If someone told the story right now, you might think physical fitness began with gyms, brisk walks going around the block, and Jazzercise, but this most certainly isn’t the case. Not only did the people who lived centuries ago not have ellipticals or weight machines, but they were much fitter than we are. You see, back in the day, fitness wasn’t a pastime or something to be scheduled into your regular life, it was the way of life.
From the start of our species to 10,000 BC we had to be in-shape because the monsters were coming. Either run or die. That was a simple choice and we took it. Back in primitive times, we were the most fit we ever had been because we had to be. There were no people who were overweight, as running meant survival, not just enjoying a run on the treadmill. Not only were movements based on escape, but they were also based on everyday locomotion. They needed to manipulate tools for defense, and they utilized their bodies for running, walking, jumping, crawling, lifting, throwing, catching things, fighting, and balancing. This helped keep all of the muscles in top shape. Not to mention, they also used their bodies by dancing when predators weren’t around and when their stomachs were full.
For tribes that still exist today, physical fitness is a part of their daily survival. They do not count calories, spend time in gyms, or any of these things. Because fitness is a necessary part of their days and nights, they remain in the best shape that humans can be. They walked, carried, and balanced all at once, honing their muscles to a fine point. Everyone, including men, women, and children were strong as physical strength was needed.
From 8,000 BC and 10,000 BC, civilization solidified and in rolled the Agricultural Revolution. Gathers and hunters who led a nomadic life transitioned into farmers. This time period ushered in different physical needs. With intense chores involving bending, lifting, and tending cattle, there was much work to do that kept farmers in good shape, but these were repetitive tasks and so worked the same muscles. In addition, the more strenuous tasks that involved jumping, crawling, balancing, running, climbing lowered and so the same muscles were worked while others grew smaller and unused. For farming, these movements weren’t needed and so were removed from the repertoire of human movement. Also, tools made movements a lot easier. Farmers used ladders rather than having to climb up trees. These provided a more predictable climbing tool and so made humans’ lives better.
Civilization established itself and war and conquest became the norm. Between 4,000 BC and the destruction of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, young men and boys were put through rigorous training in order to prepare them for the battle. This training involved a lot the primitive skills but had more structure and were used to reach a different goal. These men practiced on uneven terrains including walking, running, climb lifting, carrying heavy things, unarmed fighting, throwing and catching, jumping, crawling, and weapons training.
While sports were present during older times more civilized cultures grew to really value sports. As sports were popular in ancient Egypt and by the ancient Greeks these were based on natural movements of the body that prepared the athletes for war. The Greeks’ competition was based on athletes running faster than others, at times wearing armor and a shield. They also threw javelins, discus, jumping, and wrestling and striking each other. The ultimate goal being to get their country and athletes battle-ready.
During these times, Greeks and then the Romans grew to believe the human body and its physical fitness were symbols of beauty. Physical training became an essential part of the philosophical arena and the educational arena. Having a healthy mind housed in a health body was very important and valued. Physical fitness stepped out of the realms of practicality and became an art form. Statutes were built to show the peak of human fitness, sculpted from marble and different materials.
Throughout the 5th century and up to the 15th century, the Middle Ages were filled with invasions, plague, and kingdoms and empires that changed frequently. During this period the body became a lot less important as the afterlife walked in. This period was overtaken by Christianity and so the importance of preparing the soul overcame the important of taking care of the body. The body was sinful and the soul was the ultimate prize. Education was filled with talk of the church, eternal damnation, and the body became nothing but a vessel to house the soul and the mind.
During the times of feudalism, which was huge in medieval Europe, only few took on physical training. This was completed by mercenaries and nobles and was used to prepare them for the military. Their training mirrored that of the ancient people, focusing on fighting skill and natural movements.
Everyone else worked on their lord’s land, working very hard in the fields using poorly designed tools. Their physical fitness was due to demanding labor for low or no wages.
From 1400 to 1600, interest with the body grew again in the form of study of the health, anatomy, physical education, and biology of humans.
Vitorrino de Feltre, a humanist, opened a school that valued and emphasized physical education. When he opened this school in 1420 it grew very popular.
A little more than a hundred years later, in 1553, Cristobal Mendez wrote El Libro del Ejercicio Corporal y sus Provechos. This book was the first to talk about physical exercise and its associated benefits. It introduced the classification of games, exercises, and sports and described them from a medical perspective. Mendez also offered a lot of advice on ways to prevent and recover from various injuries when doing physical exercises. Included were chapters detailing games and drills for women, the elderly, and children.
The history of physical fitness is long, varied, and not encapsulated in this article, but these are the first stirrings of the physical fitness that we now know today.