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The Evolution of Exercise: 10 Main Events

The Evolution of Exercise: 10 Main Events

  • “…there is growing evidence on the preventive value of exercise, and it is possible that, in the not too distant future, physical education will become a part of medicine.”—Peter Karpovich, father of exercise physiology, 1968

  • 1. Good Health Hunting: Before 10,000 BC, continuous hunting and gathering of food for survival was a requirement of the primitive nomadic lifestyle. After successful excursions, long celebrations were held, including dancing and cultural games. The pattern of subsistence pursuit and celebration involved various forms of physical activity and demanded a high level of fitness.

  • 2. Yoga Mimics Animal Movements: Hindu priests in India developed yoga millennia ago, hoping to achieve animals’ balance with nature through observing and mimicking their movement and patterns. They also recognized yoga’s health benefits, including proper organ functioning and well-being.

  • 3. On Yin and Yang: Breathing exercises, regarded as medical gymnastics, were prescribed in China for subjects experiencing chills, fevers, or complete paralysis as early as 2600 BCE. Massage with exercise of the extremities was also recommended. The yin-yang doctrine was prevalent: yin = disease and death, yang = life and health. Chinese physician Hua T’O prescribed exercise because of its yang effect.

  • 4. First Exercise Rx: Susruta of India (c 500 BCE) was the first recorded physician to prescribe exercise for patients—he thought it made the body stout, enhanced limb and muscle growth, and improved digestion. Susruta indicated exercise “should be taken every day” but “only to half extent of his capacity” as otherwise “it may prove fatal.”

  • 5. First Daily Regimen: Pythagoras, the first Greek medical philosopher to advocate daily exercise for health reasons, believed disease occurred because of a lack of harmony between the elements, qualities, and tendencies of the body. To restore harmony and achieve a healthy state, he proposed a daily regimen of long walks, running, wrestling, discus throwing, and boxing.

  • 6. Fitness Under Oath: Hippocrates stated, “…food and exercise, while possessing opposite qualities, yet work together to produce health.” He was not the first physician to prescribe exercise for patients, but he was the first to provide a written exercise prescription for a patient who had consumption

  • 7. Galen’s Games: To Galen, work and exercise were equivalent. Motion had to be vigorous and cause labored breathing to be designated as exercise. To be prescribed for health reasons, exercise was to be moderate. Galen prescribed exercise for patients afflicted with arthritis, depression, dropsy, epilepsy, gout, tuberculosis, and vertigo. His favorite exercise: games in which a small ball was used.

  • 8. An Exercise in Contrasts: Italian physician Bernardini Ramazzini compared and contrasted diseases of various tradesmen. He noted that fleet-footed runners, including professional messengers, avoided the occupational health hazards of sedentary tailors and cobblers.

  • 9. Fitness Goes Modern: Dr Kenneth H. Cooper, the father of the modern fitness movement, introduced aerobic exercise and advocated a philosophy of disease prevention. His message: Exercise regularly and maintain a high level of fitness throughout life to prevent the development of chronic diseases.

  • 10. Web of Inertia: The average American currently spends an estimated 40 hours online each week. Recent studies show a significant relationship between daily sitting time and risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Exercise Is Medicine, an initiative to mobilize physicians to promote exercise to prevent and manage diseases, was launched in 2007 by the American College of Sports Medicine, with endorsement from the American Medical Association and the Office of the Surgeon General.

The evolution of exercise began more than 12,000 years ago with a need for fitness for hunters and gatherers to survive and continues today with a need for computer users to fight the adverse effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Click above for a quick review of the main events along the way.


For additional information, follow the links below:

1. Good Health Hunting

2. Yoga Mimics Animal Movements

3. On Yin and Yang

4. First Exercise Rx

5. First Daily Regimen

6. Fitness Under Oath

7. Galen’s Games

8. An Exercise in Contrasts

9. Fitness Goes Modern

10. Web of Inertia







Deborah @

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