Fitness Centers are the present incarnation of a health practice that dates back almost 3,000 years and is commonly referred to as gymnasiums.
The word gymnasium is an incarnation of a Greek phrase that means “to exercise naked.” Ancient gymnasiums would have resembled a track and field facility featuring running, discus, javelin, and wrestling. They were only available to men living in ancient Greece. The Greeks trained for two main purposes, to improve military skills and to form their ideal male physique. After the Greco-Roman collapse may centuries would pass before gymnasiums would be reintroduced to society. During the Renaissance, medieval manuscripts were discovered that described the health benefits of utilizing gymnasiums for exercise. This allowed renaissance doctors to recommend them to address the obesity epidemic that was common in the aristocracy of the time, albeit unsuccessfully.
The gymnasium was finally re-introduced to society as a response to Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia in 1811. A Prussian school master named Frederich Jahn decided to incorporate the use of gymnasiums in an attempt to improve the physical fitness of the Prussian soldier and citizen enabling their army to earn revenge for the earlier defeat. He dubbed his athletic arena Turnplatz, which is the literal translation of exercise field. It included a track for running, a discus and javelin field, and equipment he invented that would later be known as parallel bars, vaulting horse, and the high bar. By the mid 1800’s the idea of creating gymnasiums as a commercial venture was catching on. Hippolyte Triat, opened what is believed to be the first commercial gymnasium in Brussels, Belgium. He opened a second gym in the capital city of his home country Paris, France.
The goal of these gymnasiums was to give its members the physique coveted by the ancient Greeks. The itinerary often included calisthenics, light weight training, circuit classes, and Indian clubs which were conducted to the beat of drums. Workout sessions were followed by massage which Triat often conducted himself. By the end of the 19th century Eugen Sandow, a famous strongman of the era, had created a new type of gym that was modeled after the London gentlemen’s club. State sponsored gymnasiums such as in Prussia became the arena for improving the effectiveness of their soldiers or factory workers. The commercial gyms like Sandow’s or Triat’s became a place synonymous with strengthening the individual to become a more viable member of democracy as physical power was coveted as much as mental prowess.
Eventually, there were two types of gym cultures that emerged. Men and women who exercised for health and those who wanted to become bodybuilders. Bodybuilders were represented by men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and fitness centers such as Gold’s Gym. Which exploded in popularity in the second half of the 20th century. The ideal body for this group was often epitomized by contests such as Mr. Universe or the Mr. Olympia competitions.
Corporate health clubs were also growing in popularity at the same time, often patronized by regular people that were looking to live a healthier lifestyle. As both styles of exercise became more popular, gymnasiums became more focused on catering to each demographic. What was missing was a form of exercise that catered specifically to women. Until the late 20th century women worked out with the same tools, in the same ways as men but by the 1970’s that was beginning to change. With the introduction of aerobics, cardio equipment, group classes, yoga, and similar activities women began to participate in fitness center activities in greatly increasing numbers. Jane Fonda helped to popularize aerobic exercise as a viable option for many women who had less free time than ever to consider their personal fitness. There were countless products and videos that were marketed to give a full workout in little time.
Today, fitness centers serve a growing population of people that have incorporated gymnasiums into their healthy lifestyles. The opportunity to expand is present again as many industrialized nations find that their populations are suffering from an obesity epidemic that is caused by sedentary lifestyles. Perhaps the next increase in the usage of fitness centers will be when the next innovator discovers a way to cater to this growing market and create a comfortable fitness center that can cater to their needs.
This content is provided by the non-profit organization we support: The Center for Wellness Leadership.