In an article on the history of physical fitness that appears on the University of New Mexico’s website, Lance C. Dalleck and Len Kravitz write that “one of the greatest accomplishments to be celebrated is the continuous pursuit of fitness since the beginning of man’s existence.”
Really? Then why does every day seemingly bring a new tale of woe about obesity and related diseases? Why are there so many stories with this alarming statement: For the first time in history, this generation of children can expect a shorter life expectancy than their parents? (Perhaps that’s not so bad, since the accompanying doom-and-gloom news usually revolves around the crushing debt they’ll inherit.)
Clearly, if there is a “continuous pursuit of fitness,” some of us must be doing it from a recliner. Or put it another way: If, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, the arc of civilization is ever upward, the pursuit of fitness is more of a zigzag than a smooth curve.
The prehistoric peoples, of course, didn’t have to worry about scheduling time on the bike at SoulCycle or meeting their gym buddies for Zumba. They had a form of exercise that we might call “h and g” – hunting and gathering. Oddly enough, it was also their one career path, too. With survival always on the line, there was little time for recreation, although dancing by men – as both a celebration of the hunt and a form of spiritual expression – took place at periodic gatherings.
The invention of the plow some 10,000 years before Christ not only contributed to organized agriculture but also introduced a recurring theme in fitness history – new tool, less physical work. Still, fitness made strides with virtually every ancient civilization contributing something – China, its kung fu; India, its yoga; and Persia, its polo as a form of cavalry exercise.
But the culture that set the gold standard for fitness was Greece, whose motto was “sound in mind, sound in body.” The Greeks created the concept of the gymnasium – where you, as a free-born male, could exercise the body as a prelude to rigorous discussion for the mind. They also developed the Olympics, among other organized games, with the first contests taking place in 776 B.C. in Olympia to honor Zeus, the king of the gods. The earliest Olympiads featured running (the first Olympic contest), discus, long jump, javelin, boxing and wrestling. Horse racing and pankration, a kind of extreme fighting, soon followed.
Among the Greeks, no one was fitter than the martial Spartans – hence our word for a disciplined, vigorous existence. Even Spartan females had to be in tip-top shape to bear children worthy of the state. (Makes you want to reach for a doughnut right about now, doesn’t it?)
Not coincidentally, the Greeks created sculpted tributes to the male and female body – especially the male – many of which survive today only in their Roman copies. These remain among the most rarefied, refined examples of the body in art, be they the Apollo Belvedere or the Venus de Milo. Even a work like the Hellenistic bronze “Boxer at Rest,” recently exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, has a kind of brutal beauty, depicting as it does a heroic Herculean type – nude save for the wrappings on his hands and the ancient equivalent of a jockstrap – his searching face puffy with bruises, his body dotted with a bloody patina.
The Romans, who vampirized Greek culture, loved this kind of stunning savagery. And they followed the Greek passion for physical fitness – to a point. The success of their conquests was their undoing. Sure, the gladiators stayed fit. But the people in the stands, lapping up the “bread and circuses” brand, eh, not so much. This leads to our second theme in fitness history – more leisure, more loafing.
There was no time for loafing in the Middle Ages. With those fit barbarians at the gate, it was back to “h and g” – hunting and gathering. Score it Physical Fitness 1, Civilization 0.
With the revival of Greco-Roman culture in the Renaissance, came the revival of “sound in mind, sound in body,” paving the way for gymnastics to take off on the Continent, particularly in Germany, in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Our own country has proved a microcosm of world fitness. The colonial period was our prehistory: Life was so rough that there was no need for specific exercises to keep fit. Still, the Founding Fathers were proponents of regular exercise, with Thomas Jefferson, who favored at least two hours a day, echoing the ancient Greeks: “If the body is feeble, the mind will not be strong.”
Among those who took up the challenge, Dalleck and Kravitz write, were Dr. J.C. Warren, a Harvard University medical professor, and educator/kindergarten advocate Catharine Beecher – sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” fame and clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. Both created exercise programs for women, with Catharine Beecher – a kind of antebellum Jane Fonda – setting hers to music in a foretaste of today’s aerobics.
Despite the vigorous presence of President Theodore Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century, fitness in America in the 1900s was a mixed bag, with draftees unprepared for various wars and our countrymen and women in general lagging behind the Europeans in standardized fitness tests.
But the second half of the century saw a rededication to physical fitness. Jack LaLanne – who had started what was in effect the first health club in Oakland, Calif., in 1936 began “The Jack LaLanne Show” in 1953 as a 15-minute exercise program. It would run for 34 years. In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, an organization that would become integral to the administration of his successor, John F. Kennedy, who called physical fitness the basis of excellence. Under Barack Obama’s administration, the expanded President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition has explored the crucial relationship between eating and exercise.
Just as the president’s council on fitness has enlarged its mission, the variety and combinations of diets and exercises have exploded. From the aerobics craze of the 1980s (thanks, Jane Fonda) we moved on to stepping, spinning, cross-training, mixed-martial arts and extreme sports. Even athletes – once celebrated for doing one thing superbly – aren’t exempt, using the latest nutritional information, biofeedback technology and related athletic disciplines in the quest to gain even an infinitesimal advantage over an opponent.
And yet despite this and all the clubs, gyms, programs, books and magazines devoted to fitness, we remain a decidedly unfit nation. Some experts blame the tube and the Internet.
But maybe the problem is a just-get-it-over-with attitude. Given our gotta-have-it-now, pill-for-every-problem culture, is it any wonder that the hottest form of exercise today, according to The New York Times, is the short burst of high-intensity training? Do as much as you can in as little time.
Is that economy of motion? Or just another stumbling block on the road to fitness?