History of Fitness


The history of fitness refers to mankind's continuous pursuit of physical well-being; this quest for fitness began in prehistoric times and continues to the present.


Although mankind has continuously strived to be physically fit, the primary purpose for the pursuit of fitness has changed throughout history. In prehistoric time, man's quest for fitness was driven by a desire to survive through hunting and gathering. At various junctures throughout history the heightened interest in fitness was driven by military purposes and the desire to conquer other nations. In modern times, fitness remains paramount to health and well-being and is pursued primarily for these purposes.


Primitive nomadic lifestyles required the continual task of hunting and gathering food for survival. Tribes commonly went on one- or two-day hunting journeys for food and water. Regular physical activity apart from that necessary for hunting and gathering was also a principal component of life. Following successful hunting and gathering excursions, celebration events included trips of 6–20 mi. (10–32 km) to neighboring tribes to visit friends and family, where dancing and cultural games could often last several hours. It has been estimated that this pattern of physical activity resulted in the expenditure of over 3,000 calories per week for the average individual. This pattern of subsistence pursuit and celebration, demanding a high level of fitness and consisting of various forms of physical activity, defined human life for most individuals. In modern times, it has been reported that just over one-third (35%) of American adults fulfill current physical activity recommendations with 33% reporting no leisure-time activity. Of those who do perform physical activity on a regular basis, it is estimated that it equates to 1,000 calories per week in energy expenditure.


Hardships of early colonial life in America ensured that regular physical activity was a lifestyle priority; however, during this period no organized exercise or fitness programs existed. Colonial America remained an undeveloped country characterized by much unexplored land and wilderness. Lifestyles during this era consisted largely of plowing the land for crops, hunting for food, and herding cattle. This lifestyle provided sufficient levels of physical activity with no additional need or demand for exercise to maintain fitness levels. Prominent early leaders in the United States were conscious of the importance for exercise and fitness. Benjamin Franklin recommended regular physical activity, including running, swimming, and basic forms of resistance training for health purposes. President Thomas Jefferson acknowledged the necessity for fitness, although maybe to a somewhat extreme measure: “Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather shall be little regarded. If the body is feeble, the mind will not be strong.”


Energy expenditure—
The collective energy cost for maintaining constant conditions in the human body plus the amount of energy required to support daily physical activities.
Hypokinetic diseases—
Conditions that occur as a consequence of a lifestyle with too little movement; e.g., obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Industrial Revolution—
A time period in the United States during the mid-1800s where there was rapid development of machinery, resulting in a modern urban-industrial state where less physical labor and activity were required.
A contagious viral infection of the respiratory passages; various strains of influenza (e.g., the Spanish flu) have been responsible for the death of millions.
Neolithic Agricultural Revolution—
A time period between 10,000 to 8,000 BCE whereby humans gradually transitioned from a society of hunters and gathers to that of agriculture and settlement.
Physical trainers in ancient Greece who supervised gymnastics at the Palaestra.
A public place in ancient Greece devoted to the practice of gymnastics.
An acute viral disease characterized by inflammation of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
A contagious viral infection capable of causing birth defects if the mother is infected during pregnancy; symptoms include cough, sore throat, skin rash, and vomiting.
Type 2 diabetes—
A metabolic disorder characterized by high blood sugar levels.

It was World War II and its aftermath that would leave an important mark on the history of fitness; the modern fitness movement in the United States evolved out of the influence of World War II and the subsequent development of the Cold War. The United States entered World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With the declaration of war came the necessity to draft military personnel. However, as more men were drafted, it became embarrassingly clear that many of them were not fit for combat. When the war was over, it was reported that nearly half of all draftees needed to be rejected or were given noncombat positions. These draft statistics coupled with the constant threat of war during the Cold War era provided the basis for the formation of the President's Council on Youth Fitness. Both Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy promoted fitness during the 1950s and 1960s. Kennedy's commitment to fitness can best be summarized when he said, “Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence.”


The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution marked the conclusion of primitive lifestyle and signified the dawn of civilization. This historic period was defined by important agricultural developments including animal and plant domestication, and the invention of the plow. These human advancements made it possible for hunting-gathering tribes to obtain vast amounts of food while remaining in the same area—transforming primitive man into an agrarian (agriculture and farming) society. This era in history symbolizes the beginning of a more sedentary lifestyle, as man began to alleviate some hardships of life while simultaneously decreasing daily physical activity.


Jack LaLanne (1914–2011), who is recognized as a guiding pioneer of fitness, began his lifetime career as a media fitness instructor during the Great Depression. Throughout his life, LaLanne preached the value of preventive lifestyle habits. In the 1950s, The Jack LaLanne Show began airing on television, preceding the appearance of Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda by 25 years. LaLanne developed fitness programs including aerobics, water aerobics, and resistance exercise. He also introduced numerous pieces of exercise equipment including the first cable-pulley machine, the safety system for doing squats called the Smith machine, and the first leg extension machine. Though LaLanne preceded the modern fitness movement by nearly three decades, his fitness ideology and exercise programs were correct in approach when judged by modern research.

Dr. Ken H. Cooper, widely recognized as “The Father of the Modern Fitness Movement,” is generally credited with encouraging more individuals to exercise than any other individual in history. Cooper advocated a philosophy that shifted away from disease treatment to one of disease prevention. Early in his career, Cooper stressed the necessity for providing epidemiological data to support the benefits of regular exercise and health. Data from thousands of individuals became the foundation for his aerobic concepts. Dr. Cooper's message, programs, and ideas established the model from which fitness has proliferated up to modern time. The modern fitness movement has been led by many notable personalities, including the likes of Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, Judi Sheppard Missett, and Billy Banks. Numerous fitness trends have also emerged over this time period, as a means for people of all ages to achieve fitness, including aerobics, Jazzercize, kick boxing, pilates, and Zumba.



Eaton, S.B., Marjorie Shostak, and Melvin Konner. The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.


O'Keefe, James H., Robert Vogel, Carl J. Lavie, and Loren Cordain. “Achieving Hunter-gatherer Fitness in the 21st Century: Back to the Future.” The American Journal of Medicine 123, no. 12 (December 2010): 1082–6.

O'Keefe, James H., Robert Vogel, Carl J. Lavie, and Loren Cordain. “Exercise like a Hunter-gather: A Prescription for Organic Physical Fitness.” Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases 53, no. 6 (May–June 2011): 471–9.


“Dr. Kenneth Cooper.” Cooper Aerobics. http://www.cooperaerobics.com/About/Our-Leaders/Kenneth-HCooper,-MD,-MPH.aspx (accessed January 18, 2018).

Luther, Claudia. “Jack LaLanne Dies at 96; Spiritual Father of U.S. Fitness Movement.” Los Angeles Times (January 23, 2011). http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jan/23/local/la-me-jack-lalanne-20110124 (accessed January 18, 2017).


National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, 1150 Connecticut Ave., NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC, 20036, (202) 454-7521, ayanna@ncppa.org, http://www.ncppa.org .

President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, 1101 Wootton Pkwy., Ste. 560, Rockville, MD, 20852, (240) 276-9567, Fax: (240) 276-9860, fitness@hhs.gov, http://www.presidentschallenge.org .

SHAPE America, 1900 Association Dr., Reston, VA, 20191-1598, (800) 213-7193, Fax: (703) 476-9527, http://www.shapeamerica.org .

The Cooper Institute, 12330 Preston Rd., Dallas, TX, 75230, (972) 341-3200, (800) 635-7050, Fax: (972) 341-3227, http://www.cooperinstitute.org .

Lance C. Dalleck, BA, MS, PhD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.