Fitness A Historical Journey In Time

Health Psychology

The United States Department of Health and Human Services (USDH), defines physical fitness as being a combination of characteristics that people have involving the capacity to execute a physical exercise. The definition of physical activity is much more than being able to run two hours on a treadmill or lift hundreds of pounds of weight at the local fitness center. Having these attributes only address a single area, being physically fit is not just a list of activities that people can perform.

One of man’s greatest achievements since the beginning of existence is the ongoing quest for good health. Throughout primitive times, man’s hunt for physical strength has been guided by a passion for surviving. The concept of fitness remains paramount to health and well-being though for most of us it is no longer driven by the need to outrun predators or prevent hunger.

The Ancient Greeks upheld the idea that a sound mind is found in a healthy body and other cultures valued spirituality, at the expense of the body. The mind-body concept when it relates to physical fitness has a flimsy historical record in terms of its origin, however, it is clear that as societies became too enamored with pleasure, financial wealth, and success, physical fitness levels dropped.  Common themes throughout history include researchers attributing technological improvements to a decrease in a society’s level of physical fitness. A review of the history offers little insight into how to improve our quality of life, yet, prevent the decline in physical health. This task is left for the twenty-first century.

The History of Fitness

Fitness and Primitive Man

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Primitive nomadic (Pre-10,000 B.C) lifestyles demanded the difficult tasks of gathering food and hunting to survive. Routine physical activity aside from hunting and gathering was also a major component of their life. Clans or tribes frequently went on hunting expeditions for water and food.  Following successful excursions, festivals included trips to bordering areas to visit family and friends, where dancing and cultural activities would often last many hours. This pattern of subsistence hunting and festivities promoted a high level of fitness consisting of different types of physical activity thereby defining the world in which they lived.

The Neolithic Age (10,000-8,000 B.C.) identified the end of old lifestyles and represented the rise of enlightenment. This historic time was represented by major agricultural advancements incorporating animal and plant domestication along with the invention of the plow. These human improvements made it plausible for hunting-gathering societies to collect large quantities of food while living in the same area, thus, molding primitive civilizations into agriculture and farming communities. This point in history signifies the beginnings of a more sedentary lifestyle because humans began to ease some of life’s hardships while concurrently reducing everyday physical exercise.

In China (2500-250 B.C.) the philosophical lectures from Confucius urged people to engage in developing a structured routine of physical activity. It was assumed that physical inactivity was linked to several illnesses referred to as organ malfunctions and that some of these conditions were avoidable. The results stemming from holding onto these beliefs correlate with the growth of Kung Fu gymnastics to promote a healthy, sound, physical condition. Kung Fu training programs include various stances and movements, outlined by foot positions along with simulations or expressions of animal fighting behaviors. By watching and simulating the movements and habits of animals, priests yearned to gain the same balance with nature that animals seemed to possess. Along with Kung Fu gymnastics other types of physical exercise existed throughout Ancient China, embracing swordsmanship, wrestling, badminton, archery, and dancing.

In India the pursuit of fitness was delayed because the religious creeds of Buddhism and Hinduism stressed spirituality and leaned towards neglecting the strengthening of the physical body. Therefore, fitness within this society was comparatively low. Nevertheless, an exercise plan similar to Chinese Kung Fu gymnastics began while adhering to these religious tenets, called Yoga. The translation of Yoga means union, referring to the Hindu philosophy that aims to bring together and bolster the body, mind, and spirit. Yoga has existed for at least 5000 years, although the exact origin is unknown, it was promoted by Hindu priests who lived frugal lifestyles marked by training and meditation. This type of Yoga, Hatha Yoga, is the kind Westerners practice and is characterized by a sequence of exercises in breathing patterns and physical posture. Along with the idea of keeping a balance within nature, ancient Indian philosophers identified the health benefits of Yoga that included improved organ functioning and the training in this exercise would provide a sense overall well-being. These are the health benefits currently recognized in the United States which has approximately 24 million people routinely practicing.

Early (4000-250 B.C.) military and political commanders within the cultures of Egypt, Palestine, Persia, Syria, Assyria and Babylonia promoted fitness because they understood its value to the effectiveness and enforcement of their military. Fitness training to gain strength and endurance was not for health benefits, but to produce powerful soldiers to aid in expanding the Empire. These Persian rulers imposed the idea of being severely physically fit and was achieved by implementing rigorous training schedules.  Boys of age six became the property of the Empire and were forced into training that included marching, riding, throwing the javelin and hunting. Throughout its peak, the Persian Empire with its strategy and weight on high fitness, the nation ultimately consolidated all of the Near East. As wealth and crime seized military and political leaders, the importance of robustness decreased and resulted in the collapse of the Persian Empire.

The philosophy of physical strength was one that typified the ancient Greek civilization (2500-200 B.C.). The admiration for the beauty of the body and its influence on fitness throughout this culture is one that is unmatched in history. The Greeks considered the strength of the body equally significant as the advancement of the mind. Physical well-being was essential for mental well-being and the need for a sound, healthy body will defend a sound mind. Several pioneering scholars promoted the concept of fitness everywhere in ancient Greece, including Herodotus, Hippocrates, and Galen.

Gymnastics and music were deemed to be essential classroom subjects and a popular motto in the ancient Greek era was “exercise for the body and music for the soul.” Gymnastics took place in a wrestling school called palaestras and they were places of physical training for young boys. Exercise in the gymnasium was overseen by a paidotribe and is comparable to the modern fitness trainer. The grand fitness conviction existed persistently throughout Athens, which has been described as a democratic civilization almost like the United States.

La Pintura y la Guerra

La Pintura y la Guerra

However, in Northern Greece the Spartans prized fitness even more than the Athenians and the intensified attention in this culture was essentially for military objectives. During this period, Greek nations were often at war with each other and combat abilities were correlated with physical fitness levels. The Spartan civilization ordered males to begin specific fitness programs at the age of six through adulthood and the administration was responsible for both the boys’ sustenance and training. The upbringing of the child involved rigorous training schedules that guaranteed all would develop into extremely fit adult fighters. The military governed society of Sparta produced one of the most physically fit civilizations in the history of man. Females were also expected to maintain good physical fitness who would have robust children that could serve the country.

The Roman Empire (200 B.C.-476 A.D.) eventually became the opposite of the ancient Greek culture with the physical fitness status of the Roman civilization being the highest through times of conquering and expansion. During this period, it was crucial for all residents to have good physical fitness because between the ages of 17 and 60 they were suitable for the military draft. Military education consisted of exercises such as marching, running, jumping, and javelin and discus throwing. This lifestyle produced robust, able-bodied adults who conquered almost all of their Western World. Nonetheless, the fitness levels of the population sank because the people became captivated with prosperity and entertainment, such as the gladiator contests. The extravagant lifestyle and physical decline ultimately contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire because the Barbarian tribes from Northern Europe were physically superior.

The collapse of the Roman Empire signified the start of intellectual decline but, this occurrence was helpful concerning the people’s fitness levels. The barbarous tribes from Northern Europe held similar characteristics to primitive men, and their lifestyle was expressed by hunting, gathering, and attending to cattle. Physical exercise and fitness were requirements for survival. Consequently, despite the educational reversals that happened with the fall of the Roman Empire, fitness levels underwent a recovery during the Dark and Middle Ages (476-1400)

The recovery of cultural and intellectual knowledge from the ancient Greek and Roman advanced during the Renaissance (1400-1600), following the Dark and Middle Ages. Once again, the classical Greek models, which praised the human body won universal recognition. Many scholars, such as religious leader Martin Luther, the philosopher John Locke, along with physical educators Vittorino da Feltra, John Comenius, and Richard Mulcaster affirmed that physical fitness levels intensified intellectual knowledge.

Cultures that accepted the value of fitness needed a way to communicate this information making fitness and physical education a common bond. Thus, physical education became the instrument utilized to expand the usefulness and benefits throughout their civilization. School applications, essentially in ancient Greece, had earlier accepted the necessity for classes requiring physical education. The restored sensitivity for human life, which emerged during the Renaissance, created an environment for the popular development of physical education throughout Europe.

Fitness and the National Period in Europe

Continental Europe (1700-1850) experienced various cultural developments following the Renaissance and fitness continued to follow trends. Physical training programs increased within rising countries of Europe. Strong attitudes of patriotism and independence shaped the environment for the original modern fitness campaign, which began in the design of gymnastics programs. Gymnastics was particularly widespread in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark.

In Great Britain, a medical student Archibald Maclaren advertised the advantages of fitness and routine exercise. Marclaren along with Per Henrik Ling of Sweden was interested in the scientific elements related to fitness. Marclaren thought the remedy for tiredness and stress was a physical action and regarded recreational exercise found in games was not adequate for achieving fitness. Marclaren also recognized developing boys and girls needed routine physical exercise. In agreement with Ling, Marclaren understood the need for personal variation in fitness training plans and recorded the effects of progression of exercise. He reached several conclusions that are very similar to modern day exercise advice. Marclaren’s  lifetime accomplishments are documented in National Systems of Bodily Exercise and Training in Theory and Practice.

The rise of gymnastics in Germany is essentially credited to two physical health educators: Johann Guts Muths and Friedrich. Jahn Guts Muths is frequently mentioned as being the “Grandfather of German Gymnastics.” because he created many exercise programs and the accompanying equipment. His life records and accomplishments are found in his books, Gymnastics for the Young and Games. Friedrich Jahn has the title of “Father of German Gymnastics”. Jahn’s passion for German patriotism and independence was the motivation for his production of gymnastic programs. He thought the future vulnerability to foreign attacks could be prevented through physical improvement and exercise buildings that had equipment intended for balancing, climbing, running, jumping, and vaulting expanded throughout Germany.

Per Henrik Ling produced and started a gymnastics program for Sweden, which included three distinct domains: 1) instructional gymnastics, 2) fighting gymnastics, and 3) healing gymnastics. Ling had substantial medical training and realized that exercise was essential for life. He stated that exercise schedules should be based on individual differences and that educators need to possess the understanding of the effects of exercise on physical health. Ling applied science and physiology to understand the value of fitness.

Frank Nachtegall originally began training out of his home, opened and popularized gymnastic programs throughout Denmark and was especially interested in the expansion of gymnastic applications in the school system. Ultimately, he taught in a private facility, which was dedicated solely to physical training eventually becoming the director of a program intended to serve future fitness instructors named Training Teachers of Gymnastics.

The History of American Fitness

Vance Locke mural- Setauket School

Vance Locke mural- Setauket School

Difficulties living the colonial life (1700-1776) assured regular physical exercise was a lifestyle advantage, however throughout this time no established fitness or exercise programs existed. Colonial America continued to be an underdeveloped nation marked by considerable unexplored lands and wilderness. Lifestyles consisted mainly of plowing for produce, hunting for meat, and herding cattle. This way of living furnished adequate amounts of physical activity and there was no need for exercise programs to maintain fitness.

Fitness in the United States throughout the National Period (1776 to 1860) was inspired by European practices. Foreigners carried many perspectives of their culture to the United States, including Swedish and German gymnastics. Repeated threats to independence from foreign aggression were widespread in Europe and not in the United States, however, German and Swedish gymnastic programs failed to achieve equivalent levels of popularity. But, early leaders were aware of the need for exercise and Benjamin Franklin advised routine physical activity, including swimming, running, and resistance training for health. President Thomas Jefferson declared the necessity of exercise to an extreme for some by stating “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”.

Throughout Europe, the schools were an influential medium for broadcasting the need for fitness by physical education programs. However, in the United States, school concentrated on intellectual subjects. Schools focused on teaching traditional topics covering reading, writing, and arithmetic and physical education was missing from public education for most of the nineteenth century. Despite the lack of attention in fitness existing during this time, J.C. Warren and Catherine Beecher made meaningful contributions. Dr. J.C. Warren was a medical professor at Harvard University and a principal advocate of physical activity. His medical training gave him a clear understanding of the need for routine exercise and suggestions covered activities such as aerobics and calisthenics and started to create workouts for females. Catherine Beecher especially designed programs for women among them were a practice of drills performed to music. Although not formally identified, Beecher’s routines have noticeable similarities to current day aerobics.

One of the most significant developments concerning modern fitness was the Industrial Revolution, which produced sweeping cultural shifts throughout the United States. The advancement of manufacturing and mechanical technologies displaced labor intensive work and rural living adapted to the city. This urban lifestyle required less activity in comparison to rural life and consequently decreased the physical fitness levels. The damage of industrialization and urbanization became glaringly clear beginning in the 1950s and 1960s and an epidemic of diseases covering cardiovascular, cancer, and Type II diabetes, never before common, started to be identified as being key agents leading to illness and death. The lifestyle enhancements made in part by the Industrial Revolution had apparently come with an undesired and painful sacrifice to health.

Coming to the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, Swedish and German Gymnastics experienced a modest increase in popularity, but, the most prevalent form was “The New Gymnastics,” proposed by Dioclesian Lewis. Men who represented significant roles in the improvement of fitness were Edward Hitchcock, William Anderson, and Dudley Sargent. Hitchcock understood that the wanted results of his fitness programs that were a combination of gymnastics and calisthenics were to improved health. He also included the idea of using tools for physical measurement to assess improvement. Sargent combined scientific analysis to fitness instruction and produced related instructor teaching methods. The lifetime achievements of Anderson centered on physical education preparation although his greatest contribution was the development of fitness becoming a professional organization. Multiple physical education instructors held firmly the value of organizing exercise applications that would enhance health fitness. But, sports was a growing popular during this time and consequently, the bulk of physical education programs concentrated on sports and games. An important argument generated during the post-Civil War period continues to exist in modern times, the debate between health-related and skill-related fitness.

The 20th Century signified the start of a new age of fitness directors: the Presidents of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, possibly the most physically fit President to occupy the Oval Office led the country into the new century. He appreciated the value of exercise and physical activity and had the influence to inspire the citizens of America. President Roosevelt possessed a passion for fitness related to the philosophy of ancient Greece, and his desire resulted from a childhood struggle with asthma, which he defeated by using a rigorous exercise schedule. As President, he was involved in varied kinds of physical ventures including hiking, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities. While not all the presidents have viewed fitness with the same respect, most acknowledge that the position entails a pledge to the robustness of the citizens of the United States.

The First World War (1914) began in Europe, and the entry of the United States happened three years later with hundreds of thousands of people being drafted to prepare for warfare. Following the war statistics published from the draft revealed troubling data concerning fitness levels. Before military training, one out of every three men drafted was unfit for combat and many were extremely unsuitable. This lack of fitness so concerned the administration that legislation was established to organize the promotion of physical education curricula within the public schools. Nonetheless, the raised attention and concern for low fitness levels was brief because the United States entered into the 1920s and then the great depression.

Public Domain

Public Domain

The Roaring Twenties deserved this label because the nation lived more freely than at any other point in US history. Peoples’ priorities focused on drinking, eating, recreation, and all sorts of entertainment. The investment and interest in fitness evaporated throughout the decade. A decline in fitness is a typical pattern shown throughout time because once a war is won, there is a desire for people to unwind, savor life, and exercise less. The stock market crash of 1929 indicated the start of what would be a decade of economic depression and the economy faltered until the United States joined World War II in 1941. Along with many other features of life, fitness levels sank during the Depression and the profits of physical education programs that made through legislation following the WW I was brief. Financial reserves for these programs became insufficient because there was an emphasis on the weak economy to move funds elsewhere.

As previously mentioned, fighting oppositions have significant influences on the state of fitness, throughout history and the Second World War with its aftereffect is another example. The modern fitness drive advanced from the impact of World War II and ensuing improvements from the Cold War. The US joined World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and with this came the requirement to draft personnel. While more men were recruited it became apparent that many were not fit for conflict, and almost 50% were rejected or assigned to non-combat settings. This troubling statistic helped increase the attention to the value of fitness. Significant increases in fitness in the 1940’s, especially from Dr. Thomas K. Cureton from the University of Illinois who pioneered the use of research and updated exercise advice. Cureton realized the advantages of routine exercise and aimed to increase the body of information concerning 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 cardio-respiratory endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility. His research resulted in multiple recommendations for the improvement of cardio-respiratory fitness, including the identification of exercise intensity guidelines necessary to improve levels. His suggestions became the fundamental basis behind future exercise programs

The Cold War and Baby Boomer age characterized the construction of a major factor impacting the modern fitness drive remembered as the “Minimum Muscular Fitness Tests in Children” explained by Kraus-Hirschland. This research used the Kraus-Weber tests to estimate muscle strength and flexibility in the legs and trunk. Sixty percent of American children failed, at a minimum, one of the tests in contrast to only nine percent of children from Europe. During the Cold War these alarming figures drove political heads to encourage health and fitness. President Eisenhower reacted by holding a White House Conference, and from these gatherings came two significant outcomes: 1) the selection of the President’s Citizens Advisory Committee on the Fitness of American Youth and 2) the development of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. These outcomes were important steps in capturing the people’s attention.

Throughout the 1950s, multiple associations led the leadership to educate the public about the outcomes of having poor fitness. Many organizations have been connected with fitness improvement in the mid-1950s including the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Health Association (AHA), the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, and the American Association for Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAPHERD). These organizations would provide honor and authority to the upcoming fitness campaign. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) was developed in 1954 and has shown to be one of the prime organizations for the promotion of health and fitness worldwide. Throughout its records, ACSM has established views on multiple exercise affiliated concerns based on scientific investigation.

In defiance of the difficulties that fitness experienced during the Great Depression, Jack LaLanne would ultimately be remembered as a commanding guide and started his lifetime profession being a television fitness instructor. He addressed the benefit of preventive lifestyle practices and in the 1950s promoted fitness applications covering resistance, aerobics, and water aerobics. LaLanne also presented various exercise equipment and included the first cable-pulley device, the safety method for performing squats and the first leg extension apparatus. His television show began airing twenty-five years before the arrival of Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda and his fitness ideas and exercise schedules were accurate when assessed by contemporary research.

Modern Fitness

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President John F. Kennedy was an influential advocate of fitness, and its health-related advantages that promoted the formation of the Presidents Council on Youth Fitness later changed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Kennedy talked candidly about the need for people to increase their level of fitness and wrote a report in Sports Illustrated called “The Soft American.” Kennedy’s dedication to fitness is best summed by his motto, “Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence.” He urged the administration to become more committed in fitness improvement and began youth leader fitness programs.

Dr. Ken H. Cooper is identified as being “The Father of the Modern Fitness Movement,” is recognized by his ability to encourage people to exercise more than anyone else in history.  Dr. Cooper emphasized the need for providing epidemiological data to establish the advantages of consistent exercise and health. Statistics from thousands became the basis for his aerobic theories. Aerobics the book was published in 1968 and bore important news in the prevention of chronic disease and regularly encouraged exercising to nurture high fitness levels throughout life. Dr. Cooper’s advice, his programs, and views grounded the foundation from which fitness has proliferated to modern time. He mainly promoted a philosophy that moved away from disease treatment to one of prevention by stating, “It is easier to maintain good health through proper exercise, diet, and emotional balance than it is to regain it once it is lost.”

The Lessons Learned from Physical Fitness History

An unexpected extension that the history of fitness reveals is the notion of exercise being for the body and music for the soul. Modern day fitness applications have promoted these concepts together with music being a different part of the exercise activity. Another characteristic involves the powerful relationship between military and political strength with physical fitness, and this slant explains the impact that world leaders have on health and fitness. In conclusion, the specific attributes that make people fit are cardio-respiratory endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, body composition and flexibility.

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