Many ancient cultures understood that physical fitness is linked to good health, spiritual well-being, and preparedness for self-defense. The ancient Chinese martial arts were mostly about skills and fitness for combat, although in some disciplines the movements became highly stylized. Yoga was developed in India by Hindu priests who sought to imitate the movements and postures of animals to achieve a natural balance, with the goal of improving overall health—physical, mental, and spiritual. Ancient Greek civilization celebrated the perfection of the human body and included fitness training as an essential part of the education of young men, and sometimes women. These Greek ideals were passed on to the Romans, but to a lesser extent.
Interest in physical fitness, in decline with the waning of the Roman Empire, revived in the Renaissance as the humanist movement rediscovered many of the ancient Greek ideals. However, the greatest boost to interest in fitness was the nationalism that developed in Europe in reaction to the Napoleonic conquests. Particularly in Germany in the early 1800s, it was understood that a physically fit people could be the basis of a nation able to defend itself. To this end, Johann GutsMuths and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn introduced physical education into school curriculums and encouraged young people to form gymnastic associations.
Fitness training was slow to catch on in the United States, but over the course of the 19th century some educators championed the German system, which emphasized fixed apparatus, and others the Swedish system, which used no apparatus but focused instead on calisthenics. As sports gained in popularity during the post–Civil War era, physical education divided its focus between fitness and sports, a division that persists to this day.
By the early 20th century, the industrial American society was losing the fitness of an earlier society primarily engaged in strenuous agricultural work. During the mobilization for World War I, it was discovered that one-third of draftees were unfit for combat. A postwar emphasis on physical education in the schools was short-lived. The mobilization for World War II revealed that fully one-half of recruits were unfit for combat.
The period following this war saw a sustained revival of interest in fitness, sparked in part by the 1940s research of Dr. Thomas K. Cureton Jr., at the University of Illinois. He developed tests to measure cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility and devised exercise routines to enhance these. In the early 1950s, other kinds of testing revealed that American youth were seriously less fit than their European counterparts. In response, President Eisenhower initiated the President's Council on Youth Fitness, renamed the President's Council on Physical Fitness under John F. Kennedy, who was an even greater champion of fitness.
Television was the medium that brought fitness programs into the home. Jack LaLanne, who had opened one of the nation's first fitness gyms in 1936, broadcast a workout TV program between 1953 and 1985. Like much of daytime TV, his show was aimed primarily at women. Although the show used only simple equipment such as chairs, in his chain of gyms he pioneered the use of mechanical equipment.
The next superstar of exercise video, in the 1980s, was the actress Jane Fonda. Jane Fonda's Workout video benefited from the simultaneous onset of middle age among the baby boomers and the invention of the VCR, which gave female viewers working outside the home access to the exercise routines outside of daytime TV hours. Around this same time, those women still at home by day could watch broadcasts of The Richard Simmons Show, which combined exercises with healthy eating tips. Later, as cable TV caught on, it became possible to view on-air fitness programs at all hours of the day and night.
In the 21st century, the White House continues to promote fitness. George W. Bush was well known for his love of jogging, bicycling, and yard work around his ranch. Barack Obama created a Task Force on Childhood Obesity, and his wife Michelle maintained the focus on this issue by planting a garden on the White House grounds and launching the Let's Move! initiative to encourage healthy eating and physical activity.