History of the Physical Culture

19th century and early 20th century life was much different than today. Work was hard and laborious and typically extended from sunrise to sunset. There was little time for recreational activity and of course just about all of the modern luxuries that we take for granted today did not exist. For many, life during this time was limited to completing chores and surviving the elements.

One such element that many people faced was sickness due to infectious diseases. People got sick from measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, whooping cough and other nasty diseases that there was no preventing or curing with medicines (mostly because they didn’t exist). This was an era of ‘the strong (or lucky) survive’ and it came with little talk about fitness, health promotion or disease prevention.

The progressive thinking of that time was actually the opposite of today’s ‘get fit’ theme…it was a ‘don’t work yourself to death’ theme. Vigorous physical labor coupled with limited resources and rampant illness left more people needing to rest their bodies than work them out.

In fact, the word ‘fitness’ wasn’t even used because people just lived ‘fitness’. Fitness wasn’t something they had to work into their schedules or do for the purpose of getting a good workout, because it just was.

The term ‘Physical Culture‘ was coined more frequently in the 19th and early 20th centuries to describe what we now refer to as ‘fitness’. Thanks to some revolutionary periods of time, like the Industrial Revolution and the California Gold Rush, the transition from farm to city life was prominent. The Physical Culture lifestyle took on more meaning. It was slowly being understood and recognized as a part of life that didn’t have to exist for survival but instead existed for mental and physical health and well-being. But this shift in thinking came about slowly and exponentially alongside better working conditions for laborers, coupled also with medical science advancements. City folk may not have been plowing fields any longer, but they were still working an estimated average of 60+ hours per week in grueling conditions. Preventative methods for thwarting off illness, though improving, were still very, very limited.

Much like any other time in history, today included, it took the ingenuity and passionate spirit of man (meant in the general sense, like hu’man’) to start something great and get people thinking and doing. In my next ‘100 Years in Fitness’ fun-fitness-factoid I will talk about some 20th century pioneers (the noun and verb forms…’pioneers’ who ‘pioneered’) who built the foundation of what we could call modern ‘Physical Culture’….a.k.a. ‘Fitness‘.




John Figarelli is the Founder and Director of the National Fitness Hall of Fame. Founded in 2004, the NFHOF recognizes the lifelong efforts of individuals and organizations who promote health and fitness to the American public. Through more than a decade of educating, motivating and inspiring fitness enthusiasts, young and old, to 'preserve the past while promoting the future of fitness', the NFHOF is both a physical and virtual location for people who have a passion for their fitness profession. To find out more about NFHOF initiatives and membership, visit National Fitness Hall of Fame