As we enter the 21st century, one of the greatest accomplishments we can celebrate is our continuous pursuit of fitness since the beginning of humankind. Throughout prehistoric time, the quest for fitness was driven by a need to survive through the arduous tasks of hunting and gathering. Today, though no longer driven by subsistence requirements, fitness remains paramount to people's health and well-being. This article will highlight the historical events that helped shape the history of fitness, beginning with primitive man and leading to the foundation of the modern fitness movement.
Primitive Man (pre-10,000 BC)
Primitive, nomadic lifestyles required continual hunting and gathering of food for survival. It was quite common for tribes to embark on one- or two-day journeys to seek food and water. Following successful hunting and gathering excursions, tribes would often travel six to 20 miles to celebrate with neighboring tribes and then partake of dancing and cultural games that lasted several hours. This Paleolithic pattern of subsistence pursuit and celebration demanded a high level of fitness.
The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution (10,000-8000 BC)
This period marked the end of the primitive lifestyle and signified the dawn of civilization. This time was defined by important agricultural developments, such as the invention of the plow and domestication of plants and animals. These advancements made it possible for hunting-gathering tribes to obtain vast amounts of food while remaining in the same area, thus transforming primitive, nomadic peoples into agrarian (agriculture and farming) societies. Unfortunately, this era also coincided with the beginning of a more sedentary lifestyle, as daily physical activity decreased with fewer hardships to conquer.
The Near East (4000-250 BC)
Recognizing the importance of physical performance in the battle field, early leaders within the civilizations of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Palestine, Persia and Syria encouraged fitness among their peoples. Perhaps the best example of a civilization using fitness for political and military purposes was the Persian Empire, which implemented mandatory rigid training programs to expand its domain. As this empire became more affluent, physical activity became less important. At the point the Persian Empire finally collapsed, its society could largely be characterized by an overall lack of fitness.
Ancient Chinese and Indian Civilizations (2500-250 BC)
The Chinese culture recognized that regular exercise could prevent certain diseases. In fact, the philosophical teachings of Confucius encouraged participation in physical activity. Consequently, the Chinese developed Cong Fu gymnastics to keep the body in good working condition. Cong Fu exercise programs consisted of various stances and movements that were actually modeled after the fighting styles of different animals. The ancient Chinese also engaged in other forms of physical activity, such as archery, badminton, dancing, fencing and wrestling.
In India, the pursuit of fitness was discouraged because Buddhism and Hinduism put a greater emphasis on spirituality than on physical fitness. However, Hindu priests did develop an exercise program that conformed to their religious beliefs; that program came to be known as yoga. Though its exact origin has yet to be identified, yoga has existed for...