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How has our Knowledge of Fitness Evolved Over the Centuries?

Every day, new diet trends and eating regimes surface and consume the attention of so many New Year's "resolutioners", many of whom are looking to drop the few pounds that are inevitably gained during the holiday season. Although each individual has a say in what conditions their own body survives or thrives, the truth is, the general answer to health was first recorded in 460-370 B.C, when Hippocrates recognized that diet and exercise were the key to health. Galen, in 129-210 A.D., was the first to record the idea of incorporating moderation into health practices, which included diet and exercise, but also sleep, gut, and sexual health. These two concepts have been ignored, rediscovered, and then reiterated for millennia, and we are continuing to find out how true these acknowledgements really are in today’s society.

The importance of exercise has resounded throughout history in many different cultures. The Greeks have always prioritized physical wellness through exercise, as is evidenced by the Olympics that were held in Olympia as early as 776 B.C, in order to honor the god, Zeus. In India, Ayurveda was an ideology parlaying physical and mental ways of achieving wellness, recorded in 3000 B.C. These principles eventually evolved into the practice of Yoga. Tai Chi, developed in 200 B.C China, is a type of exercise that involves slow, thoughtful movements (2,7).

In 1533, a Dr. Mendez was the first recorded scientist to write about exercise as a way to maintain health and prevent illness. Scientists in the 1700s realized that exercise could be utilized to treat sickness and as a preventative tool, opposed to alternative methods such as bloodletting, mercury exposure, and blistering. The notion that alternative methods made exercising unnecessary fostered the concept that there are other ways to maintain your health without needing to consider diet and exercise (2,7).

This idea that exercise was one of the many interchangeable options for maintaining health was not very damaging to the culture, as a whole, in the 1700s, because of the amount of movement that was necessary to work and generally sustain life at that time. Post-industrial revolution (1840s)and the invention of the car (1886) caused forced daily exercise, through the necessity to walk to fulfill basic, obligatory tasks, to be more and more obsolete. Our need to walk today has been made even less so than in the 1800s (5).

Exercise is an evolving topic among medical and mental health professionals. The American College of Sports Medicine and the Center for Disease Control did not release official statements of the importance of exercise until the 1950s. In the medical sphere, exercise was first seen as a solution to health problems like cardiovascular illness and obesity, but it was not recognized as a possible prevention mechanism until a few decades later, in the 1980s. Specifically, the original focus on the benefits of physical activity was first researched in 1953 in reference to heart related issues, which led to the recommendation of exercising 30 minutes every day (1,4).

The initial research focus of exercise was on the benefits of choosing to exercise. The first study fixating on the health effects caused by abstaining from exercising took place in 1958 by Jeremy Morris. After this study, there was a surge of research looking at the effects of living a sedentary life. The big debate that started to accumulate around this topic of research was “what was the amount and the intensity level of exercise needed in order to create beneficial physiological effects?”(2).

In 1978, the conclusion was that the higher the intensity of the workout, the better the physiological results. This conclusion came from studies, like Karnoven et al, who in 1958 found that in measuring moderate intensity and high intensity workouts, the high intensity group saw more notable health improvements. Yet, it was later recognized that these studies were not properly measuring the difference in intensity between the participants, thus the studies produced in the 1990s started regulating exercise intensity and found there was no statistically significant difference in moderate to intense workouts in the physiological results (2,7).

The CDC officially claimed, in 1995, the proper amount of exercise someone should engage in a week in order to maintain or improve health which was an accumulative 30 minutes of medium intensity every day of the week. The American Heart Association agreed with this assessment. Later, the Institute of Medicine report came out disagreeing that this amount of exercise would not be sufficient for someone who was classified as obese. Now, the idea of sufficient exercise has evolved. The current recommendation for exercise from the CDC is 150 minutes of medium intensity aerobic exercise per week, which is the equivalent of around 21 and a half minutes per day, or 75 minutes of high intensity aerobic exercise per week, which is almost 11 minutes per day. The CDC also recommends that children and teens get at least 60 minutes of exercise per day (7,8).

Despite having this long-recorded history of studying exercise in the experimental and medical worlds, exercise was not really in the social zeitgeist until the 1970s, when group fitness classes became a revelation. There had been gymnasiums around for over a century and a half, since the first official gym in the 1840s, but gyms were exclusively created for men and with the motivation that exercise was purely aesthetic. Exercise, for the sake of health, began in the era of the aerobics craze (2).

It is important to note that although high and medium intensity regular workouts are theoretically supposed to yield positive bodily results, this is not always the case. It is possible to exercise too much, to the point of bodily harm. The exercise dependence scale was created in 2002 by Hausenblas and Symons Downs, which illustrates when exercise starts to resemble a behavioral addiction and leads to injury. This concept takes us back to Galen’s point, made in 210 B.C., that moderation is the key to overall health (5).

The exercise dependence scale is evidence that exercise also affects the psychological as much as the physiological body. Although the scale illustrates the negative ways exercise can impact the mind, numerous studies, such as Deslandes (2009) and Mikkelsen (2017), have proved that exercise can: have a positive effect on our psyche, ease the impact of aging, and bolster our cognition. A combination of the endorphins released while exercising, our brain’s natural inclination to move, increased blood flow, and several other physiological results of exercise has a profound influence on our mental health. Exercise has even been known to aid with depression, anxiety, and maladaptive mood states (3,6).

Today, exercise is recognized as yielding numerous benefits, aesthetic and otherwise. Gyms have become ubiquitous. Group fitness remains extraordinarily popular with new class concepts consistently streaming in. Exercise research has recently extended past physiological research and has now shown proven psychological and emotional benefits. It is humorous to consider how effortlessly active our ancestors had to be to survive, and how with modern conveniences comes unexpected consequences, like a more sedentary lifestyle. As long as we remember Hippocrates and Galen’s advice, we can go for a nice walk and have our favorite foods, too, as long as everything is done in moderation, and you know when your body and mind need a break.


1. Berryman, Jack. (2010). Exercise is Medicine. Current Sports Report Medicine. 9(4), 195-201. doi:10.1249/JSR.0b013e3181e7d86d.

2. Blair, S., et al. (2004). The evolution of physical activity recommendation: how much is enough? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 79(5), 9135-9205.

3. Deslandes, A., et al. (2009). Exercise and mental health: many reasons to move. Neuropsychobiology. 59, 191-198.

4. Haskell, W., et al. (2007). Physical Activity and Public Health. Circulation. 116:1081–1093.

5. McNeil, J. (2018). Mapping the historical development of research in physical activity and health: providing a platform for future research. NC DOCKS. 111, 473-475. .

6. Mikkelsen, K., et al. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Elesvier. 106, 48-56.

7. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (1999). Historical Background and Evolution of Physical Activity Recommendations. Received from

8. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Why Walk. Why Not? Retrieved from



Author: Katrina Peavy

Editor: Lauryn Agron

Health Scientist: Mercedes Martin

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