Though gyms are quite ubiquitous today, the concept of a space where people exercise using specialized equipment is a much more modern phenomenon.
Don’t get us wrong, people have “trained” for one thing or another since the beginning of time but the purpose and methods use then differ greatly from those employed now. For one thing, it was never done in the pursuit of health in and of itself; rather, exercise had some point or purpose to it.
Whether this was to train for some kind of game or sporting match or for martial exercises doesn’t matter as much as the understanding that a culture of exercise for health’s sake wasn’t really a concept until the modern age. Rising up with the post-war baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s, fitness equipment and specialized gyms sought to replicate the regimen and training that many enlisted men experienced during World War II and the Korean War.
Out of this movement grew a culture of enthusiasts that lifted weights for pleasure and exercised for fitness and health though these were still somewhat secondary. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Information Age in the 1980s that fitness equipment truly took off and became the phenomenon we know and recognize today.
Overcome with a new fetish for health, wealth, and good looks, people in the 1980s purchased everything from instructional fitness videos to personal trainers to equipment specifically designed for the home. Though the treadmill in the bedroom is often the butt of many jokes now (and does double duty in some households as a clothing rack), the underlying spirit that helped put it there in the first place is not going anywhere anytime soon.
In fact, if anything, analysts expect specialized fitness technology for the home to explode in popularity over the coming decades as computers, pedometers and analytics are combined for a more robust and effective home-training practice.
Prior to the industrialization of fitness technology and equipment, much of what people used was ad hoc and homemade. Actually, there is a modern movement to return to this kind of fitness training and you often see it evidenced in exercises like rope training and using sandbags or rocks for weightlifting. Calling these early applications of fitness principles, technology might be a bit of a stretch, but they did take the user that extra step forward beyond just normal functioning and into strength training, muscle building, or increasing their stamina.
The ancient Greeks and their Olympians, for example, often used a variety of methods that took advantage of their surroundings to turn the natural landscape itself into a gym of sorts. What distinguishes fitness technology during this era from that used today is that this training was often very purposeful and goal-oriented. Why? For one, medical care was barbaric by the medical standards of today and what we might consider a simple injury could spell death in the ancient world. That’s not to say that people didn’t undertake the exercise for pleasure, it’s just that the risks associated with it often made the endeavor one filled with grave purpose rather than a “New Year’s resolution” to go to the gym more often.
As the industrial era began, fitness technology took another turn and this time it not only catered to the sporting athletes in society but also the upper crust or “idle” wealthy. Not only were these the only cohort that could afford exercise equipment or expensive membership to a sporting club, but also they’re really the only people that had the time to pursue such endeavors. While the farmer then and now was never short of physical tasks, there was a burgeoning connection between inactivity and unhealthy living that began emerging in the late 1800s, and that helped spur fitness among both men and women.
A great example of this is the fully-equipped fitness gym that was present on the Titanic and that only catered to the ship’s Gilded Age wealthy passengers. The association between exercise and sporting was particularly strong during this period but the emerging “health benefits” of exercise were also starting to be taken into consideration after centuries of medical beliefs that cautioned against such things for one reason or another.
The end of World War II and the following Korean War, both of which involved millions of men and women from all around the globe, saw the beginning of the fitness technology industry we know today. Eager to maintain their regimens from military life, returning veterans not only snapped up gym memberships but also founded them as well as made exercise equipment.
Companies such as Nautilus were among those that began looking at machines for targeted exercises or, in other words, fitness that has specific rather than general benefits. While sporting clubs were once the purview of the wealthy, gyms were accessible to the everyman and exploded in popularity during this time.
This gave rise to a fitness culture that was later augmented by the pop culture of the 1980s and its fascination with beauty, glamor, luxury, and wealth. One of the many ways someone could distinguish themselves from the average person was to bring their gym equipment into the home itself and it is during this time, and on into the 1990s, that fitness technology specifically for home use reached its zenith. Undergirding all of these were fitness movements like aerobics as well as various crazes centered around health and wellness.
Like the Peloton today, having fitness equipment in one’s home showed others that the owner had the money and the means to bring all of the benefits of the local gym into their private space. This is a trend that had declined somewhat for years with the rise of new fitness trends but is quickly coming back into vogue with the novel coronavirus pandemic of 2019-2020. Looking ahead, analysts expect fitness technology in the future to continue to incorporate devices such as tablets, smartphones, and wearable devices like the apple watch series 6 to help fitness aficionados achieve optimal results more efficiently. Whether or not this eventually leads to a return to the gym or within the home is still a question for the future to decide.