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Keep it Movin'

Updated on November 19, 2022

The History of Exercise

Early Fitness

To begin, let's analyze the allusive history of exercise to determine how humans have become less active, and by default, more obese. In the beginning, humans organized in hunter/gatherer bands; and, these early societies were not sedentary groups. They migrated, first along coastlines and then inward to the frontier. Defense and subsistence in this type of social organization were probably very physically demanding, requiring more challenging functional movements than we assume today.

Functional fitness is a form of exercise which prepares the body for every day activities, such as lifting, reaching, pulling, and squatting. Bands were comprised of small kin group camps of 30-50 people with an egalitarian power structure. This means that all people had equal responsibilities in the defense and subsistence of the camp. Women traditionally assumed a gathering role, which included daily reaching and pulling movements to collect food and supplies. They also carried the loads during migration, which required heavy lifting and squatting. Men, on the other hand, carried much lighter loads during migration to defend the band at a moment's notice. Men traditionally assumed the hunting role, which like defense, required an intense ability to perform all functional movements. These activities were carried out with the use of their bodies and primitive tools in a "survival of the fittest" organization.

As humans began to settle more permanently, the need for pedestrian migration lessened. Settling in a sedentary location allowed for the cultivation of defense and subsistence, creating ranked societies called tribes and later stratified societies called chiefdoms (and kingdoms). In ranked and stratified societies, some people worked less than others (i.e. they were less physically active). Eventually, the elite members of society became less active than the working members of society. While the functional movements of the hunter/gatherer were physically demanding, one can assume that the work for subsistence and defense that allowed settlement was physically challenging in it's own way; but, we begin to see the sedentary characteristics of the elite.

Tribes were generally smaller in size in relation to chiefdoms or kingdoms, though larger than bands. A tribe usually employed agricultural labor, as well as a small army. Because this form of organization was larger and more sedentary than bands, a shift to a less egalitarian power structure emerged as ranked societies. Chiefdoms, as well as kingdoms, were much larger than tribes. They were full-blown stratified societies with aristocratic ideologies, employing complex subsistence and defense systems. In these cases, laborers began to assume more physically demanding movements than the ranked or elite. The elite even had servants, so more than likely, the physical demands of their daily movements were probably minimal in comparison to a laborer or soldier.

Modern Fitness

The modern state level social organizations evolved from the chiefdom/kingdom level, and they were sovereign political entities over a specific geographic area. Empires were a collection of states, covering large geographic areas. Again, some members of these societies were more physically fit than others. In these latter evolutions of social order, the age of technology made a huge impact on the physical demands involved in subsistence and defense. We began to rely more and more on machines that made life more comfortable, and by default made humans less physically active. Functional fitness today is much different than what it once was, as our need to move has significantly changed.

The more sedentary lifestyles became, the less lifting, reaching, pulling, and squatting was required. Leisure and entertainment replaced physical activity in states and empires, creating a comfortable and complacent lifestyles. Gladiators and athletes were among the most physically active in these societies, however they comprised a small group overall. Soldiers also probably assumed a high level of physical activity among the population of states and empires, but innovation and technology decreased the intensity of their functional movements. Innovation and technology in subsistence also decreased the intensity of workers' functional movements, as well as decreased the already limited physical activity of governing bodies.

The evolution of social organization from non-sedentary to fully sedentary on the couch has led to the obesity epidemic we are facing today. Studies show that 80% of Americans 65+ years old have a chronic illness, and obesity is linked to most of those illnesses; further, obesity is directly linked to a sedentary lifestyle. That's an alarming statistic, but the interesting thing about state level societies is that there is a system for change and growth usually employed; and, preventative healthcare reform has become a growing movement in the United States as of very recently. There is hope to come back from how unhealthy we have become, and banish our sedentary and complacent lifestyles. We have to keep it movin'!


Service, Elman. Primitive Social Organization. Random house, January 1968.

"What is Functional Fitness? How to Train Your Body to Live a Longer and Better Life," Opex Fitness.

"10 Chronic Conditions in Adults Ages 65+ and What You Can Do to Prevent or Manage Them," Healthy Aging.

"GHFWomen Reopens," The Gainesville Sun.

© 2019 Marilyn Prado


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