How Exercise Has Changed Over the Last 100 Years

Women in an exercise class
Let’s get physical! The history of exercise over the last hundred years doesn’t just reveal changing fitness trends. It also sheds light on the physical traits our culture considers most desirable.

According to a report by NPR, more than half of Americans don’t get the recommended minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day. But that wasn’t always the case. A hundred years ago, people were five times more active than they are today.

What changed? Cars, for one thing. TVs and computers didn’t help. As work shifted away from manual labor to desk jobs over the course of the last hundred years, we became more inactive as a whole. Combined with easy access to calorie-rich foods, the result was the birth of exercise as a separate thing you did instead of a natural part of your everyday life.

How have people tried to keep fit over the decades? Prepare yourself for a wild ride, friends.

Note: This post discusses exercise and food, along with diet culture.

Related: Forget ‘Diet and Exercise’: Here’s What You Really Need to Improve Your Health

1920s: The Dawn of Fitness

It’s not that no one before 1920 ever exercised. The first physical education classes in America were taught at a private school in Massachusetts in 1823, and by the 1850s, public schools were starting to embrace PE as part of the standard curriculum. Gymnastics was the most popular form of exercise at the time.  

It wasn’t until the 1920s, however, that the fitness industry as we know it developed in America. Although gymnastics and calisthenics were still popular, this was the era that saw the rise of exercise machines.

The most famous example is the vibrating band machine, which you can see in the archival video clip above. Flappers who wanted toned waists and slim gams were encouraged to hold still while vibrating rubber belts… melted fat away, I guess? That era also saw more familiar exercise machines like treadmills and stationary bikes become more popular, as well.

Glamour Girl Workouts

Throughout the 40s and into the 50s, exercise was packaged as part of a woman’s beauty routine. In fact, some beauty salons offered access to exercise machines as part of their services. Many of the exercises aren’t that different than what you might see today in a group class or a YouTube video. Well, other than the Hoola Hoop craze. That was a weird one.

Exercises emphasized smaller waists and overall weight loss (called “reducing” at the time), but the goal was not to build muscle. No lifting weights for these ladies; calisthenics only, thank you!

The other big shift was the idea of exercising at home. Previously, exercise was limited to gymnasiums. In the early 50s, The Jack Lalanne Show became the first TV program to encourage housewives to get fit at home. Other than the jumpsuit—which, honestly, wouldn’t look out of place on somebody like Cate Blanchett today—most of what he’s saying in the clip above probably sounds familiar. Lalanne set the standard for exercise classes for the next half-century.

Diet Sodas and Dance Classes

Weight Watchers (now rebranded as just WW) was founded in 1963, and while I won’t claim that the company single-handedly changed the country forever, it did have an impact. Before the 60s, most diet advice involved eating less of the foods that you already enjoyed or going on an extremely restrictive diet of like, lemons, Saltine crackers, and cigarettes.

Once modern food scientists figured out how to make low-calorie foods that still tasted good (debatable), we ended up with the diet-fitness industry. There was an increased awareness of the direct link between nutrition and fitness, leading to counting calories, avoiding certain foods, and embracing diet sodas.

Home exercise machines really came into their own during this era, as well. While it was increasingly common for men to work out at a gym, women were more likely to exercise at home. Stationary bikes and treadmills both became common household fixtures.

If you weren’t exercising at home, then you were probably taking a class in a dance studio. Jazzercise became a massive success in the 1970s, combining the cardio calisthenics of earlier decades with jazz dance moves. There are still over 8300 Jazzercise franchises worldwide.

The other big trend that emerged from the era was jogging. Running as a sport had become more popular in the late 60s and early 70s, thanks in part to track and field stars like Steve Prefontaine. Before that, running was just not a thing that ordinary people did unless they were being chased.

Jane Fonda Changes the Game

In 1982, Jane Fonda released what would prove to be the all-time best-selling workout video. She was 45 at the time and felt passionate about helping women work out. You can draw a straight line between Fonda’s exercise video empire and modern-day fitness influencers on social media.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, you were weird if you didn’t have at least one celebrity workout video. We had Cher’s video in my house. As you can see in the promo above for Fonda’s 1988 video, low-fat foods were also seen as the cornerstone to losing weight and maintaining a trim figure. Those high-cut leotards and shiny tights were not forgiving.

Workout fashion and street fashion began to overlap, and it wasn’t unusual for people to wear nylon tracksuits or colorful tights with legwarmers while hanging out at the mall. The actual exercise was mostly done in the comfort of your own living room.

In addition to step aerobics, the 80s and 90s saw an uptick in exercise and equipment that promised to pinpoint your “trouble spots.” The biggest examples were the Thighmaster, a butterfly-shaped torture device hawked by Suzanne Somers on non-stop infomercials, and the Buns of Steel program.

Throughout the 90s, women were encouraged to associate strength and power with building muscle. Workouts also became more gender-inclusive, especially the Tae Bo fitness system developed by Billy Blanks. However, it would be a long time before weightlifting would go mainstream.

The Aughts: Anything Goes

By the time we reach the start of the 21st century, it had become clear that America’s obesity problem wasn’t going away. That might have had something to do with the junk science behind the low-fat “health” foods that were full of sugar instead, but I digress.

It seemed like everyone was jumping from trend to trend, whether they were doing Zumba, taking spinning classes, or getting really into kickboxing. There was a sense that if we could just find the one thing that worked, then we could finally shed those extra pounds and live the fabulous rom-com life we’d always wanted.

In the 2000s, suburban women invented yoga—wait, hold on. My editor tells me that yoga has, in fact, existed for over 5000 years as a practice for the mind, body, and spirit. Anyway, yoga became one of the most popular forms of exercise in America, and yoga studios started popping up in every city across the map. I actually think Yoga with Adriene is fantastic, and I don’t want to dunk on YouTubers like her helping us to practice yoga at home.

Pilates also became popular, perhaps because both the Americanized version of yoga and Pilates promised similar “sculpted” physiques through slow, controlled movements. Pilates was invented by a German immigrant in the 1920s. The fitness practice uses resistance-based machines along with focused breath control. One of the most appealing parts of the Pilates philosophy was a strong “core,” a concept that became a focus of the fitness industry.

The other game-changer in the 2000s was the Wii Fit. For a few years, everybody wanted Nintendo’s exercise-focused video game system. It was incredibly popular, even if it wasn’t really that much fun and the exercise board didn’t do anything and the graphics were terrible. Look, times were different. We didn’t even have iPhones yet in 2007.

CrossFit and Fitness Apps

Moving into the 2010s, exercise trends shifted toward weights, weights, and more weights. If you didn’t have a set of kettlebells at home, someone would knock on your door to provide one. CrossFit had already been around for about a decade, but it didn’t explode into a full-on fitness craze until about 2012. The pared-down, no-spandex-allowed approach to exercise was appealing to both men and women who wanted to get ripped.

CrossFit also had a major impact on diet culture, turning away from low-fat, low-calorie foods in favor of more protein and fat. The P90X system combined the workout videos of the 90s with the intensity of the CrossFit and other HIIT-style training programs, along with a diet that emphasized protein over carbohydrates.

Smartphones and wearable tech introduced a new wrinkle into our already fitness-obsessed culture. We could track—in real-time!—our steps, our heart rate, our calorie intake thanks to products like the FitBit and apps such as MyFitnessPal. Not only could we check our own stats, but we could also compare ourselves to our friends and family. Or even to fitness influencers whose entire job is focused on diet and exercise.

Wellness and the Future of Exercise

At some point in the last decade, a new buzzword has dominated the conversation about health and fitness: “wellness.” This supposedly more holistic approach to health embraced “clean” eating and functional exercise—aka lots of squats—as well as “all-natural” and “organic” products.

If you think I’m going overboard with the quotation marks, it’s because I’m trying to make a point. Those words don’t really mean anything. Other than the narrow guidelines for organic food labeling, any old influencer can throw those terms around. Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP is one of the most obvious examples, but the wellness movement is so widespread that it doesn’t even feel fair to pick on her anymore.

We haven’t seen any new major trends so far this decade, although smart home gyms and more sophisticated wearable tech are continuing to evolve. Whether we’ll end up doing high-intensity interval training in a hot yoga studio or taking outdoor ballet classes with an AI hologram as an instructor, the future of fitness will be a mix of traditional exercise and cutting-edge technology.

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