Exercise From Across the Pond
Last week’s article covered the evolution of fitness through the lens of science and art during the Renaissance. This week’s article covers advances in exercise from 18th century Europe to America.
The Enlightenment in Europe
During the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment, great thinkers in Europe were beginning to unravel the secrets of the body. They rejected mystical concepts from religion and viewed the body as a machine by studying anatomy and physics.
Many great thinkers from this era, from Galileo to Da Vinci, belonged to a school of thought called Naturalism. This is a broad term for a philosophy that views the world from a scientific perspective, yet retains the feeling of curiosity and wonderment of nature.
Naturalism can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers, many of whom wrote about the importance of exercise. The connection with Greek thinking could explain the re-emergence of exercise in society during the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century.
Think About the Children
Born in Switzerland in 1712, Jean Jacques Rousseau became one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. He championed ideas such as personal liberty, advancement of the arts and sciences and physical education.
Rousseau also believed that children needed regular physical activity as part of their schooling. He noted in his book Emile, which was a treatise on education, that physical activity was important for proper development. He wrote about the connection between mind and body, pointing out that a weak body could lead to a weak mind.
Although he was persecuted for his ideas and was forced to flee France, Rousseau lit a spark that spread to Germany around the turn of the century. In 1793, a book titled “Gymnastics for Youth” was published in Germany. It outlined the importance of physical education for youth, and was picked up by a few other European countries.
Other activities like running, jumping and swimming were added to these gymnastics programs. They spread across Europe, and were officially adopted into the Prussian school systems in 1809. Each country began to adopt and build their own gymnastics programs, integrating them into schools in different ways.
Exercise slowly became a source of national pride, with countries developing and bragging about their own systems. This was the first time exercise was used on a large scale in society since ancient Rome.
The Modern Gym is Born
During this fitness boom, research was being published about the contributions of exercise to heart health and digestion. Other scientists found a connection between exercise and increased life expectancy. Although physicians knew about the health benefits of exercise for millennia, science was beginning to explain how exercise changes the body.
Inventors were scrambling to serve the needs of fitness enthusiasts. A handbook that dates back to 1861 shows wealthy Brits doing exercises on what could be the first portable gym. The machine resembles cable towers that you see at most commercial gyms (although it’s much more primitive). The book depicts well-dressed aristocrats doing exercises like rowing, stair-stepping and weight lifting.
The first arm ergometer (crank machine) was invented in 1883, and the first treadmill was invented in 1889. That means most of the equipment you see in a modern commercial gym had been invented by 1900, though they weren’t nearly as advanced as they are now.
In Europe, exercise was making a full-blown comeback. It was used to fight the “disease of affluence.” As people began to move to cities and accumulate wealth, they moved less and less. While American was more spread out and focused on agriculture, exercise slowly made its way over the pond.
Americans Get With the Program
Germans emigrating to the US formed so-called Turner Societies. These groups of immigrants brought their customs to the United States and assimilated with American communities. They brought their advanced system of gymnastics training with them.
From the Turner Societies comes the first form physical education programs in American schools. They practiced rather challenging forms of gymnastics with props like the side horse and parallel bars. Swedish immigrants made their own contribution, which was a much lighter form of exercise designed to improve health. The Brits brought over organized sports, which set the foundation for American athletic programs.
Luther Gulik is credited as one of the American pioneers of the physical education movement. He co-founded the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) from the idea that proper development required training of the body, mind and spirit.
The YMCA still exists as a recreational space in many parts of the US, showing Gulik’s lasting influence. His holistic approach to wellness is similar to what Rousseau proposed in the beginning of the 18th century.
Next week’s article will cover fitness in the 20th century, focusing on the United States, which was late to the party.