History of Fitness

The Fitness Industry has done a most excellent job in positioning itself as the experts of your fitness and health.  But does it deserve that self-appointed accolade?  Let’s take a little hike through history to find out, shall we?

fit for hunting and gathering

Fitness simply meant survival to your hunter-gatherer caveman ancestors. Their lifestyle required them to walk a few miles per day for gathering. And the hunting part needed the occasional bit of long-distance jogging. They also had to often carry things like kids, water, and food. But rest was also vital. Calories were so hard to come by that they didn’t bother using them on wasteful movements like push-ups or burpees. A lot of their time around camp was spent just chilling.

fit for fighting and competing

Two things were important in Ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia – making war and having fun.  And this was also the first time we hear of exercise as a structured activity. Soldiers and athletes needed training and so a new profession of Trainer was created. And whilst the general public admired the professionals’ fitness and sculpted 6-packs, most people were happy just watching them do their thing.

fit for farming and crusading

Nothing much around the medieval times.  Armies continued to train to fight, whilst the general population worked hard physical days in the fields. While those guys were very active, the rich folk pottered around on horses, and the religious folks worked on preparing their unworthy human bodies for the joys of heaven.  Fun times were had by… well, just rich people, really.

fit for revolution and war

The 1800’s saw a huge lifestyle shift.  People began to change from active working lives to far more cramped and sedentary ones in the newly built towns.

People were moving less but also started eating less farm-fresh food. They needed quick convenient meals which led to the invention of fast food, Victorian-style … pies, puddings, sweets, and a shit load of booze. And everyone above the poverty line was pretty content with the switch. Everyone except for the elites, that is.

The elites were already deep into a national pride kick, and for the last few hundred years had been warring other countries to prove whose dick was biggest.  But after a couple of crushing losses, a few countries governments recognised that their citizen’s sitting around eating pies was casuing a problem. Whilst professional soldiers still trained hard, the cannon fodder (general citizens) weren’t fit or well enough should they be needed for war. So for the first time exercise came to the masses.

The elites started to administer PE classes of calisthenics to everyone. They were designed to increase physical fitness for war, but also to subtly teach the population to move as a unit and follow orders. Meanwhile, the elites were playing sports, during which they improved their leadership skills and competitive edge.

fit for being a freak(ishly strong person)

This period, oddly, overlapped the beginning of the age of bodybuilding.  What once started as side-show feats of strength, became a significant sub-culture, with the first contests, fitness magazines, and bodybuilding celebrities appearing.  By the 1950’s looking strong and muscular was starting to become big business.

The first fitness facilities for the public also started appearing at this time. Their user group remained small. They were mostly full of elites, whose favourite past time was showing off to each other. They exercised to prove their superior health compared to the lower classes. But they also proved excellent social places for bored rich ladies.

fit enough for science

By the 1960’s the excesses of the early part of the century were still catching up on us. The government still thought that too many of it’s population were unhealthy and dying too young of new diseases like heart attacks. The scientific race to find the key to health was by now, in full swing. And it had it’s big breakthrough when a researcher found a correlation between being active and living longer.

Gyms were chuffed. It gave them the chance to sell their wares to a wider audience because for the first time they had scientific proof that being active was good for people. However, the message got skewed in translation, as their message became “exercise” makes you live longer. And as they were the people who sold exercise, they took it upon themselves to become the caretakers of our activity levels.

fitness for the masses

The Fitness Industry took it’s newly elevated status very seriously by creating qualifications, and fitness protocols, and correct form, and rules for being active. Special exercise clothes and foods were created, and they published magazines and books. More scientific studies were conducted and they helped create the biggest change in the public’s psyche.

Slowly and subtly the question changed from “how active should I be each week to be healthy”, to “how many times should I use the gym per week to be healthy”. Once that shift was made, movement became a commodity to be sold, instead of a natural human act to be enjoyed.

But the Fitness Industry didn’t stop at the front door of the gym when creating their empire. They moved further out into the world and expanded their kingdom into other areas of movement. Rules and standards were added to walking and running. Eastern philosophies of movement were bastardized and turned into Western classes. We were even told how much housework and gardening to do in order to burn 100 calories.

Home workouts, apps, calculators, and online coaching which started from a humble Jane Fonda workout VHS, means that the Fitness Industry has even made it into the sanctity of our own living room.

fit for the future

I don’t know where the Fitness empire will end. We gave them permission to invent their own definition of fitness; one that only they have the space, equipment, and expertise to deliver.  And then we allowed them to convince us that they are right. According to Roberta Sassetelli in her book, Fitness Industry: Gyms and the Commercialisation of Fitness and Fun reckons that gyms are about the notion of fitness because: 

  • They don’t actually meet the definition of fitness. 
  • The industry has redefined fitness to mean the ability to achieve a predefined, medicalised version of fitness e.g. heart rate, VO2 max, BMI, times, reps, PR’s. 
  • They are allowed to change their minds about the definition and constantly redefine it and in doing so make sure that you keep needing to be better at it. 

So, do they even provide the type of fitness that we need? Humans are basically still cavemen, they are designed to be fit enough to hunt and gather, not deadlift and Spin.

Remove the Industry definition of fitness and ask yourself, what does being fit mean to you? Is it walking up stairs with ease, or beating the kids in a foot race? Maybe it’s feeling strong and vital, or bend and supple. Because whilst the Fitness Industry can definitely help you in all of them, you don’t need them to help you with any of them.