Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Palestine, Persia, and Syria emphasized fitness to the efficiency and performance of military forces. Life revolved around invading and conquering therefore society needed to be in great shape. In Persia, boys as young as six years old became property of the Empire to undergo training such as hunting, marching, riding, and javelin throwing.
India was the birthplace of yoga, first functional fitness equipment (gada, jori, gar nal, sumtola) and body-weight exercises (dands, Bethaks). In China, the practices of qi gong and cong fu were being developed.
In Athens, medical practitioners and philosophers such as Herodicus, Hippocrates, Galen promoted fitness. Boys had to attend palaestra and then gymnasiums after the age of 14. In Sparta, fitness was necessary for wars, even 6 year old boys start training to become a fit soldier. Women also stayed fit to provide healthy babies.
Roman citizens were at their fittest during times of conquest. Citizens between the ages of 17 and 60 were eligible for the military draft. The Roman Empire began declining after the citizens were exposed to the lavish lifestyles that conquest brought. Instead of training the population was more inclined to be entertained. The Northern barbarians were more fit at this time because they were living harder lives that required physical strength.
Northern Europeans lived a more primitive than their counterparts to the south. Their lifestyle revolved around hunting and gathering as well as small scale farming of livestock. However, during this same time period Christianity was becoming popular which lead followers away from worldly views. Instead of improving their physical prowess much more time and energy was devoted to grooming one's soul.
Following the Middle Ages this period of time saw increased interest in the body, anatomy, biology, health, and physical education. In 1420 Vittorino da Feltre opened one of the first schools that emphasized physical education. In 1553, El Libro del Ejercicio Corporal y Sus Provechos, by Spaniard Cristobal Mendez, was the first book to entirely address physical exercise and its benefits. More and more influential people began promoting the importance of fitness. 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.
Intense feelings for nationalism and independence created the atmosphere for the first modern fitness movement, which came in the form of gymnastics programs. In Germany Johann Guts Muths “Grandfather of German Gymnastics." two books -Gymnastics for the Young and Games. Friedrich Jahn's ("Father of German Gymnastics") passion for German nationalism and independence became the driving force to create gymnastic programs. In Sweden 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. In Denmark Frank Nachtegall, was concerned with development of gymnastic programs within school systems. In Spain, Francisco Amoros started a military gymnastics school in Madrid. In England Charles Darwin's theory "Survival of the fittest" encouraged English men to raise to the top of nature's hierarchy. In France, strongman Hippolyte Triat founded a massive gymnasium in Paris. In Scotland, the Highland Games were born with events such as caber tossing, hammer throwing, and the stone shot put, running, wrestling, and jumping. This time period also spawned the Czech Skol movement as well Polish Falcons. All across Europe physical fitness began being identified with national pride and cultural identity.
Fitness didn't become mainstream in USA until the 19th century although people like Ben Franklin were promoting the benefits of fitness 100 years earlier. Unlike Europe, America wasn't living under the constant threat of foreign invasion and didn't put an emphasis on fitness. However, the flood of immigrants from Europe brought their culture of fitness and gyms started to spring up around the country. Catherine Beecher was the first to implement fitness into a women's educational institution. In 1824 Charles Beck opened the first gym in the country. Dudley Allen Sargent is the man considered to be the founder of physical education in USA. He became the director of the gymnasium at Harvard in 1879, invented gym equipment, encouraged women to exercise and created a Universal Test for Strength, Speed and Endurance in 1902.
The 20th century ushered in the rise of competitive sports and the fitness industry. In Europe, Georges Herbert was promoting his "Natural Method" while Professor Edmond Desbonnet made strength training popular through fitness publications and fitness clubs. These fitness clubs were expensive and didn't become more accessible for the average European until after WWI. In USA, Bernarr Macfadded established himself as the face of American physical fitness culture. He founded the first muscle magazine in 1899 called Physical Culture. He also pioneered the concept of physique competitions.
During the latter half of the 20th century fitness made it's way to pop culture with the likes of Jack Lalanne, Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons. Over the past 60 years the fitness industry has grown tremendously from it's humble beginnings. People started to look for the fastest, easiest way to get in better shape. Countless numbers of workout methods, products, pills, supplements, diets and steroids all promising the same thing have come and gone. Unfortunately, we are currently the unhealthiest we've ever been.
Functional, purposeful is the old-new era of the fitness industry. Instead of pushing extremely heavy weights that put tremendous strain on the body, functional training focuses on exercises and movements that will directly transfer to performing everyday life activities with ease. The fitness industry has seen drastic changes in ideology over the last 100 years with things coming full circle back to the roots of physical training.
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