People don’t look like they used to. We’ve been cave-dwellers, tribespeople, fought plagues and mammoths. In the two million or so years we’ve been knocking about, it’s only fairly recently that we’ve had the time and understanding necessary to think about our bodies — back when we were hairy grunters who died at 22 we didn’t really have the luxury of working on our pecs.
Here, then, is a brief journey through the idea of exercise, from living under rocks to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and beyond. (A quick note: Condensing the entire history of human exercise into one breezy read demands a lot of shortcuts, so apologies for massive oversights and/or sweeping generalizations, there was a lot to cover.)
Rocks and Running: The Early Days of Exercise
For most of human history, exercise wasn’t really necessary, because life was tough. It seems reasonable to say that most running done by Early Man was either toward something to eat it or away from something to not be eaten by it. Until labor-saving devices like “the wheel” and “ladders” came along, performing the most basic of tasks was a fucking ballache. They evolved to be pretty good at these tasks though — the ability to run long distances was a key element in becoming Homo sapiens.
As we developed tools and farming and a nomadic existence gave way to claiming territory, there were new reasons to be fit and strong, namely, kicking the shit out of the Neanderthals down the river and taking all their stuff. While a lot of ancient civilizations developed the idea of fitness and exercise, it was some time before they were used for anything other than training dudes to get strong enough to kill other dudes in battle. Being buff was a means to an end — ideally, the end of the other guy.
Rituals, Religion, Rules and Recreation: The Beginning of Organized Fun
Where you have fighting you have victors, and where you have victors you have celebrations. Most ancient cultures developed ritual dances and physical challenges — as rites of passage, forms of entertainment and ways of demonstrating one’s radness. Wrestling, for instance, exists in pretty much every culture in one form or another.
As more complex ways of life and belief systems were formed, physical activity formed core parts of a lot of them, from the physically and psychologically gruelling walkabouts of indigenous Australians — months-long rites of passage that make Tough Mudder look like a stroll to the toilet — to the ancient Sumerians and their sports festivals.
Yoga might date in some form from as far back as 3,000 BCE, although rather than exercise, it originated as a form of showing religious devotion through denying oneself anything. Around 400 BCE, the idea was to “train the body for toil in order to strengthen one’s opinions” and “rid the spirit of not only pain, but also pleasure.”
According to legend, the Chinese emperor Huangdi came up with the idea of qigong — slow, low-impact movements incorporating posture and breathing — sometime around 2,700 BCE, and due to his dedication to it, lived to be 118. Martial arts were developed in China from at least 500 BCE, initially for military reasons, and became integrated into philosophy and Taoism.
In 2017, archaeologists discovered a gymnasium in Egypt dating from 300 BCE, built during a period of Greek occupation (a lot of ancient civilizations kind of smoosh into each other, to use the technical term). These gyms offered some things gyms of today don’t, like lessons in learning to read and write, as well as spaces dedicated to discussing philosophy. Anyone could join if they could afford it, provided they weren’t in one of the following prohibited groups — women, slaves, freedmen, tradesmen, male prostitutes, drunkards and madmen.
Damn it! Terms and conditions have always been a fucking pain in the ass!
The Roman Empire: Fightin’ Round the World
You don’t get to build a globe-straddling empire without lifting, bro. Roman armies, for instance, were incredibly well-trained — the snappily-named Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus penned the Epitoma Rei Militaris, an in-depth look at the various keep-fit techniques used by Roman soldiers. They did weight-work, endurance training and twice-daily combat sessions using weighted weapons. (In later Roman times, fitness levels really plummeted as the wealthy got heavily into living as excessively and grotesquely as they could, and everyone’s goal in life became to live as much like Hedonism Bot from Futurama as possible.)
An Egyptian fresco from 3,400 BCE shows wrestling being used as military training, the earliest depiction of organized exercise currently known. The ancient Egyptians had all sorts of ways of keeping fit, from rhythmic gymnastics to weightlifting to multi-person equilibrium-based exercises around balance and strength.
Old Balls: The Emergence of Sports and Contests
Eventually, some of the tactics used to keep soldiers fighting fit found their way into everyday life as sports. As early as 1,400 BCE in Mesoamerica, a game called ōllamaliztli was developed, vaguely similar to modern racquetball but with two key differences: 1) the ball was struck with the hip rather than a racquet; and 2) it was often played as part of a ritual ceremony also involving human sacrifice. There are theories that the helmets upon the massive stone heads carved by the Olmec people are the ones used in playing this game.
During China’s Han dynasty in the third and second centuries BCE, a precursor to soccer known as Ts’u-chü was used in military training and was subsequently played by the general population. Also popular: weightlifting. From about 800 BCE to 200 BCE, Chinese farmers got super into various forms of strength training including kiao guan (one-handed bar lifting) and kang ding (lifting heavy pots).
Second-century Roman surgeon and anatomist Galen was an enthusiastic proponent of a rugby-like game called harpastum for how it exercised every part of the body. It also occasionally involved legs and necks breaking, but what doesn’t, right? The ancient Native American legend of the Great Race, in which man and buffalo competed on a track to establish order in the universe, suggests that there was at least some competitive athletics going on, while in a few African tribes, running was used as a display of prowess and manliness.
The ancient Greeks were famed for their aesthetic appreciation of muscles (as immortalized in their statues, along with their thing for really small penises and having them out all the time when exercising), and competitions like the early Olympic Games came out of a desire to cultivate and showcase muscular physiques. A lot of the events were plucked straight from military life — the javelin was a weapon long before it was a piece of P.E. equipment, and “throwing a giant fucking rock at your enemies” long predates the shot put. Pankration was a kind of precursor to MMA, combining boxing, wrestling and kicking each other in the face.
Children were encouraged to play sports every day — if they were rich, it was all about being muscular and special; while if they were poor, it was about being better at carrying shit for rich people and/or doing a bunch of killing. Outside of the gym, one popular way of keeping in shape was digging: Dig a big hole, dig the dirt back into it, look great, show off your big shoulders, show off your tiny waist, show off your minuscule hog, well done.
Living Hard and Healthy: Exercise as Medicine
One of the earliest wellness influencers was Susruta, a pioneering physician who lived in India sometime between 1,000 BCE and 600 BCE. While frequently overlooked in modern histories of exercise, he was the earliest known figure to write about the importance of exercise as medicine. He advocated for exercise both to maintain general health — including aiding digestion, increasing resistance against fatigue and leading to increased mental alertness — and to avoid certain conditions like obesity and diabetes. His treatment regime for diabetes involved long walks, wrestling, and if possible, the occasional elephant ride.
In the first and second centuries CE, Chinese physicians began prescribing exercises to patients. Hua Tao — also a pioneer in the field of weed-based anesthesia, fact fans — is said to have developed the five-animal exercise system that eventually became the modern forms of tai chi and qigong.
The Middle Ages: Everything Grinds to a Halt
After the Roman Empire collapsed, a few things changed. Cities all but dissolved, and a lot of breakthroughs in areas like science and anatomy were pretty much forgotten. Centuries passed in a series of back-and-forths between various fragmented groups, and as far as historians can tell, there were a good few hundred years where nobody really gave a shit about anything . Noblemen and knights would do some basic physical training, but the majority of people were born, toiled a rich person’s land for a while and then died.
Medieval exercises for knights were along the lines of “throw a big stone” and “jump onto a big horse then hit a guy.” Where once the glistening contours of the human body were admired, beauty was seen as arrogance before God, something to be hidden away and shunned in favor of humility and modesty. Having a bangin’ bod was arrogant, if not outright evil.
The Renaissance and Beyond: The Modern World Gets in Shape
The Renaissance revitalized interest in the human body, with physical education programs launched throughout Europe and a resurgence in gymnastics and wrestling. Vitruvian Man, drawn around 1490, is in pretty good shape — he’s not going to be showing up on the cover of Men’s Health (especially if he refuses to put his hog away), but he’s got visible abs and a bit of a deep-V thing going on.
The 16th century saw the beginning of what would become sports science, using rediscovered knowledge from the Greeks and Romans and pushing a kind of “healthy body, healthy soul” idea. Girolamo Mercuriale’s De Arte Gymnastica (1533) was a big deal in terms of looking at exercise’s effects on health, accompanied by woodcut illustrations of bulging-muscled strongmen working up sweats in various ways.
The average European was unlikely to be doing a lot of bench pressing at this point, though. A lot of reports from colonists showing up in America, Africa and later Australasia include detailed descriptions of how healthy and muscular everyone they encountered was. Not for long, of course, thanks to the hideous diseases the colonizers brought with them.
While a fitness craze slowly swept across Europe, aided by the Industrial Revolution, things were slightly different over in America, where colonial life was way too tough to add extra hardship to it by, say, lifting shit for no reason. Post-1776, Benjamin Franklin pushed the idea of exercise as health, while Thomas Jefferson thought everyone should do two hours of outdoor exercise minimum every day, regardless of the weather.
The Industrial Revolution: Labor-Saving and Hard-Shredding
Back in Europe, 1796 saw the invention of the Gymnasticon, equal parts exercise bike and small apartment, the patent for which shows the least athletically dressed man in the world cheerfully working out in a greatcoat and wig. Friedrich Jahn, a German fitness enthusiast with an extremely good beard, founded an open-air gymnasium in Berlin in 1811, as part of a surge in nationalism brought about in part as a response to various defeats by Napoleonic forces, reinvigorating national pride by getting everyone in shape. A lot of what we now think of as standard gymnastics equipment — the pommel horse, rings and so on — were popularized by his movement. Did his work also go on to inspire some of the worst people ever? Ja! Scheisse.
Germany wasn’t the only place experiencing a big nationalist movement, though. A lot of European countries got heavily into the idea of having a fighting-fit population and developed their own variations on gymnastics. Sweden, Denmark, France and Spain all came up with robust training regimes aimed in part at showing the rest of the world just how buff they were. The British Army built a gym in 1860, replacing Britain’s previous keep-fit methods of going for brisk walks, looking at the sea and periodically rubbing lead into your face.
Less of this was going on in America, initially — invasion wasn’t really a concern, and everyone tended to get more excited by ideas like eating corn flakes to stop jerking off and eating crackers to stop jerking off — although in the mid-19th century, Catharine Beecher came up with a thing where women did calisthenics in time to music that was pretty much aerobics decades before aerobics. America’s first athletics club opened in New York in 1848 but, as we all know from Back to the Future III, as late as 1885 in California the idea that someone would “run for fun” seemed absurd.
However, more and more vaguely modern gyms opened up, the incredibly popular National Police Gazette began making athletes into celebrities in the modern sense and vaudeville made big names out of big men lifting big things. Basketball and football led to the NCAA and a real legitimacy to athleticism, and Harvard’s Dudley Sargent created Phys Ed. Everyone was both taught the vocabulary of exercise and presented with the spectacular potential consequences of it — fame, fortune and adoration.
The Modern World: Onwards, Upwards, Outwards
1896 saw the first modern Olympic Games (and 1900 saw the first one with women allowed), a celebration of the idea of physically excelling both to make your country proud and for the sake of excelling and punching the limits of what the human body was capable of.
Everyone knows what happened in the 20th century. Wars. Nudism. Fast food. Comic-book superheroes inspired by circus strongmen. The suburbs. Strangely wholesome 1960s movies about teenage bathing suit hijinks. Charles Atlas and the insult that made a man out of Mac. Aerobics. Jogging. Lycra. Vitamins. Richard Simmons. Bodybuilding. WWE. The Abdominizer. Bruce Lee. Mr Universe. Sports Illustrated. That one shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers’ arms in the “Son of a bitch!” scene in Predator. Stallone doubling in size every nine months. The dream of being on a Wheaties box. Chinese nationalism bringing martial arts lessons to schools. Human growth hormone. Cosmo. Sick tribals. Cutting the sleeves off your No Fear T-shirts. Crop tops. Baywatch.
And the 21st. Supplements like a motherfucker. Crossfit. Instagram. 300. “Do you even lift, bro?” Jersey Shore. Porn. Strava. Size zero. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson. Fish and a rice cake.
We need to do vastly less physical work than we ever have as a species, yet have come up with ways to work our bodies harder than ever. For every labor-saving breakthrough there’s a new way to take in 3,000 calories at once or force your body to digest its own fat and make everything pop. A cave-dweller would be amazed by the shape of some of the giant bastards wandering around today, but also confused by how unnecessary so much of it is. They didn’t worry about a personal best, they were too preoccupied with killing a person or outrunning a beast.
A lot of it now is for its own sake, to meet largely arbitrary standards based more on aesthetics than health, or to beat entirely opt-in challenges set by ourselves. Today’s behavior — movie stars spending months eating 13,000 calories a day so their arms look good when they fight a CGI monster, Instagram hard-partying enthusiasts who actually won’t touch a beer because their veins stick out more impressively when they’re really thirsty — will undoubtedly seem as alien to us from some future vantage point as big-mustachioed Victorians in leopard skin onesies seem now.