Movement was intrinsic to human life for most of our history, but the idea of consciously exercising for better health might date back to 2500 B.C. China. The teachings of Confucius mentioned the need to engage in physical activity to avoid ‘stoppages’ or ‘organ malfunction’. This eventually led to the development of ‘Cong Fu’ gymnastics, likely taught by Taoist priests, which involved different movements, postures and breathing to keep the body functioning optimally.13 In India, Yoga is believed to have originated at least 5,000 years ago.
Through history, levels of physical fitness rose and fell, ebbing and flowing with ancient civilizations. In many empires, exercise was central to having able and battle-ready armies, so young boys and men would join rigorous training programmes involving horse riding, hunting, marching and other activities.
As individual empires—from Persia to Rome—grew wealthier and more stable, however, there was often a drop in fitness levels, as populations turned from military and physical matters to matters of the court, indulging in corruption, entertainment and material excesses.
Ancient Greece had a unique relationship with physical fitness. Based on the idea of ‘a sound mind in a sound body’, and an appreciation for the beauty of the human form, there was a great deal of focus on achieving levels of physical perfection through exercise. The Father of Modern Medicine, Hippocrates, and other ancient Greek physicians also prescribed movement for health reasons. Young boys joined organized facilities for physical education, with a focus on running, jumping and wrestling. Sparta was known for creating the perfect warriors, with intensive training programmes for boys right from the age of six. While women were rarely included in the rigours of physical training in Sparta, their health and physical fitness were important from the perspective of producing strong children who would join the state.
The tradition of strongmen in Europe foreshadowed the dawn of bodybuilding in the early twentieth century, which saw a shift in focus from acts of strength like lifting a horse off the ground, to the aesthetics of a muscular body. With the explosive rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the iconic Gold’s Gym on Venice Beach in California, bodybuilding changed the way we looked at the human body. Other revolutionary trendsetters in global fitness include the likes of Jack LaLanne and Jane Fonda, whose fitness videos on television were far ahead of their times. Fonda inspired an entire generation of women to exercise in the privacy of their homes. Unfortunately, fitness for women has always been closely tied to specific body shapes and weights which has caused eating disorders and unrealistic beauty standards that our society has still not entirely overcome.
Despite the rise of new kinds of workouts, for many people up until the end of the turn of the millennium, health and fitness was synonymous with hitting the gym and lifting weights. But there was a fatal flaw in this. The modern gym as it was, was designed for bodybuilding, an aesthetic sport. Doing bench presses or bicep curls has very little to do with longterm health and thankfully, we know better now and a modern health aficionado has a much broader variety of solutions to pick from.
Extracted with permission from ‘Hacking Health: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Live Your Healthiest Life’ by Mukesh Bansal, published by Penguin Random House