Your Trip to the Gym is a 3,000-Year-Old Tradition


Wherever you turn, you’re part of a long legacy of human behavior.

You’re trapped. You can’t escape, even when you think you’re at the head of a new trend.

The state of nature is to be constantly changing… 

And even that is consistent. Even when you’re changing, you’re doing just what every one of your ancestors before you did. 

So when you head into Orange Theory, or Pilates, or Pure Barre, or any fitness class that didn’t exist 50 years ago…

You’re carrying on a grand tradition of human beings seeking targeted fitness goals. And we’ve been doing that for at least 3,000 years.

Human traditionalists believe that we’ve strayed from a lifestyle that was once sustainable, engaging, invigorating, and more healthful. 

That’s not untrue – not by any means.

But when we think that, we land on this paradox: We didn’t used to have to schedule exercise because our lives were exercise.

Now that we’ve automated those parts away and can sit in an office chair typing, our bodies are suffering from stagnation. We may evolve out of this with worse posture and flattened feet, even. We’re squishing our organs, et cetera, et cetera. 

Again, not untrue. Except we’re missing something…

Deliberate exercise has been causing scheduling conflicts for a long, long time – before office jobs and sedentary lifestyles.

Let’s take a look at a condensed timeline…

Survival-Based Fitness

There are several classes of movement that every exercise can be boiled down to: pushing, pulling, bending, squatting, and planking. 

When the Earth was wild, and so all of our activities took place in the wilderness, there was all manner of balancing, jumping, crawling, swinging, climbing, lifting, throwing, catching, etc. 

But we started to tame the wilderness. Those movements became optional rather than necessary for survival.

As we became agrarian, our range of daily motion grew limited and the need for us to use our bodies to the fullest extent of their capabilities shrank. 

However, forming tribes and societies that stayed put and had marked territories introduced what we can think of as deliberate exercising. Now, we had to be prepared for war.

Ancient civilizations with any interest in protecting their crops, spoils, homes, and cultures had to be ready to fight for it. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Chinese, Japanese – name an ancient society and it’s almost guaranteed to have had an army.

And the people who fought in those armies had to be ready for conditions more brutal than we could imagine today – endless walking or riding, vicious hand-to-hand combat, extreme weather requiring peak physical status, and plenty of climbing and balancing on unfamiliar terrain. 

Thus the shift was made from incidental fitness to intentional fitness. Although really, they’re both based on survival against enemy forces.

We were training for something. For a reason, a goal, and with structure.

And lots of people were doing it.

Fitness Trends In and Out

The Greeks had gymnasia, and the Olympics – we know they valued fitness, appreciated the beauty of the human body when it’s cared for, and delighted in winning battles. They developed gymnastics for the purposes of war training, after all.

So did the Romans, and the Egyptians, and many others. 

Survival required athletics, but so did culture. Yes, everyone wanted their citizenry to stay prepared for war. They also wanted the entertainment of competition and the powerful results of training, which distracted from its original purpose.

In fact, fitness manifested through early versions of sports games. Soccer in ancient China in 2500 BCE, boxing in Mesopotamia in 3000 BCE, baseball in Mesoamerica in 2500 BCE, and swimming, running, and wrestling from seemingly the beginning of time.

Fast forward beyond the fall of Greece and Rome’s influence, to early Christianity in Europe when people valued the spirit more than our temporary corporeal forms.

During these years (the Dark Ages), intentional fitness was for soldiers training for war alone. Peasants stayed in shape by laboring in the fields with rudimentary tools.

(Outside of Europe, cultures like the ancient Chinese believed that inaction caused illness. They maintained a connection with physicality while Europeans avoided thinking about their bodies altogether.)

But by the time the Renaissance came about…

The idea of a gymnasia resurfaced in Europe, and they thought about it. Just thought about it, studied it for academic purposes, wondered if it was valuable for their health.

They decided it was, and physical training returned to the cultural scene as a tool for flailing armies to strengthen their force. 

There are a few takeaways from this brief history lesson…

One, any way you slice it, the fitness impulse was borne of trying to survive – enemies in the wilderness, enemies of the state, the enemy of ill health.

Two, people were just as excited about fitness in sports format as they were about fitness in martial format.

Three, aesthetics were an ancient factor just as they’re a modern factor.

Crossfit may be a far cry from playing soccer on rocky ground, but the ends it achieves and the nature of the desire to reach that end are much the same.

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