A Brief History of Fitness

As society has evolved, fitness has adapted to meet changing needs and expectations

Human beings have been engaging in physical activities throughout history to stay healthy and fit (whether they realized it or not), but the history of fitness didn’t really begin until the 1970s. Prior to 1970, blue-collar workers held the majority of jobs in America. For this working class, manual labor was a normal part of everyday life. Pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying, running and a wide variety of physical tasks were part of a typical workday. Exercising (or participating in physical activity to develop or maintain fitness) wasn’t necessary. In fact, back in 1960, only 24 percent of adults reported exercising routinely. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Americans (primarily white-collar, middle class workers) began exercising on a regular basis. For this generation, work demands shifted from manual labor to office work requiring very little physical effort and the workday sitting idle at a desk.

Over the next two decades the idea of a “physical elite”, an exclusive group of very active and fit human beings who exercised regularly (if not excessively), ate very clean and healthy, were self-aware and incredibly successful in their upper-middle income bracket jobs spurred the memberships of numerous country clubs and private social clubs across the country. It was, in essence, the idea of a “super race” committed to achieving the perfect body and mind through exercise and good nutrition.

As a result, participation in running groups and private clubs grew exponentially and at unprecedented rates. In addition, by 1987, a nationwide Gallup poll revealed 69 percent of Americans who reported exercising regularly.

Although commercial fitness centers have been around since the 1940s, the emergence of the modern fitness center was driven by cultural changes that shape the industry we see today. Attitudes towards health and wellness (or more accurately, obesity and associated preventable disease) fuel the continuous growth of the industry, affecting the habits and expectations of three generations of Americans and beyond.

Several cultural changes contributed to the fitness movement, including:

  • The desire to be healthy
  • The desire to “fit in”
  • Corporate expectations and culture
  • The changing roles of women
  • The media

The Desire to Be Healthy

The idea of fitness (defined as “good health or physical condition, especially as the result of exercise and proper nutrition”) came from a growing awareness of the deteriorating health and physical condition of most Americans. In the spring of 1968, Dr. Kenneth Cooper (widely recognized as “The Father of the Modern Fitness Movement”) released his first best-selling book, “Aerobics”. Selling more than 30 million copies to date, this ground breaking book, advocated a philosophy of disease prevention rather than conventional disease treatment. With a belief that “it is easier to maintain good health through proper exercise, diet and emotional balance than it is to regain it once it’s lost”, Dr. Cooper is credited with encouraging more individuals to exercise than any other person in history.

The release of this book could not have come at a better time. That same year the highest U.S. death rate for coronary heart disease was announced. This is significant because prior to the 1960s it was uncommon for people in their 50s and 60s to suffer from a heart attack. Also, 1968 marked the peak rate for deaths in U.S. history. Since then, the peak rate for deaths due to heart attack has declined by over 75 percent.

This new awareness brought forth the realization that (in the 1970s) this generation was the first in history who needed to intentionally seek out forms of exercise to keep fit. This new understanding got people motivated to get moving and get fit as exercise was viewed as preventive medicine. People became increasingly aware of the limitations of conventional medicine and physical activity was seen as a way to reduce stress and improve one’s quality of life and longevity.

The Desire to “Fit In”

Generally, people don’t like to do things that are only good for them. There needs to be motivating factors other than health. One example is “vanity”. For some people, good health is not nearly as important as looking good and earning “physical elite” status. This led to negative attitudes towards looking obese or out of shape and, ultimately, motivated many to get off the couch and into their workout clothes and running shoes.

Corporation Expectations and Culture

Corporations first began helping employees with health-related issues (i.e. alcoholism and mental health) as early as the 1950s, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that corporations started seriously looking at workplace wellness programs. Once reputable journals began reporting evidence on how corporations could reduce health care costs, reduce illness-related absences, and attract talented employees, employers quickly got on board.

Hundreds of firms established on-site fitness centers or set up contracts with local fitness clubs to subsidize employee memberships. These new employee benefits were used to promote healthful exercise for everyone, especially the upper-middle income bracket employees with higher company value. In fact, one study noted that 91 percent of executives exercised regularly by 1987.

As a result of the corporate wellness initiative, exercisers were among the “boomers” of the middle and professional classes. They were generally the more upscale, college-educated, white-collar professionals in the upper-middle income brackets.

The Changing Roles of Women

Women played an important role in expanding the fitness movement in the 1970s. Women turned to exercise for many reasons, initiated (to some degree) by the feminist movement. The feminist movement in America (from the 1960s to the 1980s) was concerned with gender inequality in laws and culture. Exercise featured an attitude of physical strength and fitness that translated to increased social empowerment for some women. A strong, toned body, built consciously to demonstrate control over life had replaced the slim, waif-like beauty of the 1960s.

Because of the increasing number of jobs in the workplace for women, more of them were deferring marriage and having children. By entering the work force they had more independence, wealth and money to spend on luxuries like a fitness club membership, to help them look better, feel better and relieve unwanted stress.

Finally, the addition of Title IX to the Civil Rights Act increased participation in sports and fitness exponentially. For example, the number of women in interscholastic sports grew from 300,000 to over 3.1 million in less than a decade (between 1970 and 1980).

The Media

Media has played a significant role in the fitness industry and how people perceive fitness as a whole. What we look like, how we exercise, and where we went to get fit became the next fashion accessory and status symbol that people revered. Trends came in the form of fitness attire, exercise workouts, home gym equipment, celebrity personal trainers, and reality weight loss television shows (like “The Biggest Loser”).

Media has become the engine behind modern fitness and has spurred the growth of an industry that is now represented by 133,500 club locations around the world and a revenue of $71 billion in 2010 (2011 IHRSA Global Report).

The greatest contributor to these changing fitness trends has traditionally been the television. Although the internet has become an integral part of the day-to-day lives of the newest generation of trend mongers (Generation Z; born 1995-present), television is the gateway to evolving generations across the board … changing their perceptions about fitness and exercise and dictating how their money is being spent (how they should look, how they should feel, how to accomplish these results). Table 2-1 outlines the milestones, from the 1930s to the present day, that have led to the fitness and exercise trends we see today.

Fitness in the 21st Century

Time to fast forward to the present day. In the twenty-first century, the driving force behind the fitness industry is obesity. Recent statistics reveal the reasons why. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority of Americans are overweight and/or obese (2009-2010).

  • 69.2% of adults 20 years and over are overweight, including obesity (BMI of 25 or higher)
  • 35.9% of adults 20 years and over are obese (BMI of 30 or higher)
  • 18.4% of adolescents age 12-19 years are obese
  • 18.0% of children age 6-11 years who are obese
  • 12.1% of children age 2-5 years who are obese

Overweight and obesity are both labels for weight ranges greater than what is generally considered healthy for a given height. These weight ranges have also been shown to increase the likelihood of certain diseases and other health problems.

Although body weight is affected by genetic and hormonal influences, obesity occurs when you take in more calories than you burn through exercise and normal daily activities. Your body stores these excess calories as fat. Obesity usually results from a combination of causes and contributing factors, but the two main reasons are:

  1. Inactivity
  2. Unhealthy diet and eating habits

As a response to the obesity epidemic, the fitness industry continues to grow at a steady pace. According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), the trade association serving the health and fitness industry, as of January (2013):

  • Number of US Health Clubs: 30,500
  • Number of US Health Club Members: 51.3 million
  • Total US Industry Revenues (2012): $21.8 billion

Unfortunately, this growth cannot supply the need as obesity rates also continue to rise. Although this may sound like bad news, this is a positive scenario for the individual looking to pursue a career in the fitness industry as a personal trainer or fitness professional.

Information in this article is based on the book, “The Business of Personal Training: Essential Guide for the Successful Personal Trainer” (click here for more information).  Permission from the author has been granted to TodaysFitnessTrainer.com.

Written by TodaysFitnessTrainer (trainer@todaysfitnesstrainer.com). zemified_e-4492706

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