Physical fitness history spans back to the dawn of man. At that time, formal exercise wasn't necessary because prehistoric man's way of life involved a great deal of exercise. During this era in physical fitness history, primitive man was constantly on the move as a hunter/gatherer. Most tribes also led a nomadic lifestyle. Because of this, there was no need to pursue physical fitness.
Fitness at the Dawn of Civilization
In about 10,000 BC, man as a hunter/gatherer came to an end as human beings developed agriculture. It was during this period that man started to cultivate plants, and domesticate animals for the purpose of food. It was also during this time that the plow was invented. The agrarian lifestyle during this period was the beginning of decreasing daily physical activity. That is not to say, however, that humans sat around. There was still hard work involved in daily life, and little emphasis was placed upon physical fitness.
As man's innovation advanced, their natural activity levels decreased. In ancient China, Confucius recognized that physical inactivity was becoming a way of life, and his teachings encouraged participation in regular activity. Because of this, Cong Fu was developed to keep the body in shape, and the Chinese also participated in other activities that were purely for the pursuit of physical fitness - such as wrestling and badminton.
During this same time period, the ancient Indian civilization was taking another route. Religious beliefs of the time discouraged the development of the body, emphasizing instead the development of the spirit. Yoga emerged as a means of reconciling these two things - moving the body in ways that opened up spiritual pathways.
Fitness for Military Might
As civilizations advanced, physical fitness was driven by art and military might. The ancient Greeks valued the beauty of the physical form. There was a belief that having a fit body equaled having a fit mind, and that physical wellness was necessary in order to be emotionally healthy. In this civilization, the main form of exercise was gymnastics.
While much of the Greek populace developed fitness for aesthetic and mental purposes, the Spartans focused on fitness as a means of achieving military strength. The Spartans underwent vigorous fitness regimens - both the men and the women - for the purpose of defending Sparta.
As the Romans came to power, hedonism rose. As Romans pursued the good life, their fitness levels fell. Because of this, eventually the Roman civilization fell to those who were more physically fit - the non-agrarian Barbarian tribes from the North.
Following the rule of the Barbarian tribes during the Dark Ages, there was a return to Greek ideals emphasizing the beauty of the fit human form. It was during this time that physical education became a commonly taught subject. Many societies taught physical education in support of nationalistic ideals. This was the birth of the modern physical fitness history.
Gymnastics as a means of fitness became tremendously popular during this time, and was prevalent in many societies throughout Europe.
American Physical Fitness History
Colonial times in America brought about physical hardship as colonists struggled to build a new society, and establish agriculture in a new world. This lifestyle provided adequate physical fitness in and of itself, so there was little pursuit of fitness outside of the hardships of daily life.
As America grew as a nation, so did their ideals of physical fitness. These ideals were influenced greatly by the European immigrants coming to the United States. While there was little threat of military attacks from neighboring countries as there was in Europe, American leaders were nonetheless aware of the need for fitness. Many of America's early leaders supported regular activity in some form such as running or swimming.
It was during this period that fitness proponents began to realize that there needed to be a focus on fitness for women, in particular.
The Industrial Revolution in the United States was the onset of a new, more sedentary way of life in America. As Americans became more sedentary, diseases related to lack of fitness, such as heart disease and diabetes, became prevalent.
As Americans began to struggle more and more with diseases related to lack of fitness, physical education entered the school system. This gave rise to two distinct branches of physical fitness - exercise for the sake of fitness and exercise through sports.
In the 20th century, fitness became an industry. As diseases related to lack of fitness soared, Americans realized that there was a need to counteract a sedentary lifestyle with planned physical activity through sports and formal exercise. The military draft showed how woefully out of shape and unfit for combat Americans were. This brought government attention to the lack of fitness of its citizenry. This led to the establishment of minimum fitness standards in the country's public schools.
In recent history, the fitness industry has exploded in an attempt to make up for the extremely sedentary lifestyles of the modern populace. Many fitness gurus have risen to prominence and made fortunes off of people desperate to be healthier, stronger, and younger.
Today's fitness is carried out in gyms, and on playing fields around the world. It is not a way of life as it was at the dawn of civilization. Instead, fitness is one of many activities that people work into their busy schedules. .