As people the world over are compelled to spend most of their time at home, daily exercise has never seemed more essential to health and wellbeing. Here writer Kate Carter explores Western history to draw links between people of the past and those of us following online gym workouts indoors or setting out on a government-approved walk or run today. From the ancient Greek gymnasium to today’s primary-school PE lessons, humans have long understood the benefits of getting active.
For the young men of ancient Greece, visiting the gymnasium was not a simple leisure pursuit, but an integral part of their education. Indeed, Anacharsis – a Scythian philosopher (from the Black Sea area) and traveller who visited Greece – reportedly said that: “In every city of the Greeks there is a designated place where they go mad daily. I mean the gymnasium.” Baffling to observers both ancient and modern, perhaps, but for Greeks, exercise was crucial for what we would now call wellbeing. The ancient Greek historian Diodorus spoke of gymnasia and temples as things that “contribute to making happy the life of man”.
But the focus of exercise for Greeks was more than simply the mind. In the fifth century BCE the father of medicine, Hippocrates, warned that “eating healthily by itself will not keep a man well; he must also have physical exercise”. And to be visibly fit and healthy was virtuous: in Grecian art the athletes are always nude – indeed, the word ‘gymnasium’ originates in the adjective gymnos, meaning ‘naked’. The Greeks saw nudity as a sign not of shame and humiliation, but of moral virtue. To be naked was to be in the most heroic of states.
Hippocrates built the foundations of Greek medicine, but the Roman Galen took his ideas further. The physician, writer and philosopher used Hippocrates’ teachings to systemise knowledge of the human body, including the body’s function during exercise. He observes: “To me it does not seem that all (bodily) movement is exercise, but only when it is vigorous; but since vigour is relative, the same movement might be exercise for one and not for another.” He even noted that while exercise cannot stop the ageing process, it can certainly delay it.
The Renaissance saw a rebirth not just in the pursuits of the mind, like the arts and literature, but in the pursuits of the body too. As early as 1420 Vittorino da Feltre, an Italian humanist, opened a school with a special emphasis on physical education. And in 1569 the Italian physician Mercuriale published his ‘De Arte Gymnastica’ – one of the earliest books to explicitly discuss the therapeutic benefits of gymnastics and many other sports.
Until the 19th century, having the opportunity to pursue sport was largely a privilege for those with money and leisure time. But with the Industrial Revolution came a desire to promote physical exercise to counteract sedentary factory work, as well as inventions to facilitate it – most prominently the bicycle. German civil servant Baron Karl von Drais takes the credit for the first two-wheeled steerable and human-propelled machine in 1817, but it was the ‘safety bicycle’ of the 1880s and 1890s that really transformed their use from a hobby for sporting young men to a mass transport tool for men – and, crucially, women too – of all ages.
The birth of 19th-century ideas of nationalism led to the idea of physical fitness as embodying not just personal health but that of the nation – influenced too by Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”. To be fit and healthy was, once again, in an echo of ancient Greece, to be an upstanding citizen. And for the first time women became part of this movement, representing their countries at the Olympic Games alongside men – albeit in smaller numbers.
Physical education for children became increasingly important into the 20th century, and nowhere more than in Germany, where there were gymnastic curriculums in Prussia as early as 1862. But the darker side of the idea of ‘fitness’ of course ultimately manifested itself in the Nazi ideal. In 1937 a new state PE curriculum was introduced for boys, but less for health purposes than for strong Aryan body-training.
Sport and exercise was seen by the Nazis as a manifestation of ethnic superiority, but it also had – and still has – the power to unite. From school PE lessons to parkrun to international competitions, sport is now woven into the fabric of modern society, and new research emerges constantly of the hugely positive impact it has not just on our bodies, but our minds.
As a devoted – some might say obsessive – runner, I know all too well the power of physical exercise to change our mood, lift our spirits, unwind knotted shoulders and soothe troubled thoughts. With new evidence emerging of the physical changes in the brain when we run, we now even have proof of the fabled ‘runners’ high’. It seems to me that in these troubled times, we need exercise more than ever.