Today, we’re diving into an interesting topic: when did exercise start to become more popular? It may seem like a modern phenomenon, but you might be surprised to learn that the roots of exercise can be traced back to ancient civilizations. We’ll explore the key moments and factors that contributed to the rise of exercise as a popular activity. So, grab your workout gear, and let’s get started!

Ancient Beginnings: Exercise in Antiquity

Did you know that exercise has been a part of human culture for thousands of years? That’s right, our ancestors understood the importance of physical activity long before fitness influencers started posting their workout routines on social media.

Ancient Greeks, for example, were big proponents of physical fitness. They believed that a healthy body led to a healthy mind (1). The Olympic Games, which date back to 776 BCE, are a testament to their love for athletic competition and physical training (2). Similarly, ancient Romans also valued physical fitness and established gymnasiums and public baths for exercise and socializing (3).

The Middle Ages: A Lull in Exercise Popularity

Fast forward to the Middle Ages, and you’ll find that the focus on exercise seemed to wane. Why the dip in popularity, you ask? Well, one reason was that the social and political landscape shifted, with feudalism becoming the dominant system in Europe (4). People were more concerned with daily survival and working the land, leaving little time for leisurely physical activity.

Additionally, the Church played a significant role in shaping attitudes toward exercise. Some religious leaders viewed excessive physical activity as a distraction from spiritual growth, which further contributed to the decline in exercise’s popularity (5).

The Renaissance: A Renewal of Interest in Physical Fitness

As we move into the Renaissance era, we see a resurgence of interest in exercise and physical fitness. A renewed focus on the human body and its potential for perfection, inspired by ancient Greek and Roman ideals, led to a greater emphasis on physical training (6).

Notable figures, such as Italian physician Hieronymus Mercurialis, promoted the importance of exercise for health. His groundbreaking work, “De Arte Gymnastica,” published in 1569, detailed various forms of exercise and their benefits, as well as the importance of proper nutrition (7). This marked the beginning of a more systematic approach to physical fitness.

The 18th and 19th Centuries: The Birth of Modern Exercise

As we journey into the 18th and 19th centuries, we witness the birth of modern exercise. Several key developments contributed to the growing popularity of physical fitness during this time.

First, the Industrial Revolution led to urbanization and changes in work and leisure patterns. With more people living in cities and working sedentary jobs, the need for regular exercise became more apparent (8). The rise of public parks and the establishment of sports clubs and gymnasiums provided opportunities for people to engage in physical activity (9).

Second, the concept of “muscular Christianity” emerged in the 19th century, promoting the idea that physical fitness was not only essential for a healthy body but also for spiritual well-being (10). This idea helped to shift societal attitudes toward exercise, making it more acceptable and even desirable.

The 20th Century and Beyond: The Fitness Boom

Finally, we arrive at the 20th century, which saw an explosion of interest in exercise and physical fitness. Key factors contributing to this boom include:

  • The growth of organized sports and the influence of athletes as role models (11).

  • Advances in exercise science and the development of new fitness techniques and equipment (12).

  • The rise of mass media, which made information about exercise more widely accessible and helped popularize fitness trends and fads (13).

  • Increasing awareness of the importance of exercise for overall health and well-being, as well as the role of physical activity in preventing and managing chronic diseases (14).

Some milestones from the 20th century that have contributed to the popularity of exercise include:

  • The founding of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in the United States in 1956, which aimed to promote fitness among Americans (15).
  • The running boom of the 1970s, spurred by the popularity of marathons and the influence of running legends like Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter (16).
  • The aerobics craze of the 1980s, popularized by fitness icons like Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons, which made exercise more accessible and fun (17).
  • The growth of the health club industry in the 1990s and 2000s, which made fitness facilities more widely available and affordable (18).


So there you have it, folks! The popularity of exercise has gone through quite a journey, from its ancient origins to the modern fitness boom. Along the way, various factors, from cultural shifts to technological advancements, have shaped our understanding of and attitudes toward physical fitness. As we continue to learn more about the importance of exercise for our health and well-being, it’s exciting to think about what the future of fitness might hold!


(1) Plakogiannis, A. (2017). The importance of physical exercise in ancient Greek society. Journal of Physical Education and Sport, 17(1), 267-274.

(2) Swaddling, J. (2015). The Ancient Olympic Games. British Museum Press.

(3) Nielsen, I. (1990). Thermae et balnea: the architecture and cultural history of Roman public baths. Aarhus University Press.

(4) Newman, P. (1985). Feudalism and physical fitness. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 56(7), 46-49.

(5) Shephard, R. J. (1997). A history of health and fitness: cultural, medical and physiological aspects. Quest, 49(1), 1-31.

(6) Park, R. J. (1987). The importance of exercise in the Renaissance. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 15, 1-27.

(7) Mercurialis, H. (1569). De arte gymnastica. Venice: Giunta.

(8) Guttmann, A. (1994). Games and empires: modern sports and cultural imperialism. Columbia University Press.

(9) Vertinsky, P. (2007). Spaces of health: The rise of the hygienic landscape and the decline of the gymnasium. International Journal of the History of Sport, 24(3), 333-357.

(10) Putney, C. (2001). Muscular Christianity: manhood and sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920. Harvard University Press.

(11) Dyreson, M. (1998). Making the American team: sport, culture, and the Olympic experience. University of Illinois Press.

(12) Park, R. J. (1989). Biological thought, athletics and the formation of a ‘man of character’: 1830-1900. In J. A. Mangan & J. Walvin (Eds.), Manliness and morality: middle-class masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940 (pp. 7-34)