson focused on physical education instruction, with his greatest contribution being its development into a professional organization (5,9,20).
An interesting argument developed during the post-Civil War period that still exists today. Many physical education instructors believed firmly in the value of incorporating exercise programs that would improve health-related fitness. However, sports were also gaining popularity in the United States during this era. Consequently, the majority of physical education programs focused on sports and games. The debate between health-related fitness and skill-related fitness physical education programs continues to exist (9).

The 20th Century
The 20th century symbolized the beginning of a new era of fitness leaders: the Presidents of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the most physically fit President to occupy the oval office, also led the nation into the new century. He recognized the importance of exercise and physical activity, and had the power to encourage the citizens of America to be physically active. President Roosevelt held an infatuation for fitness similar to the ideology of ancient Greece. His desire for physical fitness evolved out of his childhood battle with asthma, which he overcame with a rigorous exercise program. As President, he engaged in multiple forms of physical activity including hiking, horseback riding, and other outdoor endeavors. Although not all the presidents following Roosevelt have held fitness in the same high regard, they recognized that the position required a commitment to the fitness of the citizens of the United States (17).
World War I
In Europe, the First World War started in August of 1914, with the entrance of the United States occurring three years later in 1917. With the United States' entry into the battle, hundreds of thousands of military personnel were drafted and trained for combat. After the war was fought and won, statistics were released from the draft with disturbing data regarding fitness levels. It was found that one out of every three drafted individuals was unfit for combat and many of those drafted were highly unfit prior to military training (5,9). Government legislation was passed that ordered the improvement of physical education programs within the public schools. However, the heightened interest and concern for low fitness levels would be short-lived as the United States entered the 1920s and the Depression.

The Roaring Twenties and Great Depression
Heightened interest in fitness dissipated throughout the decade. A pattern that had been familiar throughout history is that after a war is fought and won, the tendency is for society to relax, enjoy life, and exercise less. The Roaring Twenties earned the label for a reason, as society lived more frivolously than at any other time in history. Priorities centered on eating, drinking, partying, and other forms of entertainment (21).
In October of 1929, the stock market crashed, signaling the beginning of what would be a decade of economic depression. The economy failed to recover until the United States entered World War II in 1941. Along with many other aspects of life, fitness levels declined during the Depression. The gains that physical education programs made through the passage of legislation following the WW I were short-lived. Funding for these programs became limited and eventually was exhausted as emphasis in the poor economy was forced to shift elsewhere (15,20).
Despite the setbacks which fitness suffered during the Great Depression, Jack LaLanne, who would eventually be recognized as a guiding pioneer of fitness, began his lifetime career as a media fitness instructor. Throughout his life, LaLanne preached the value of preventive lifestyle habits. In the 1950s, The Jack LaLanne Show began airing on television, preceding the appearance of Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda by 25 years. LaLanne developed fitness programs including aerobics, water aerobics, and resistance exercise. He also introduced numerous pieces of exercise equipment including the first cable-pulley machine, the safety system for doing squats called the Smith machine, and the first leg extension machine. Although LaLanne is often referred to as the originator of the "jumping jack movement", history suggests the real inventor was John “Black Jack” Pershing, a tactical officer from West Point in World War I. Though LaLanne preceded the modern fitness movement by some three decades, his fitness ideology and exercise programs were correct in approach when judged by modern research.

World War II
Throughout world history, military conflicts have had major impacts on the state of fitness. The Second World War and its aftermath in the United States would be no different. Essentially, the modern fitness movement evolved out of the influence of World War II and subsequent development of the Cold War.
The United States entered World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With the declaration of war came the necessity to draft military personnel. However, as more men were drafted, it became embarrassingly clear that many of them were not fit for combat. When the war was over, it was reported that nearly half of all draftees needed to be rejected or were given non-combat positions (20). These disturbing statistics helped gain the attention of the country with regards to the importance of fitness.
Important contributions to fitness came during the 1940s, specifically from Dr. Thomas K. Cureton at the University of Illinois. Cureton introduced the application of research to fitness, which improved exercise recommendations to individuals. Cureton not only recognized the numerous benefits of regular exercise, he strived to expand the body of knowledge regarding physical fitness. He wanted to answer questions such as how much exercise was healthy and what types of exercise were most effective. More importantly, Cureton wanted to know how physical fitness could best be measured within an individual. Among his most important contributions were developing fitness tests for cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility. His research resulted in multiple recommendations for the improvement of cardiorespiratory fitness, including the identification of exercise intensity guidelines necessary for improved fitness levels. His suggestions became the fundamental basis behind future exercise programs (23).
1950s - United States
The Cold War, Baby Boomer era was marked by the development of an important factor influencing the modern fitness movement known as the "Minimum Muscular Fitness Tests in Children" by Kraus-Hirschland (24). This study utilized the Kraus-Weber tests to measure muscular strength and flexibility in the trunk and leg muscles. It was reported that close to 60 percent of American children failed at least one of the tests. In comparison, only nine percent of children from European countries failed one of the tests. During the Cold War, these startling numbers launched political leaders into action to promote health and fitness.
When results of the Kraus-Hirschland studies were reported to President Eisenhower by Senators James Kelly and James Duff, he responded by holding a White House Conference in June of 1956. Out of these meetings came two important results: 1) the formation of the President's Council on Youth Fitness and 2) the appointment of the President's Citizens Advisory Committee on the Fitness of American Youth (25). This was an important first step in helping to gain the nation’s attention concerning her fitness levels.
During the 1950s, numerous organizations took initiative in educating the general public about the consequences of low fitness levels. Several agencies that have been involved in fitness promotion since the mid-1950s include the American Health Association (AHA), the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Association for Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAPHERD), and the President's Council on Youth Fitness (9). These organizations would provide merit and legitimacy to the coming fitness movement.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) was formed in 1954, and has proved to be one of the premier organizations in the promotion of health and fitness to American society and worldwide. Throughout its history, ACSM has established position stands on various exercise-related issues based on scientific research.
1960s - United States
President John F. Kennedy was a major proponent of fitness and its health-related benefits to the American people. He furthered the development of the Presidents Council on Youth Fitness, appointing Bud Wilkinson as head of the council. The name was also changed to the President's Council on Physical Fitness. Kennedy spoke openly about the need for American citizens to improve their fitness levels, including writing an article in Sports Illustrated entitled "The Soft American." He said, "We are under-exercised as a nation; we look instead of play; we ride instead of walk" (27). Kennedy prompted the federal government to become more involved in national fitness promotion and started youth pilot fitness programs. Kennedy's commitment to fitness can best be summarized when he said, "Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence." (28)
Dr. Ken H. Cooper, widely recognized as "The Father of the Modern Fitness Movement", is generally credited with encouraging more individuals to exercise than any other individual in history. Cooper advocated a philosophy that shifted away from disease treatment to one of disease prevention. "It is easier to maintain good health through proper exercise, diet, and emotional balance than it is to regain it once it is lost" he said. Early in his career, Cooper stressed the necessity for providing epidemiological data to support the benefits of regular exercise and health. Data from thousands of individuals became the foundation for his aerobic concepts. Aerobics, released in 1968, sent a powerful message to the American people - to prevent the development of chronic diseases, exercise regularly and maintain high fitness levels throughout life (29). Dr. Cooper’s message, programs and ideas established the model from which fitness has proliferated up to modern time.

Lessons From History
The history of fitness portrays some fascinating themes that relate closely to the 21st century. One commonality is the strong association of military and political might with physical fitness throughout mankind’s advancement. In many ways, this shows how impacting our world leaders can be on health and fitness.
The mind-body concept has had a tenuous development. At times, some cultures prescribed spirituality at the expense of the body where as others, such as Greek society, upheld the ideal a sound mind can only be found in a healthy body.
Another interesting development from history is the concept of exercise for the body and music for the soul. Present day fitness programs have evolved this concept harmoniously, with music being a distinctive component to the exercise experience.
It appears that as societies become too enamored with wealth, prosperity and self-entertatinment that fitness levels drop. In addition, as technology has advanced with man, the levels of physical fitness have decreased. History offers little insight how to prevent or turnaround these recourses. Thus, this is a resolution we are challenged with in today’s society. Perhaps utilizing all of the extensive research completed on health and fitness in combination with the creative minds now in the fitness industry, we now can solve this part of the fitness puzzle.


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