Fitness Throughout History- The National Period in the United States

Welcome back to the history of fitness! Today we will be talking about the National Period in the United States (1776-1860). 

Fitness in the early days of the United States was very much influenced by European fitness culture. Immigrants from Germany and Sweden brought over many aspects of their own cultures, including German and Swedish gymnastics, which we went more in depth on in a previous history post. However, these programs did not manage to gain much popularity within the United States. 

Despite this, early leaders in the United States did see the value in maintaining high levels of fitness. Benjamin Franklin recommended regular physical activity, such as running, swimming, and basic forms of resistance training. President Thomas Jefferson also acknowledged the importance of fitness, although his ideas of what was necessary were a bit extreme. He was quoted saying, “Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded. If the body is feeble, the mind will not be strong.” Although he was mostly correct that the mind and body are connected, and regular movement is important to mental health as well as physical health, two hours a day is well outside of what the CDC recommends these days (at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination each week for adults).

Despite many leaders understanding the importance of physical fitness, fitness education within the school system was not well established.  Unlike their European counterparts, educational programs in the United States at the time did not spend any time focusing on physical fitness until well into the 19th century. However, there were a few trail blazers in this time that had influence on the future of fitness in the United States. One such person was Dr. J.C. Warren. 

Dr. J.C. Warren was a medical professor at Harvard University in 1806, and later was a founder of the Massachusetts General Hospital. Having studied in London for the earlier part of his education, he understood the importance of regular exercise. Most importantly, however, he understood and began developing exercises for women. Women were largely overlooked in the fitness world in Europe and in the United States, so this was a big step forward for education for all. 

Another important figure during this time was Catherine Beecher (yes, finally a woman!). Catherine Beecher was born in 1800 into the famous Beecher clan (Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame and the infamous preacher Henry Ward Beecher among them). She was an important part of furthering education for women in general and founded multiple seminaries focused on furthering women’s education. She even wrote textbooks for women’s schools after noticing the lack of resources available to women at the time. 

The fitness programs she devised were meant to “meet the needs of women”.Catherine Beecher’s ideas on women’s role in the home are now considered outdated, as she believed that women should assume what was considered traditional roles at the time (homemakers and housewives). However, she did have a few things right regarding integrating exercise in daily life, particularly in regards to how to make doing so more interesting and easier for women who were assigned the more traditional roles of homemakers (such as finding more intriguing reasons to walk more, for example, visiting a friend, which could include walking a few miles at a time). Among her many programs was also a system of calisthenics performed to music, which bear remarkable similarities to modern-day aerobics!

Finally women during the later part of this period were included in the importance of fitness. We had a long way to go to be considered equal on many levels to men, including our ability to kick butt in a gym environment, but the small steps forward influenced our place in fitness culture in the future!