2018-01-24 / News

When it comes to exercise, we go way back


Get up early enough and you’ll see them in your neighborhood. A shadow of sweat down their spines, a pair of trusty sneakers on their feet, earbuds in place, they hit the pavement every morning to knock out a couple of miles.

They’re the runners – that dedicated group of the enviably fit and health-conscious. The rest of us watch them lope by and occasionally say something to the tune of, “If you see me running, something’s chasing me.” Scroll back a few hundred thousand years, though, and it was actually the opposite. Long ago, early man needed to run long distances in order to wear out and capture prey that could outpace him on short distances. Our bodies, in fact, evolved to accommodate this function, known as “persistence hunting.” In a roundabout way, it’s the reason we still find ourselves at the gym, or feel worse for not going. We’re not getting in shape for tonight’s kill (hopefully), but the need to exercise is still there. It’s in our DNA. “[Exercise] really goes way back to the Ancient Greeks,” says Kyle Stull, faculty instructor at the National Academy of Sport Medicine in Phoenix. “For thousands of years, people knew that we were supposed to use our bodies.”

How we use our bodies, and why, has evolved. In Ancient Greece, gymnastics were considered an essential part of everyone’s education. The Greeks idolized the human body and created the Olympics for athletic competition between city-states. Athens had indoor facilities for gymnastics; Sparta required intense fitness regimens of its male citizens to ensure their fitness as soldiers.

During the Renaissance, John Locke, Martin Luther and other notable thinkers promoted the idea that fitness could help boost academic learning. The 1700s and 1800s saw the expansion of physical education in Europe. In Germany, Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuths developed gymnastics programs and created the founding principles of artistic gymnastics. GutsMuths and others opened gymnastics academies across Europe, and many Europeans brought GutsMuths’ ideas to America when they emigrated.

Of course, we still used our bodies to put food on the table. But with the Industrial Revolution, many workers moved from rural to urban areas and saw their jobs suddenly become less labor intensive. These developments led more people to seek out physical activity.

“There’s this concern in Western Europe and the U.S. [around this time] that the men particularly are somehow becoming less masculine because they’re not doing things with their hands,” says Sarah K. Fields, a professor of communication at the University of Colorado Denver who specializes in sport and its relation to American culture.

Many organized sports as we know them today gained popularity in the past century, including youth sports. Near the early part of the 20th century, there was concern about young poor people in the cities not having enough to do. Organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Catholic Youth Organization trained young people in sports like boxing, football and basketball to keep them out of trouble.

The Great Depression and World War II were detrimental to the popularity of these sports, but they rose again in prominence during the middle of the century.

“After World War II, we see the massive rise of professional sport, and massive rise of youth sport, and the increase in popularity of college sport in the U.S.,” Fields says.

While earlier fitness efforts primarily focused on men, by the 1950s and ’60s, fitness-related businesses began targeting women as potential consumers as well. Exercise became seen as a commodity and fitness as a component of beauty.

Televised fitness shows began to air, and in the 1960s and ’70s, group exercise like Jazzercise and aerobics classes gained popularity as a way for people, women in particular, to draw motivation from others and socialize while they worked out.

Around that same time, coaches Arthur Lydiard and Bill Bowerman popularized the idea of jogging, which was previously called “roadwork” by athletes. As obvious as it sounds today, the thought that average people would run for fitness was a novel concept at the time.

“It turned just running into exercise as well,” Stull says.

While bodybuilding also gained popularity in the past century through competitions and famed bodybuilders like Charles Atlas, the sport grew further in the 1970s with young stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno – especially after the duo were featured prominently in the bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron.”

Stull says that functional training – exercise that helps individuals in their daily lives – has been the main focus of fitness for the past few decades. While various methods of working out gain and lose popularity over time, he says the one constant is that humans are constantly searching for ways to improve their workouts.

“People are trying to use their body for what they were made for,” Stull says. ¦

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