The Evolution of Fitness

In doing some research recently for another blog post, I was struck at how, in many ways, fitness has evolved on a cultural level over the ages in an eerily similar fashion to how the fitness life cycle happens for the average modern North American. As any fitness professional will tell you, especially those that do lots of assessments, there are some predictable factors that influence an individual’s ability to build and maintain their fitness level as they age. As man has evolved, there have been similar macro-factors affecting society’s ability to include and prioritize fitness as a part of the culture.

In the beginning...

Prehistory <> Childhood

… there was prehistoric man living as hunter gatherers. Fitness was an essential part of everyday life and survival as they developed more complex tools and methods over time. In this tribal setting, leadership and power was dictated by physical size and prowess. Genetically, we evolved for this lifestyle and have remained biologically the same since, while cultural factors have changed human’s lifestyle over time. Humans also had some distinct long term fitness advantages to our predecessors:

For the individual, the life journey begins with infancy and childhood, which is a process of developing increasingly complex physical and mental skills, while playing is an essential part of everyday life. While TV and video games have adversely affected childhood activity rates, this is still the phase in life that is the most physically active. If a child cannot play or participate in physical activity, their survival (from a social perspective) may be hindered. Similar to the tribal lifestyle, physical activity is arguably the most crucial at this phase in life as it lays a foundation for future development.

Agricultural Revolution <> High School

The dawning of civilization meant a significant change in cultural fitness down the path of a more sedentary lifestyle. Farming led to food surpluses, which allowed for larger populations and the division of labour. Freed from the physical demands of working for survival, job specialization meant more academic and less active roles. With nomadic tribes settling into agrarian societies in one place, military might and social cohesion becomes of top importance, with the whole society working towards maintaining power and defending the settlement from competing societies.

Continuing the life cycle, adolescence is the period in most individual’s lives where they start to realize their own likes and abilities and they start to focus their skills on future careers. This means less playing and more academic pursuits for most. While high school is full of cliques (tribes), they come together (or try to) for different social (dances, parties,etc) and competitive (sports, academics,etc) reasons. Due to lack of necessity, level of physical activity tends to decrease at this stage; adolescents learn to drive, and are no longer required to get exercise in order to socialize. 

Ancient Civilizations <> Early Adulthood

As ancient civilizations evolved all over the world, so did different cultural fitness focuses depending on the society. In this period, fitness is still an integral part of the overall culture, but various circumstances influence the societies’ goals for fitness. Some examples:

  • Asia: The teachings of Confucius encouraged the participation in physical activity to prevent certain diseases associated with inactivity like organ malfunctions and internal stoppages. This led to the development of Cong Fu gymnastics, a series of stances and movements to promote circulation and keep the body in good working order.
  • Greece: The ancient Greeks focused on the idealism of physical perfection and an importance on fitness unparalleled in history. The development of a strong body was as important and essential for the development of a strong mind.
  • Rome/Persia: The ancient Roman and Persian societies both implemented empire-wide training programs recognizing the relationship between physical fitness and performance on the battle field. While both empires are known for their success in conquering and expansion as a result, ironically, the downfall of both came from becoming so big and affluent that physical activity declined and they were susceptible to attack.   
  • India: Due to the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism, ancient Indian society put a greater emphasis on spirituality than physical fitness. The focus was on balance between the mind, body and spirit. This is where Yoga emerged from, originating as a series of movements mimicking the movement of animals.

Early adulthood is the phase in the life journey where we first start to see the different fitness types emerge. People come to fitness for a variety of goals and reasons and try to discover which type or combination of workout is best for them. While people do change and combine their focuses over time, it is the period, before lives get more complicated with careers and families, that people lay the foundation for their own fitness type. Moreover, it is this phase where the realities of metabolism start to catch up for the first time and ‘not being a kid anymore’ necessitates going beyond regular daily activity. These types are much like the ancient societies, where the fitness focus (goal) is reflected in the culture (personality):    

  • Health: These individuals come to fitness simply to stay active and keep healthy. They know they will never bench 300 pounds or run a marathon. For them, fitness is not the means to an end, but an end in of itself. Usually, just getting the blood flowing and breaking a sweat is the goal. 
  • Aesthetic: Looking good is the main focus of this fitness type, where the main motivation behind their fitness is the mirror, and the routine is usually focused on ‘toning’, spot training, intervals and lots of abs.  Much like the Greeks before them, these types tend to believe that physical perfection is the ideal for everyone. They are usually never satisfied, always striving for that perfection.
  • Performance: This type needs some form of competition for their fitness whether it be high performance sports, individual challenges (like races), or recreational team sports. They either rely on this activity for their fitness, or their plan is focused around preparing them for competition. Similar to the empires before them, these individuals tend to have their overall fitness decline as they lack the time or abilities to compete anymore. Fact: it is a lot harder to be a ‘weekend warrior’ as you get older.
  • Balance: For these individuals, fitness is just one component of the greater spiritual balance between mind, body and spirit, and is usually found in Yoga, Pilates or light exercise and stretching. This balance also includes meditation, nutrition and a generally ‘one love’ attitude towards the world.

Transition Period <> Adulthood

With the fall of Rome, the world went through a long transition period before the industrial revolution. This period saw different cultural phases as societies reacted to various conditions and increasingly complex political dynamics. Similarly, individuals experience a transition period from adulthood into family life as they settle into careers. Different conditions, from bourgeoning careers, to still having a social life and relationships, have an effect on the individual’s fitness approach. Some of those historical ages and their corresponding fitness approach during this transition are:

Dark and Middle Ages

A return to a more agrarian society and an increase in the demand for everyone to have some physical labour. This reflects the individual whose career takes them to more physically demanding jobs on a daily basis, where fitness is part of their everyday work.


This age saw a new appreciation for human life and a renewed focus on the human body and how physical fitness helps intellectual pursuits. This corresponds with the individual who continues to pursue fitness to maintain good health and mind-body balance through the transition.

National and Colonial Period

As nations emerged and developed, so did a focus on physical fitness and performance as an important part of national pride and ability. This period saw the introduction of national physical education programs and gymnastics, systematizing it for the population. For the transitioning individual, this represents those who continue to pursue performance goals and competition for their fitness. This may be best exemplified in the emergence of Crossfit as the 'sport of fitness' and how they have tried to systematize the training for the general population. Let's be honest: anytime nationalism and Crossfit are mentioned in the same paragraph, a Nazi reference must ensue... 


Industrial Revolution <> 30's/40's Family Life

The invention of mass production meant a huge reduction in labour intensive jobs and a transition to a more urban and less rural lifestyle. Fitness became a far lower priority for societies as even more job specialization was happening.

As the life cycle continues through adulthood, the next typical step is starting a family. Juggling family life with developing careers and what remains of a social life makes fitness much more difficult to prioritize. Much like the industrial revolution, the shift to a more domestic lifestyle usually corresponds with fitness becoming a much lower priority.

20th Century <> Middle Age

With the industrial age humming along, fitness comes and goes as a fad depending on political circumstances. The periods leading up to and during World Wars cause a focus on national fitness levels, while post-war periods see a focus on leisure.

In many ways, middle age is similar to the events of the 20th century as a continuation of the industrial revolution. By this time, most individuals are well established in their careers and set in their ways, especially if fitness is not a part of their life. Usually, it is a traumatic event that gets them to make a change and prioritize their fitness, such as a health scare, death of a friend or other significant life change. Once the effects of the scare have subsided, people tend to focus more attention on leisure and less on fitness.

21st Century <> Senior Years

Which brings us to this century, where in spite of all the science and more money than ever being spent on fitness, there is an obesity epidemic and the future looks worse. In other words, no matter what we have tried to throw at the problem, the general fitness, and consequently, the health of the population continues to decline. Simultaneously, the fitness industry is changing, with less emphasis on fancy toys (machines) and more on functional training. Moreover, fitness is being talked about now more as preventative healthcare, and how investing in it now can save healthcare costs in the future.

The last stage in the life cycle is the senior years, where no matter what efforts are taken, physical abilities and fitness diminish over time as the realities of aging occur. Individual fitness at this stage is focused mostly on promoting proper movement and preventing injury (functional).

How does it end?

If we follow the trajectory of the individual life cycle, it is looking scary for civilization. Will the continual downfall of overall cultural fitness be the beginning of the decline of our civilization? This may be a little heavy, but for the first time in a very long time, average life expectancy in the US actually decreased over the past 5 years. Is it a lack of fitness, that leads to the apathy in fixing larger societal problems, or is it apathy that leads to a lack of fitness? Obviously there are much larger problems than fitness that we need to fix on a global scale, but I believe that a fitter society would be more likely to take on and fix the bigger issues.

There are some positive signs. Fitness is finally being recognized for what it is: the best form of preventative healthcare we know. The new Affordable Care Act even legislates for various forms of fitness assessment and gym memberships to be supported as part of the overall healthcare plan. Many businesses understand that the return on investment spent on wellness is much greater than the dollars spent, especially if those dollars are used to make people more active. For consumers, there is a huge surge in fitness devices, tracking apps and other tools to quantify what is going on inside, while at the industry level there is an emergence of more smaller, boutique-like gym facilities. Even US Congress is starting to cut through the noise that is the marketing machine surrounding fitness:

In my opinion the key to this is using science and technology to empower fitness professionals to be more effective, accessible and affordable. In order for fitness to be subsidized or paid for as part of a healthcare plan, more measures of efficacy are needed for trainers. In order for trainers to be more affordable for everyone, the cost has to either come down, or be subsidized, and new forms of lower engagement service are needed beyond 1-hour appointments.

The personal trainer needs to be part of the health care team. If you’re not a mechanic, you’re not going to fix your own car when it breaks down. If you want to prevent the breakdown of your body, then you’ll need an expert as well.

The science is there, the people are there, the technology is there. All we need to do, is bring it all together in a way that is effective and affordable for everyone.


Credit to Lance Dalleck and Len Kravitz for their paper on the history of fitness

standing exercise ball squat

About the Author: Nick Corneil is the founder of Trainer+, a company that builds software that makes it easy for fitness professionals to create, share, track and analyze fitness programs for their clients. For more information, sign up here or check out our homepage.

Mobile Analytics