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The evolution of exercise

Do you have an inner (or outer) voice prodding you to hit the gym this year? As health and fitness centres flood with fresh faces and renewed resolve, it’s easy to forget that for most of human history, physical training was the preserve of athletes and eccentrics. As recently as the 1950s, American doctors were more concerned with the risks of over- than under-exertion, and fitness was a byproduct of recreational sport rather than a goal in itself. Increasingly sold as a luxury good, Americans on average now pay between $50 and $150 per month to work out, with those paying $35 for boutique classes hitting that amount per week. A recent survey by Vice Media indicates that 16- to 39-year-olds plan to spend more time and money on fitness post-pandemic. Two new books explore the evolution of the global fitness industry, which is valued at $828bn and projected to top $1tn by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

In Sweat: A History of Exercise, the journalist and photographer Bill Hayes aims to trace the origins of exercise. In its earliest iteration, physical fitness was pursued in preparation for war. Athletic competition as we know it originated in ancient Greece with the Olympic Games, first held in 776BC, which placed “exercise on a path toward eventual popularization with the masses,” he writes.

Hayes begins his quest in the rare books room of the New York Academy of Medicine. Hoping to start with Hippocrates, he gets quickly taken in by an illustrated volume of De arte gymnastica, a 16th-century treatise by Girolamo Mercuriale, an Italian physician who aimed to revive the art of exercising. “Just as classical art and philosophy were considered the epitome of humankind’s achievement in the new spirit of humanism,” writes Hayes, “so too with medicine.”

While the benefits of exercise may seem obvious today, the rise of Christianity had all but snuffed it out. During the Middle Ages, “the body — which had been idealized, fetishized, by the Greeks — was now seen more as a vessel for sin,” writes Hayes. “Exercise was considered self-indulgent.” This changed with the rise of humanism in the 14th century, Jean-Michel Agasse, an expert on Mercuriale, tells Hayes. “Taking care of oneself — the sense of the individual — returns.”

So far, so pertinent, but Hayes’s obsession with De arte gymnastica leads to mission creep. He travels to London to seek out Mercuriale’s translator from medieval Latin into English, to Paris to meet his French translator, to Lake Maggiore to see the original drawings, to Kansas City for a translation of another book by the author, and to Padua and Rome to retrace the good doctor’s footsteps. The result — part history, but more memoir and travelogue — is more “a personal history, not a definitive one,” he admits…

Read the full essay online in the Financial Times

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