Fitness today is considered important for two main reasons: physical health and vanity.
Most of us live and work in an increasingly sedentary world, so it is necessary to utilize a variety of outside tools in our quest to be fit. This was not always the case.
For thousands of years, man lived and died by his physical abilities. Traveling long distances in hunting parties was extremely common, as was journeying up to 20 miles on foot for celebrations with other tribes. Every tool was created by hand, every fire built from wood that was gathered or chopped down.
Maintaining physical fitness in those days had much to do with ensuring that one ate enough food to provide the necessary calories for work. Gradually hunting and gathering gave way to farming societies, easing the balance between caloric intake and output.
Fitness & Disease
Early Eastern societies discovered the link between physical activity and disease prevention. Activity for its own sake was encouraged in China, while India developed Yoga as an outgrowth of the Hindu belief in the connectivity of body, mind, and spirit.
Ancient Greece brought us the ideal that many still strive for today. A highly athletic, chiseled look was considered the height of fashion. The Olympic Games originated in Athens, as a natural outgrowth of the premium placed on athleticism by society as a whole.
Initially, the Romans were an exceptionally fit society, as all members were expected to be ready for military service at any time. However, as the Empire expanded, military precision gave way to greed. The excesses of the later Roman Empire are legendary, as entertainment came in the form of gladiator tournaments, public baths, and luxurious accommodations.
After the Barbarians defeated the Romans, the Dark Ages saw a return to survivalist life. The key to fitness again lay primarily in ensuring that the energy expended in the hunt resulted in a meal large enough to replace the calories.
The Renaissance brought a return to many of the ideals of Ancient Greece and Rome. This period marked an emphasis on physical education programs in schools, and athletic prowess was again revered.
The Post-Renaissance era brought many changes to both Europe and the fledgling New World. Europe fully embraced the fitness ideals of the Renaissance, adding and expanding school programs in physical education. Though it would be some time before they followed suit, Colonial Americans saw the need for fitness and strongly encouraged daily exercise.
The Challenge To Live Healthier Lives
At the turn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt ushered in a new era of fitness, challenging his citizens to live the healthy lifestyle that he, himself, embraced. The new focus on fitness lasted until the 1920s, when post-war excess gave way to the Great Depression.
World Wars Identified An Unfit Population
The military draft of World War II brought into glaring focus the lack of fitness in America. Numerous draftees were found too unfit for military service. Significant research effort was put into determining how to build fitness in children, and the results led to the 1950s formation of several fitness organizations. Growing awareness throughout the 1960s led to the fitness revolution of the 1970s.
The fitness boom continues today.
Changes since the 1970s have been primarily surface-level, with various activities taking turns as the latest craze. As research continues, exercise routines are fine-tuned and recommendations changed. It is likely that we, as a society, have finally gotten the message that good nutrition as well as physical fitness is critical to our health and well-being.
The current trends toward bottled water and raw foods show that while fad diets may come and go, fitness is here to stay.