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Jumping Through Hoops: The History of Women Hitting (and Hating) the Gym

From Plato's view that the mind and body are inextricably linked, to Jane Fonda's best-selling videos, to today's innumerable ways to pay to sweat it out, exercise has elicited enthusiasm and dread for thousands of years.
Screengrab via YouTube

"How many of you that are reading this page have started, at some time or other, a systematic course in walking, dumb-bells, Indian clubs, or some other form of exercise? Most of you, I am sure. But how many of you have kept it up? Comparatively few I am certain. Here lies the real difficulty in connection with our present ideas of exercise. It is not a difficulty relative to knowledge; for in these days we all know what we should do. It is a difficulty relative to desire."


So wrote Luther Halsey Gulick, a physician and physical education advocate, in an article titled "Exercise and Rest" that ran in the October 1910 edition of the North American Review. Although you're unlikely to find many Equinox regulars practicing "Indian clubs"—a centuries-old exercise that involves the practitioner swinging around elongated bowling pins; it made two brief appearances at the Olympics in 1904 and 1932, a USA sweep both times—the self-pity, dread, and evasive bargaining that precede a scheduled workout remain very much the same. Presumably, there have always been a superior few who have habituated themselves to exercise such that not working out it is the more uncomfortable option. The rest of us can sit back comfortably knowing that some Victorian 26-year-old also put off her chest expansions by reasoning that she would just read one more chapter of her book and then, oh no, it was time for dinner and the window for exercising had closed. Too bad.

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Why do we do this to ourselves? As Gulick said, because we know exercise is good for us, though the explanation for its utility has changed over time. The value of working up a sweat has been a matter of philosophy; a matter of patriotism and reasserting a nation's fading virility; a matter of keeping one's husband happy; a matter of fashion. We may not like it, but we're not going to stop worrying about it any time soon.


An ancient Greek engaged in a hoop-rolling exercise. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Plato cardio

Kicking off our survey of people throughout history who really enjoyed exercise, we begin in ancient Greece, where fitness and sporting competitions were deeply woven into the culture. In an essay titled "Citizenship and State-Sponsored Physical Education: Ancient Greece and Ancient China," Paik Wooyeal and Daniel A. Bell write that Greece can be considered the birthplace of institutionalized physical education; in Athens, boys began academic lessons and organized exercise at age seven. Fitness and brains were meant to come in the same package, like a discus-throwing mashup of Emilio Estevez and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club. In her 2005 book Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece, Debra Hawhee notes that both Plato and Isocrates were big fans of sweating it out, adhering to the view that the mind and the body are inextricably linked and strengthened jointly.

The spirit flourishes more strongly and more actively in an infirm and weakly body.

Strong mind, weakly body

The relationship between body and mind was not so harmonious in the Middle Ages, which were governed under the influence of the Christian belief in the sinfulness of the flesh and physical pleasure. As St. Bernard put it: "The spirit flourishes more strongly and more actively in an infirm and weakly body." That said, it wasn't all bodily denial and asceticism in those days. St. Thomas Aquinas, an Italian Dominican friar born in 1225, for instance, subscribed to Aristotle's view that physical activity benefited the soul and helped put the mind at rest.

Phys ed for the "female constitution"

Less famous today than her younger sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, founder of the Hartford Female Seminary Catharine Esther Beecher (1800-1879) was not only an early leader in girls' education in the United States; she was also a key advocate of physical education for young men and women. In 1856, she published a book called Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families outlining her recommendations on the subject. Her rhetoric of encouragement is surprisingly similar to a modern-day fitness instructor telling people they can exercise right in their own living rooms: "The members of a family in the parlor, the children in the nursery, the invalid in the chamber…can open a window twice or thrice a day, and have all the 'fresh air and exercise' needed for perfect health, by simply following the directions in this work."

Like the Greeks, Beecher believed that the health of the body was inseparable from the health of the mind. "Exercise assists the intellect by a suitable interruption to mental labor. Uninterrupted mental exertion makes the mind heavy and dull, and gives it a false direction," she wrote.


While Beecher maintained that many exercises were better suited to the "stronger sex" than they were to the "female constitution," she did believe that basic calisthenics and gymnastics applied to everyone. She was also rather progressive on the subject of women wearing corsets and other restrictive clothing styles. "The whole of modern fashionable dress is a most ingenious and successful contrivance to produce the most distressing disease and deformity," she wrote, before expounding, with illustrations, on the threat of displaced organs.

For God, for country, and for abs

The call for widespread physical education in the United States carried over into the 20th century, spurred on by the fear that the nation's self-proclaimed hardiness was slipping. In a 1907 essay published in the North American Review, Percy Stickney Grant argued for summer training camps for young men in growing up in city tenements, noting that overcrowding and underfeeding had diminished their strength. Two years later, while making a case for expanded physical education, a speaker at a meeting of the American Physical Education Association pointed to similar problems: "Congestion of population, nervous strain, lack of muscular activity, over-stimulation, and epidemics."

The notion, then, that Americans were becoming unfit, soft, weak, or flabby…represented nothing less than the destruction of a national myth.


In 1954, America was once again galvanized on the subject of young people's fitness by a study titled "Minimum Muscular Fitness Tests in School Children," which found that nearly 58 percent of American children failed a variety of strength and flexibility tests while just 9 percent of their European counterparts did. As Shelly McKenzie explains in Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America, the results were deeply unsettling to the media, the public, and to government officials.

"The American body was a fit body, poised to take action and able to endure hardship, a visible symbol of physical power. It had been instrumental in conquering the West, winning two world wars, and establishing a strong economy on the backs of able workers," McKenzie writes. "The notion, then, that Americans were becoming unfit, soft, weak, or flabby—adjectives the news media employed in the wake of the fitness report—represented nothing less than the destruction of a national myth."

Following the study's publication, President Eisenhower founded the President's Council on Youth Fitness in 1956 with the aim of developing public awareness around exercise, and, eventually, children's ability to pick up erasers on placed on opposite sides of the gym.

"How to Keep Your Husband Happy"

Children weren't the only ones being encouraged to work out more, of course. With the proliferation of television sets in American homes after World War II, producers of the 1950s and 60s began airing weekday exercise programs targeting housewives. Among the more famous presenters were Jack LaLanne and Debbie Drake, whose follow-along fitness shows were broadcast nationally by 1958 and 1961, respectively. The two represented very different ideals to the women they were instructing. Dressed in ballet slippers, belted pants, and short-sleeved shirts that showed off his biceps, LaLanne read as a good-hearted hottie, encouraging his students as he marched in place. Occasionally he'd pull up a chair, sit on it backwards, and lecture into the camera on the evils of sugar addiction and excessive worry.

Drake, rocking tight little leotards, stirred a different feeling in her viewers. "Unlike LaLanne, who was both an object of attraction and a confidant," McKenzie writes, "Drake seemed to represent both the figure viewers hoped to attain if they followed her program and the threat of the 'other woman' if they did not."


Drake and other female instructors baked the male gaze (and the threat of losing it) into their motivational messaging in the same way that Pizza Hut bakes cheese-filled dough balls onto the crust of its Stuffed Garlic Knots Pizza — without subtlety. Drake's 1964 exercise record, which you can still purchase on iTunes, is titled How to Keep Your Husband Happy: Look Slim! Keep Trim! Exercise along with Debbie Drake. Though you could view this approach to working out as oppressive and affirming of traditional gender roles, McKenzie reasons that it wasn't all bad: At least women were exercising and taking time for themselves.

And television personalities like Debbie Drake weren't the average woman's only perspective on exercise. The glamour of California beach culture and the influence of the sporting Kennedys helped make fitness more fashionable. While Michelle Obama has done a lot of work to make exercise seem fun and accessible through her "Let's Move!" campaign, John and Jackie made it, briefly, chic. While Jackie's rumored diet of a daily baked potato stuffed with beluga caviar and sour cream is legendary, her fitness regimen was slightly more accessible: It involved tennis (her philosophy: "why worry if you're not as good… as Eunice or Ethel when men are attracted by the feminine way you play tennis?"), walking baby John in a stroller, and jumping on a trampoline.

"Pants off, Andrew!"

Nobody represents the intersection of celebrity and fitness like Jane Fonda. Already a two-time Academy Award winner by 1978, Fonda ushered in the 80s with a massively popular exercise guide, Jane Fonda's Workout Book, followed by a filmed version in 1982 titled Jane Fonda's Workout; by 1983 it was the bestselling video cassette of all time. With that, she kickstarted a rush of exercise tapes from entrepreneurs eager to capitalize on consumers' enthusiasm.

For millennials who don't have childhood memories of step-touching alongside their mothers to old Jane Fonda videos, her appeal stems in part from her enviably toned body, which remains aspirational by today's Pure Barre standards, and in part from her commanding brand of levity. "Pants off, Andrew!" Fonda barks at a backup dancer who has stopped to pull off his warmup sweatpants on Jane Fonda's Lean Routine. She squares her fists on her hips and throws her head back in laughter, marching in place while the rest of the class whoops in approval.


Drake seemed to represent both the figure viewers hoped to attain if they followed her program and the threat of the 'other woman' if they did not.

It's impossible to discuss the aerobics videos of the 1980s without talking about the decade's exuberant gym fashions. A reporter for the New York Times noted in 1983 that workout apparel in the preceding decades tended toward the dark and drab, since those who exercised outside the home went to single-sex health clubs and fitness hadn't reached peak trendiness yet. "Then came the women's movement, followed by coed health clubs and Jane Fonda in her striped leotards. Things haven't been the same since," the Times declared. Gyms around New York were packed with what you'd expect: colorful leotards, belts cinched to show off womens' waists, legwarmers, glimmering tights, and jewelry.

Train like an Angel

Today, as with music, film, arts, books, and everything else, there is no real dominant fitness trend, except for the fact of fitness itself: We all know we should hit the gym, and the number of ways businesses try to take advantage of this knowledge have proliferated faster than you can take a lap. From the cults of SoulCycle and CrossFit; to mashups like yogalates (yoga + pilates) and Aerobarre (ballet + boxing); to the blossoming "athleisure" market; to multiple Facebook friends documenting their marathon training; to Victoria's Secret's #TrainLikeAnAngel social media campaigns, exercise sells.

This may inspire immediate cynicism in the casual jogger who resents the yoga instructor outfitted in Nike leggings heading to her third spin class of the week, but it's hard to deny that working out is, most of the time, good for you. Does it matter if we hit the gym out of a sense of obligation to the flat-stomached supermodels hired by major corporations? Is it really a problem if we need the draw of a cute tank top to get us onto the elliptical? While some may argue that exercise is, in fact, not a choice but, as Mark Greif writes in his seminal n + 1 essay "Against Exercise," a Kafkaesque penal colony, an "emissary from the realm of biological processes" that forces you to "acknowledge the machine operating inside yourself," many others throughout history have simply drunk the protein-enriched Kool-Aid: Working out usually feels pretty good.