Did you make a New Year’s Resolution to get fit? You’re not alone. Ever since homo habilis first figured out how to run, humans have been pushing their bodies to the limits. For many, back-breaking work and warfare were exhausting enough. But for those who wanted something more, over time a wide variety of physical activities were turned into sports.
From fencing, to dancing, to 100-mile strolls through the British countryside, read on for a look at how our ancestors stayed healthy, and to perhaps get some inspiration for your own fitness routine...
1. Let’s Dance
While the Panhellenic games get all the press, dancing was another important way for the Greeks to show off their bodies. Praised by Aristotle and practiced by a young Sophocles, dancing could be social, theatrical, religious, or ritualistic. Spartan warriors performed the gymnopaedia, a naked war dance meant to display their athletic skills. It was, however, possible to go overboard. The legendary maenads were townswomen, driven wild by Dionysus, who danced for days on end in a violent frenzy.
2. Horsing Around
Nobility often allows for—or encourages—a sedentary lifestyle, but from the Eurasian steppe to the Victorian English countryside, horse riding and the equestrian arts have long been popular with the ruling classes. Polo gained favor in the courts of the Parthian empire (247 BCE-224 CE in modern-day Iran), where it was likely brought in by nomads from central Asia.
Later, in 913 CE, Byzantine emperor Alexander’s reign would be cut short by a particularly exhausting, fatal match of tzykanion (an ancient form of polo).
3. Warrior Yogis
Much of what we now understand as “yoga” is surprisingly modern, but the word is associated with mental and spiritual practices that date back millennia. With the Hatha yoga texts of the 10th and 11th centuries, these practices start to get physical. They describe the body as a hydraulic system that can be manipulated with a series of postures, breathing techniques, locks, and seals.
Some of the early practitioners of Hatha were the power-hungry Nath Yogis, who were one of the first religious orders to militarize into fighting units. They would have revered saints such as Matsyendranath (depicted below), considered the founder of Hatha yoga.
4. Knights in Training
Agility and endurance were important for the knights of medieval Europe and their esquires in training. During times of peace, knights maintained their fitness with jousts, tournaments, wrestling, rock-throwing, fencing, and other feats. They turned somersaults whilst clad in a complete suit of mail, or practiced leaping onto saddles.
This instructional manual, produced by a famed fencing-master, would have been an invaluable resource for a knight or young nobleman. Nicolo III d’Este, ruler of Ferrara, ordered three copies—one for each of his sons.
5. A Real Renaissance Man
Strict physical conditioning continued into the Renaissance, merged with a new emphasis on the moral and intellectual virtues of a healthy body. This was a return to the ideal of the ancient Greek physique. As the multi-talented scholar Leon Batista Alberti modestly writes about himself (in the 3rd person); “He played ball, hurled the javelin, ran, leaped, wrestled, and above all delighted in the steep ascent of mountains; he applied himself to all these things for the sake of health rather than sport or pleasure.”
6. Walking the Walk
Walking became an increasingly popular pastime in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Romantic poets and American transcendentalists sung its praises. Hikers argued for the “right to roam” on private land. Walking then began to emerge as a spectacle sport. Pedestrianism, or endurance walking, reigned as America’s most popular spectator sport in the 1870s and 80s. Competitors would march for days, often on special indoor tracks.
This illustration depicts one of pedestrianism’s first celebrities, Foster Powell, who once walked 100 miles in 24 hours along the Bath road in England, in 1787.
7. Fitness For Everyone
Along with the 19th-century “invention” of working-class leisure, came an increased demand for physical recreation. As the first modern gyms opened in Germany, gymnastic exercises gained popularity and schools began teaching physical education. Calisthenics—a kind of aerobics that originated in the military—were introduced to schoolchildren around the world.
8. Riding Astride
Women’s riding practices have been restricted ever since Princess Anne of Bohemia rode across Europe with both legs on the same side of her horse. Originally intended to protect virginity, riding “sidesaddle” was mandatory practice for a proper lady into the 20th century.
It wasn’t until the 1910s that sportswomen and activists such as Nan “Two Gun” Aspinwall and Inez Milholland started to shake things up, riding cross-country or marching, horseback, on Washington. The practice of “riding astride” was an important symbol of the Suffragette movement.
9. The Final Leg
Since WWII, fitness has become an increasingly important part of everyday life—whether for health, leisure, or just for its own sake. In 1953, Jerry Morris published the first scientific data proving that exercise reduced the risk of heart failure. In 1967 an Oregon track coach took a term from New Zealand, and published a pamphlet on “jogging.” The first “big city” marathon was held in New York City in 1970—it claimed 127 participants. By the ‘80s, the fitness boom was in full swing, and it appears unlikely to slow down anytime soon.
Today, exercise’s popularity is as broad as it’s ever been, and new trends come and go at an exhilarating pace. And yet, there’s nothing frivolous about our routines. From Ancient Athens, to Title IX, to the cross-cultural practice of modern-day yoga, fitness has always been of central importance in how we use and see our bodies.
See more on the history of sport and fitness here:
- Game Changers: Women in Sport
- BKS Iyengar: A Yogi’s Life
- Don’t Try This At Home: The Medieval Martial Arts Manual