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Q My New Year’s resolution is to be physically fit and it makes me curious about the history of exercise. Can you tell me about it?
Since early A. times, people have exercised. However, they did not exercise to “get in shape”, but to stay alive.
Early humans had to fight to stay alive and that meant movement and exercise. As Daniel Lieberman, author of the book “Exercised,” said, “we never evolved to exercise.” As he explains, exercise today is most often defined as “voluntary physical activity undertaken in the interest of health and fitness. But as such, it is a recent phenomenon. Our ancestors who were hunter-gatherers and farmers had to be physically active for hours every day to get enough food, and even though they sometimes played or danced for fun or for social reasons, no one ever ran or walked several kilometers just for health. Even the meaning of the word “exercise” is recent. It was first used in the Middle Ages to imply heavy labor like plowing a field. (Lieberman) Primitive man’s strength and mobility were not developed by programs, methods, or structured schedules, but rather were forged by daily, instinctive, and necessity-driven practice of motor skills highly practical and adaptable. (Le Corre) A change in evolution
A shift in the evolution of exercise from prehistoric times occurred with the agricultural “revolution” beginning between 10,000 and 8,000 BCE. Humans began farming (i.e. the invention of the plow) and producing their own food, which led to less active lives. This era of history symbolizes the beginning of a more sedentary lifestyle as humans began to alleviate some of life’s hardships while simultaneously decreasing daily physical activity. (Lieberman) As humanity “progressed”, the need to be physically fit was not just for survival but, as in ancient societies around the world, to enable competition. Competitions may have been between (militaristic) armies, such as the Spartans or the Persian Empire (with the aim of achieving the perfect fighting machine and winning wars) or idealistic, such as the Greeks and the Olympics. The Greco-Macedonian Empire is still considered one of the fittest empires to date. In Greece, the Spartans were and still are considered the personification of extreme athleticism. (Becic)
In the Western world, the Roman Empire had an army renowned for its universally adept soldiers. Ironically, while the Empire’s emphasis on fitness resulted in a successful fighting force, its success resulted in a society less interested in staying in shape. The fitness levels of the general Roman population declined as individuals fell in love with wealth and entertainment, such as gladiator battles. Materialistic acquisition and excess became a higher priority than fitness. (Dalleck)
However, in another ironic twist, the decline of the Roman Empire and a loss of wealth led to an increase in physical exercise as people were once again forced to become hunter-gatherers and work in the fields. (Dalleck)
In the Eastern Hemisphere, the Chinese and Indian empires used exercise not only for military purposes but also for health. Their political and philosophical leaders, including Confucius, encouraged people to exercise to prevent certain diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. They discovered that through yoga and martial arts, they not only became fitter, but also healthier. It was a crucial breakthrough in the history of mankind. For the first time, physical fitness became a known cure for many physical ailments. (Becic)
Next week’s column will continue in the modern fitness movement. In the meantime, I invite you to use the library’s collection of fitness and health magazines. Many of them can be checked and taken home. Magazines like Shape, Fitness, Health, Muscle & Fitness and Women’s Health are available in our comfortable periodicals department.
• Becic, Samir. “Fitness through the history of Time. Health and fitness revolution. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from healthfitnessrevolution.com/fitness-throughout-the-history-of-time/
• Dalleck, LC (nd). “History of Fitness.” History of fitness. Retrieved December 28, 2021, from unm. edu/~lkravitz/Article%20 folder/history.html
• Le Corré, Erwin. (2021, June 1). “The History of Fitness.” “The Art of Manhood.” Retrieved December 28, 2021, from artofmanliness.com/healthfitness/fitness/the-history-of-physical-fitness/
• Lieberman, D. (2021). “Exercise: Why Something We Never Evolved For Is Healthy and Rewarding.” Books of the Pantheon.
• Tharrett, S. (2021, September 19). “History of Health Clubs: How Gyms Have Evolved Through the Ages.” The windmills. Retrieved January 4, 2022, from lesmills.com/us/clubs-and-facilities/research-insights/audience-insights/history-of-health-clubs-how-gyms-have-evolved-through-the-ages/
Suzanne Sanders is the library’s new columnist. She is the Community Services Manager for the San Marcos Public Library and joined the Austin Public Library in 2015 after serving as a librarian there for more than 20 years. She gratefully accepts your questions for this column.