History Matters: Physical Fitness

By David A. Fryxell Premium

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history exercise fitness early origins

Seventy-five years ago, the world of fitness and the lives of 97-pound weaklings everywhere were forever changed by an ad that began appearing in comic books, headlined “The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac.” Created by Charles Roman for strongman Charles Atlas, the ad showed how the “Dynamic Tension” technique could keep skinny lads from getting sand kicked in their faces on the beach—and win them the girl. The ad was supposedly inspired by a real-life humiliation suffered by Atlas when he was merely Italian immigrant Angelo Siciliano, before he was inspired by the “physical culture” craze.

Until the Industrial Revolution, most of our ancestors got plenty of exercise in the form of manual labor. But with machines taking over much of that labor, some fretted that people were getting soft. Combining strands of “Muscular Christianity” (a Victorian enthusiasm for piety and physical health), nationalism, and the fetishization of the male form, physical culture sought to turn America’s 97-pound weaklings into muscular men.

Fitness in Print

Its most prominent adherent, Bernarr Macfadden, founded Physical Culture magazine in 1899, launching a publishing empire whose titles would eventually range from Liberty to True Detective to Photoplay. Born Bernard McFadden in 1868, he changed his name to suggest the roar of a lion and to what he thought of as a more masculine spelling. The contrast between his youthful vigor while working on a Missouri farm and the “physical wreck” his later desk job turned him into convinced Macfadden to take up bodybuilding, walking six miles a day, fasting and vegetarianism. In addition to the magazine, he sought to spread the gospel of physical culture through a planned community in New Jersey and a religion called Cosmotarianism.


But Macfadden’s greatest creation was arguably Siciliano, whom he discovered at a contest in Madison Square Garden in 1921 and soon dubbed “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.” Siciliano legally changed his name to Charles Atlas and worked with Dr. Frederick Tilney, a British homeopathic physician and adviser to Macfadden, to develop his “Dynamic Tension” techniques. Students included boxers Max Baer, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, as well as countless boys lured by Atlas’ comics ads. (One featured Atlas’ Herculean form with the headline, “And to think they used to call me skinny!”).

Earliest Exercise Regimens

Hunting and gathering kept early humans from worries about being physically fit. The first exercise regimens aimed as much at the soul as the body, as in the practice of yoga, developed in India as long as 5,000 years ago. By imitating the motions of animals, practitioners hoped to achieve harmony with nature. Similarly, in China, Confucius (551-479 BCE) included exercise in his philosophy, though he also taught that Cong Fu gymnastics could prevent diseases caused by “organ malfunctions” and “internal stoppages.”

Ancient Greeks believed in exercise for the body and music for the soul and established palaestras where young boys practiced gymnastics and wrestling. Older boys, ages 14 to 16, graduated to the gymnasium. While citizens of Athens valued exercise for its spiritual and aesthetic benefits, their neighbors in Sparta—like their foes in the Persian Empire—emphasized fitness for soldiering. Spartan and Persian boys alike began training at the age of 6, when the state took over their upbringing. Military training also kept early Romans fit, though fitness declined as more became mere spectators of gladiatorial games (not unlike the modern effects of television and video games).


In the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, fitness again became a matter of survival, with little time or need for exercise regimens. The Renaissance’s rediscovery of classical civilizations brought physical education back into vogue, though daily life was still the only workout for ordinary people.

The Tie Between Fitness and Nationalism

Popular interest in fitness rose along with nationalism in Europe in the 19th century. Gymnastic programs spread especially in Germany, where a fit German was considered a good German. Guts Muths, the grandfather of German gymnastics, and Friedrich Jahn, its father, believed exercise training could help the nation turn back the next would-be Napoleon. Muths spread his ideas through the first fitness textbook, Gymnastics for the Youth, published in 1800. Beginning in 1811, Jahn established training facilities called Turnplatz throughout Germany. He invented the pommel horse and parallel bars, and his centers were among the first with special apparatus for exercises. Similar national fitness movements included the Czech Sokol and the Polish Falcons.

In Sweden, Pehr Henrik Ling used science to create individualized regimens that were lighter and less dependent on equipment than the German model.

Both the German and Swedish systems arrived in the United States with immigrants from those countries, sparking what some called a battle between the different approaches. In Massachusetts in 1824, Charles Beck—a “Turner” devotee of Jahn—opened the nation’s first gym and first school gymnastics program. At Harvard, Dudley Allen Sargent, considered the founder of US physical education, taught both the German and Swedish systems and warned Americans were becoming “fat, deformed and clumsy.”

A uniquely American regimen, the New Gymnastics, was introduced by Dr. Diocletian “Dio” Lewis, a temperance crusader who invented the beanbag. Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, devised fitness programs for women as part of her push for female education. Her calisthenics set to music were a forerunner of modern aerobics.

Both World Wars galvanized public interest in physical education, as each war’s draft revealed that an alarmingly high proportion of American men were unfit for combat—one-third in World War I, nearly half in World War II.

The postwar spread of television made possible the career of Charles Atlas’ most notable competitor, François Henri “Jack” LaLanne. Like Macfadden, LaLanne was a reformed physical wreck who decided “physical culture and nutrition is the salvation of America.” He opened a gym in Oakland in 1936 at age 21, and took his fitness gospel to the airwaves in 1951. His “Jack LaLanne Show” aired until 1985 and earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; fans ranged from housewives to Arnold Schwarzenegger. He paved the way for the workout videos of Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda.

Proving the longevity benefits he’d touted, LaLanne died in 2011 at age 96. Not quite so fortunate was Charles Atlas, who died of a heart attack during his daily jog in 1972 at age 79. Bernarr Macfadden made it to age 87 and might’ve lived longer had he not refused medical attention for the urinary tract infection that killed him in 1955.

Timeline of Exercise

1800 | Guts Muths publishes Gymnastics for the Youth
1811 | Friedrich Jahn opens a gymnasium (Turnplatz) in Berlin
1844 | George Williams founds the YMCA in London
1899 | Bernarr Macfadden founds Physical Culture magazine
1929 | Charles Atlas Ltd. is incorporated
1955 | Jack LaLanne wins the Mr. America title
1956 | President Dwight D. Eisenhower creates the President’s Council on Youth Fitness
1968 | Dr. Ken H. Cooper publishes Aerobics
1982 | Jane Fonda’s Workout video sells the first of 17 million copies

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