When did people start "working out"?

When did exercise become a necessary/highly desired part of the ordinary person’s ordinary routine? I know there’s research that suggests that in the past 40 years or so, Americans have gotten more sedentary at work while food has gotten cheaper and more calorie-rich. So is it in this time period that the need for extra physical effort became necessary? What did people do to stay fit–if they did anything–in the 1960s? 50s? In the 40s I assume rationing helped keep Americans slim, and in the 30s everyone was broke. Before that, I’m going to assume most Americans didn’t get as much to eat as we do today and/or worked their asses off.

Also, maybe this should be its own thread, but do people “work out” in other advanced nations? Japan, France, Poland? From my limited exposure to Britain, I’d say they do not.

Japan is big on excercise.

Jack LaLanne likely started the fitness movement as we know it today, earliest start was in 1936, but it’s wasn’t until the 1950’s that it took off.

Before that there was 'the gym" mostly for boxers, etc. Freeweights, bags, what not.

The Turner movement started in Europe around the middle of the 1800’s. So did the YMCA.

Mind you, even the ancient Greeks had gymnasion, which had exercise as well as education.

I just did a Google Ngram search for “I’m working out” and “I’m exercising”. It appears in both cases that the terms really took off after 1960. There were uses of “work out” before that time, but they were about other senses of “work out” not connected with exercise. So it appears that the term “working out” really began being used in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s:


(You have to click on the button that says “Search lots of books” after bringing up that URL.)

I remember in the 1960s a friend’s father died of a heart attack while out “jogging.” It wasn’t called that then because nobody ran around just for the sake of it. If you played sport you trained, if you were a runner you ran, but running around for reasons that weren’t incidental to something else was just unheard of. We always figured this guy did it because it was some Norwegian thing.

The term “jogging” jumped by a huge amount after about 1967:


Sometime after most of us stopped working farms all day, which was a workout in and of itself. Car culture also contributed to the need to set aside time specifically for exercise and car culture (driving everywhere instead of walking) really peaked in the 50s and 60s, about the same time fast food started becoming ubiquitous.

So it’s like a perfect storm of events:

  • We started working indoors more and most of that was mostly sitting, all day long.
  • We started driving more than walking to get places. We stopped using public transportation less (which still involved walking to bus and train stops, etc.)
  • We started eating more pre-processed foods that are high in fats, salts, and sugars.

We are eating more and poorly, and moving around less. Now Vitamin D deficiency is more common than you might think. I live in Florida and walk my dog every single day in the hot blazing Florida sun. And guess what-- I’m Vitamin D insufficient and have to take a supplement. I have a tan year-round! I don’t even use sunscreen for dog walks! But the lab don’t lie, so I started taking Vit. D. Doc said that we would have to be out in the sun every day from 10-4 without using sunscreen ever, in order to get sufficient Vit. D from only sun exposure.

Another factor is the invention of labor-saving devices like the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine. Even after people moved off the farms into the cities, they still had plenty of physical labor around the house until the arrival of such appliances.

Excellent point.

Depends. Early 60s-- yes. Late 60s-- no. And that would be the US. Maybe things were different in Australia.

I remember going out for a 'jog" in about 1968 just to see what all the buzz was about.

Australia tended to be a bit behind trends in the UK and US in the 1960s and '70s and '80s, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the jogging and fitness craze arrived a bit later there.

(Reminds me of the Simpson’s episode where they go to Australia. Near the beginning of the episode, Bart receives a letter from Australia, and it has a commemorative stamp that says “30 Years of Electricity.”)

The idea that physical fitness is a good thing by itself (not just a part of survival or work) pops up with the idea of “muscular Christianity” in the mid-19th Century, although the concept is much older.

The first YMCA was organized in 1844.

Probably due to Bill Bowerman’s book called “Jogging,” which was originally published in 1966. From Bowerman’s wiki page:

The ancient Greeks were into bodybuilding, so that’s approx 2500 years or so ago.

WWII also helped increase the popularity of being “buff.” Lots of guys got trim and muscular in boot camp and the ladies liked it. But of course, they were generally young guys who were fit to begin with just to get into the army.

I was going to say this. Absolutely right. It’s 19th century, not 20th century. People are off by a hundred years.

Both the YMCA, which started in London (1851 U.S., YWCA London 1855; YMHA 1854, YWHA 1888) and the Turner Movement, started in Germany in the early 19th century and hitting the U.S. around mid-century, emphasized physical fitness for all. If you guessed that muscular Christianitystarted in the same period, you’re right.

By 1900, all sizable cities had gyms of varying kinds. They emphasized boxing, swimming, gymnastics, throwing heavy balls, and indoor sports. Bicycling was absolutely huge in the late 19th century, and I mean Internet huge. The movement to pave roads started for bicyclers before there were cars. This was mostly a middle and upper class movement, and still is, although the percentage of the country who are middle class has gone up so much that at first glance it seems universal now and an oddity earlier.

pssst, post #2.

pssst, post #2.:stuck_out_tongue:

Yes. I don’t remember seeing/hearing much about jogging or joining gyms until the '70s, probably just after the macramé fad died. I thought the ‘get fit’ fad would last about as long - good thing I’m not in the prediction business.

The rise of the “workout ethic” was spurred by an epidemic of sand being kicked in young men’s faces.

I was in Burma in the early 80’s. At that time the country was quite isolated from the West (still is to some extent), yet in the early morning there were lots of people jogging in the streets of Rangoon. I would not have been too surprised by people doing Tai Chi (lots of local Chinese) , but jogging?

(Another really weird thing was that the Three Stooges were on TV there. I didn’t watch TV there, but I was reading the local newspaper and saw the television schedule section. Virtually every program was Burmese and then I saw “Three Stooges”. Maybe it was the ruling Generals’ favorite TV show.)