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History Of Physical Fitness – From 10,000 BC Until Now

Updated on April 9, 2012

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Both the ancient Persian Empire and the ancient Roman Empire fell into demise, partly because the physical fitness of their peoples fell into demise. The demise of physical fitness in human cultures, therefore, is NOT a new phenomenon.

Physical Fitness DEvolution

The True Picture

Anyone caught up in the physical fitness movement of 20 or 30 years ago might be surprised to learn that human cultures have always gone through cycles of fitness and fatness. Even more surprising is the fact that the majority of people in highly developed countries today are no more physically fit now than they were two or three decades ago. Instead, people in developed countries today seem to be stuck in the fatness phase of the most recent fitness/fatness cycle.

According to Lance C. Dalleck and Len Kravitz (2011):

  • “A pattern that had been familiar throughout history is that after a war is fought and won, the tendency is for society to relax, enjoy life, and exercise less. ... It appears that as societies become too enamored with wealth, prosperity and self-entertainment, fitness levels drop. In addition, as technology has advanced with man, the levels of physical fitness have decreased.”

Eat, Drink, And Be Merry


Physical Fitness Timeline

  • (pre-10,000 BC) Primitive Humans And Fitness – Physical fitness defines life, because life consists of hunting and gathering, physical work, walking to visit neighboring tribes, and dancing to celebrate or commemorate significant events.
  • (10,000-8,000 BC) Neolithic Agricultural Revolution – Farming and agriculture begin to replace hunting and gathering, as more humans begin leading less physically active lives.
  • (2500-250 BC) Ancient Civilizations – Philosophical developments in China and India recognize and encourage physical activity as important aspects of total health, through training systems such as Cong Fu and Hatha Yoga.
  • (4000-250 BC) Near East – Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Palestine, Persia, and Syria embrace the importance of physical fitness for developing strong military forces. The rise and fall of the Persian Empire can be partly attributed to the rise and fall of physical fitness in this ancient civilization.

Ancient Greece (2500-200 BC)

Three Participants In A Footrace At The Panathenaic Games. 6th Century B.C., Depicted On A Vase Presented As A Prize To The Footrace’s Winner
Three Participants In A Footrace At The Panathenaic Games. 6th Century B.C., Depicted On A Vase Presented As A Prize To The Footrace’s Winner
  • (2500-200 BC) Ancient Greek Civilization – Greek culture embodies the ideal of physical perfection and, therefore, stresses the importance of physical fitness more than any other civilization. Athenians value physical fitness primarily for health and philosophical reasons, while Spartans value physical fitness primarily for military reasons, producing one of the most physically fit societies in the history of humankind.
  • (200 BC-476 AD) Ancient Roman Civilization – As with the ancient Persian Empire, the ancient Roman Empire rises and falls partly because societal emphasis on physical fitness also rises and falls.
  • (476-1000) Dark and (900-1400) Middle Ages – Physical fitness experiences a revival, because survival during these challenging times requires it.
  • (1400-1600) Renaissance – Interest in the human body renews, with widespread revival of ancient Greek ideals. The foundation for widespread physical education in Europe is established during this time.
  • (1700-1850) National Period in Europe – The modern fitness movement is born. Guts Muths ("Grandfather of German Gymnastics") and Friedrich Jahn ("Father of German Gymnastics") set the stage for the development of gymnasiums throughout Germany. Per Henrik Ling (Sweden), Frank Nachtegall (Denmark), and Archibald Maclaren (England) all play pivotal roles in the development of modern physical education.
  • (1700-1776) Colonial America – The colonial lifestyle requires physical fitness for survival.
  • (1776 to 1860) - United States National Period -- Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson advocate physical fitness, while the American educational system focuses on mental fitness. Physical education is missing from the public education system for most of the nineteenth century.
  • (1865-1900) Post-Civil-War United States – The Industrial Revolution causes widespread reduction of physical activity on an epic scale. Edward Hitchcock, William Anderson, and Dudley Sargent are key figures in the modern physical education movement of this time.
  • (1940’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s) Worldwide– Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type II diabetes are recognized as leading causes of disease and death. Lifestyle improvements resulting from the Industrial Revolution are understood to have a negative effect on health. Notable fitness figures during this time include: Dr. Thomas K. Cureton 1940’s), Jack LaLane and Kraus-Hirschland (1950’s), President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Ken H. Cooper (1960’s).
  • (post-1960’s–Now) Worldwide – The explosion of fitness awareness throughout the world ushers in the burgeoning fitness industry, with an onslaught of fitness information, scientific studies, celebrity exercise systems, products and services on a scale never seen before, giving the impression that modern civilized humans are committed to healthy bodies. The most recent statistics, however, prove that nothing is farther from the truth. Physical fitness has NOT made significant headway, even in the past thirty years.

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REFERENCES (click on to read):

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    • Robert Kernodle profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Kernodle 

      6 years ago

      There are fitness specialists, and, yes, those specialists (as a group) are far more advanced fitness-wise, but the majority of fitness NON-specialists (i.e., most people) have made backward strides, as the misleading comforts of advanced civilization rule beyond all measures of good reasoning.

      Let us not mistake the knowledge and practices of the few dedicated folks to the general practices of societies as wholes.

      There IS a real problem here.

      Robert

    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 

      6 years ago from Nottingham UK

      It all depends on your classification of 'physical fitness'. Sporting performance has made huge steps forward over time despite rising obesity rates in the western world. Apologies for the misuse of the term 'steps forward' as I should have been a little clearer as 'steps forward in time'. (I'm quite a kinaesthetic learner and often 'walk through' a timeline)

    • Robert Kernodle profile imageAUTHOR

      Robert Kernodle 

      6 years ago

      The "steps forward", as CyclingFitness calls them, appear to me to have been primarily information steps -- massively mental, NOT really physical advances. As far as widespread dedication to physical fitness practice goes, unfortunately, I am saying that the "steps" have been "in place" or even "backwards".

      Robert

    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 

      6 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Interesting hub. I think the development since the 1960's alone needs it's own hub. In fact the steps forward made each decade could make a great basis for a number of hubs. Nice read

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