Fitness today is a lifestyle choice that many of us embrace and pursue, whether it be in genuine pursuit of good health or in chasing the image of the ideal body for whatever reason and purpose. But despite this desire for the toned muscles and the bulky bod manifesting as a very modern day phenomenon that we hanker for in all our awareness of fitness, the very concept of it is obviously no novelty. Health and beauty having been forever an area of fancy for us humans, it is very evident that we have been scouting out fitness choices as a part of our daily living and regimen since long. And not just in such forms of physical activities that entail naturally to us, whether it be in the early essences of hunting and surviving or the universally necessary activities of walking and running or some forms of physical labour that we carry out as work, but also in conscious taking to the exercising action even with proper equipment and the right technique to further bolster our bodily function and appeal. And it had been in charting out such goals of life that spanned out across the considerations of the intrinsics of health and the externals of physicality that humankind also created the space called a gym in their early enough years of coming to live on earth by building an entire civilisation out of themselves.
It had been from across the maverick indeed realisations of the Greek existence that gymnasiums came to be, at least in lending that much ‘explored’ place of today its name. Still rather popular in ancient Greece were these gymnasiums, derived from the Greek terms gumnazo meaning exercise and gumnos meaning naked or loin-clothed that which formally came to be in existence in such assertions of what their present day versions tend to be somewhat like. The more accurate origins though of the earliest gyms accrue instead to realms of even further ancientry across the Persian expanses of the zurkhaneh as such areas encouraging physical fitness pursued through a mix of activities as martial arts and yoga. Literally translating as the ‘house of strength’, these spaces that witnessed a spree of ritual gymnastic movements were originally intended to train warriors and has been known to be in existence since at least 3000 years before.
The Greek exploration of the gymnasium however had been more dynamic. Alluding to this term that today finds colloquial mention as the gym had been a certain educational dimension pertaining though only to the realms of the males of that time. These ‘schools for naked exercise’, as gymnasiums can be literally translated as charted out the physical course of education that the Greeks considered to be as essential as the intellectual aspects of learning. Interestingly still, these gymnasiums that spanned out as arenas meant for practice of naked exercises also often had such facilities that allowed one to bathe, get massages, and even attend lectures of of course the intellectual kind from the many philosophy heavyweights that we associate still with ancient Greece even as inbuilt libraries too offered similar scope for such learning to take underway.
But while this particularly unique aspect of gymnasiums that the term encompassed in not just the Greek but also across the fore of other European lexicon had been most prominent in their dual functioning in the city state of Athens, other states of the ancient empire instead saw gymnasiums being used as training centers for athletes or as military barracks. Even in their exclusive almost identity of being arenas of amped up physicality whether for sports or in strife, the gyms of that time still had no fixed equipment whatsoever to help exercisers further their abilities and strengths. The intensely, if not exclusively mechanised version of gyms, sophisticated indeed in the technique as well as machinery of working about physical goals emerged much, much later in very recent modern times but not before the very idea of gyms almost died down in the span of the many years preceding such transformative indeed development.
The fall of the empire of ancient Greece into Roman hands in the second and third centuries saw both aspects of the early gymnasium persist. But the elevated indeed status of these places where human endurance was explored as well as standards of the aesthetics pursued dwindled over the centuries. Starting with the downfall of the Roman empire and the rejection of excessive physicality in favour of more mindful explorations of the arts as well as asceticism taking over the assertion of the aesthetics, gyms almost ceased to be in what they once had been in essence. It hadn’t been until the fag end of the 18th century that gymnasiums began to take form in rather modern assertions of it.
The medieval period that set in between the era when gymnasiums used to be all the rage and when they came to reassume their place of importance, particularly the years of the Renaissance were when interest in the ancient gymnasium was revived, thanks largely to the recovery of some forgotten manuscripts documenting these earlier arenas of bodily concern. But the practices carried out thereupon took some more further years to catch on to the masses even when the male aesthetic had reemerged to occupy its earlier place of profound pride by then. It was only in 1799 that the world’s first ever private gymnastic club came to be, under the aegis of gymnast Franz Nachtegall. With also some form of fitness equipment finding expression within the realms of this indeed modern day gym, the premise was set for the 19th century to emerge as truly a landmark span of the years spurring the immense popularity and relevance that the gymnasium would come to embody.
The most initial, and significant as well development pertaining to this arena of gymming that ventured away from its exclusive almost leaning towards the athletics in its ancient origins occurred in 1811 in Germany. Attributable to Friedrich Ludwig Jahn widely known as the father of gymnastics had been the first open air gymnasium of the world that came up in Berlin. Known as the Turnplatz meaning ‘fitness center’ that therefore accorded Jahn the identity of the Turnvater, this modern day space of pursuing the human might in all splendor though wasn’t something emergent out of a passion for fitness. Rather, as a spin off of the physical culture club called Turn and driven by national sentiments of developing the moral spirit and physical power of the German masses, this eking out of a very dedicated gymnasium however holds all the more significance particularly because of the fact that it entailed many an equipment that facilitated further the gymnastics pursuit. With his inventions of the parallel bars, the pommel horse and horizontal bars, as well as the dumbbells and Indian Clubs all finding space within the Turnplatz or exercise field, Jahn introduced to the world a dedicated indeed version of the gym. In fact so popular had been this residing of the Turnplatz in modern indeed assertions driving the human self to physical perfection that by 1860 the world had come to house well over some 150 of them. Helping revolutionize the whole notion of gymnasiums in general and European gymnastics in particular was what catapulted Jahn to reside among the echelons of the gymming world even as other equally remarkable developments came to be effected the world over in the succeeding time that further upped the ante for gyms to become necessary centers of civilisation.
But while Jahn’s propagation of the popularity of gymnasiums rested exclusively on premises of strength and power, the health concerned accruings of the gym were furthered instead by Swede Pehr Henrik Ling in a style recognised as Swedish Pedagogic Gymnastics. Ling in fact charted out a much more encompassing style of gymnastics along its Swedish identity that was founded on four core ideals viz medical, military, mind body and the aesthetics. Both these styles though were explored within such confines that were relatively ‘light’ on equipment as compared to what characterise the gymming scene today. Heavier equipment that came to make gymming the intense activity pursued across all dimensions of the bodily demands started gaining greater ground in the second half of the 1800s.
This later period of the 19th century also saw gymnasiums beginning to emerge as commercial enterprises. With membership facilities on offer for the first time at the Gymnase Triat also originally springing up in Berlin in 1848 but that which later came to be based in Paris, the precedent was set for what would largely mark the gymming scene around the globe in more modern times. The phenomenon of personal training too took form in the late 1800s itself when Ludwig Durlacher propagated the concept in 1880. As one of the world’s first personal trainers for the rich and the famous, Durlacher helped shape the career and identity of the father of modern bodybuilding Friedrich Wilhelm Müller better known as Eugene Sandow. Kickstarting the modern gym craze under the guise of ‘physical culture’ had been this Prussian bodybuilder and showman, aided indeed by Ludwig Durlacher even as Sandow himself opened a gymnasium in London in 1897 for those interested in pursuing his technique of impeccable physical prowess, both in power and in visage.
Embarking further along the commercial trail and evolving to be become a full blown industry in itself, the whole gymming scene gained further impetus in the 20th century. It sure took some time for gyms and gymming to be the mass craze as it is today but throughout the years of the 1900s more and more people began to take interest in pursuing bodily fitness, whether for health or aesthetic considerations. Particularly in such awareness about physical fitness that came to rest along the desired dimensions of a fulfilling life and healthy living, while maintaining still the appeal of the aesthetics and bolstered indeed by development of more advanced equipment and more precise technique, gymming emerged to be a very necessary way of life and gymnasiums therefore an integral element of the entire living and thriving societal structure. Gyms today might be looked upon as components of a very modern day culture indeed but at the core of this passion to get in the grind is a much historic heritage worth all its legacy of over some few thousand years along the lineage of civilised human existence.