Friday, January 5, 2018

Fun Friday Facts #128: The History of Working Out on Purpose, Part I

I swim laps at a gym on the grounds of a local resort, and last week, I just couldn’t swim in peace because every single Christmas guest at that resort brought their three kids to play in the pool for the exact forty minutes I was trying to swim. Even though it’s New Year’s Resolution Week, the pool has been quieter this week, except for that time when a bro jumped out of the hot tub to set off the safety alarm because he thought it would be funny. If looks could drown a grown man in a hot tub, well, you get the idea.

Jim and I watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation over Christmas weekend, and the depiction of Todd and Margot harkened back to a time when only douchebags exercised on purpose. So when did people start exercising on purpose, aka working out?

According to Lance C. Dalleck, M.S. and Len Kravitz, PhD, one of our greatest accomplishments as a species has been “the continuous pursuit of fitness since the beginning of man’s existence.” I would’ve said it was inventing chocolate, but I’m fat so of course I would.

I think saying that man has always been interested in fitness is a bit of a stretch. I mean, obviously prehistoric man got plenty of exercise. He spent literally all of his time hunting, gathering, making clothes out of animal skins, preparing food from scratch so that he could make more food from scratch, building fires without matches, and so on. There was no Netflix, so prehistoric humans were forced to talk to each other for entertainment, and probably spent their free time trying to invent KitchenAid mixers, or, as the case may be, the actual wheel. But they weren’t worrying about how many calories they’d just burned killing that mammoth, or if they were it was because it meant they’d have to eat again right away and they still had a whole mammoth carcass to butcher.

But, the promotion of intentional exercise goes back to the earliest days of civilization. As long ago as 4000 BCE, in the Fertile Crescent, military and political leaders recognized that physical exercise was an important component of military discipline (well, duh) and leaders in Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, and Syria advocated regular exercise for all members of society. In Persia (present-day Iran), boys began fitness training at age six, when they were required to start marching, hunting, riding, and javelin throwing. However, Dalleck and Kravitz note that the Persian Empire fell “at a time when society could largely be characterized by an overall lack of fitness,” and while they don’t come right out and say that being fat and lazy did the Persian Empire in, I think it’s implied, America.

I typed "ancient Persian exercise" into Google Images and this is what came up. Says it all, really.
~ Image by user Dake on Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the ancient civilization you probably think of when you think of exercising on purpose is the ancient Greeks, who (probably) exercised on purpose more than any other civilization in the world at the time. The ancient Greeks appreciated some sweet gains, and believed that physical well-being and mental well-being were linked, an idea that, as it turns out, was not so far off.

The Greeks, too, forced young boys to exercise, educating them in jumping, running, wrestling, and gymnastics. Boys trained in a palaestra, while adult men (those aged 14 to 16 and older) trained in the gymnasium (hey, I know that word). Music was played during exercise sessions, just as it is today.

Two ancient Greek societies liked exercising the most: the Athenians and the Spartans. The Athenians emphasized the importance of physical fitness and beauty because they were perfect, enlightened democrats, while the Spartans emphasized fitness for military reasons, which may or may not have involved beating the sh&t out of the Athenians (I’m picturing regiments of well-oiled, muscular men coming together to, um, wage war on one another, wink wink). Famously, Spartan men entered military training at age seven (which sounds appalling to us, but I’m beginning to think it wasn’t that unusual for the era – you can’t go getting attached to your kids when half of them are going to die of diphtheria anyway, right?). Spartan women were also required to adhere to strict fitness programs, which involved dance, gymnastics, wrestling, throwing the javelin and discus, “trials of strength,” running, and horseback riding. This emphasis on female physical fitness followed a broader trend of relative equality between the sexes in Sparta, but let’s emphasize the word relative, because, ultimately, it was all about helping women fulfill their highest purpose in life – plopping out healthy babies.

And dancing with one boob out.