Ugh, exercise. Must we? Apparently so, but take heart: we can use props. Things were so terrible in the past that I assumed people required no assistance in keeping fit, since simply attempting to stay alive provided ample cardiovascular and strength challenges – but no. “Exercise equipment, per se, first appeared in historical texts around 6000BC, when ancient Chinese writings indicated stone lifting, archery and weight throwing [were] being used for both personal health and warfare preparation,” according to the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal.
Chinese martial artists lifted three-legged cauldrons, while ancient Egyptians swang sacks of sand over their heads and held them there, both of which sound awfully like CrossFit to me (that’s me, a person who doesn’t know what CrossFit is). The Greeks have a lot to answer for, too – including inventing the Olympics, of course – and the Romans got women involved, making them play with balls and hoops.
Mercifully, things were more sedentary until the Renaissance, with its massive crush on the Greeks and Romans, ruined it. Vittorino da Feltre introduced exercise at his Mantua school “in all conditions of weather” (typical PE teacher) in the first half of the 15th century, while Girolamo Mercuriale got dewy-eyed about ancient-world exertions in 1569’s De Arte Gymnastica (The Art of Gymnastics), recommending all sorts of business with ropes, dumbbells and stone slabs.
The rot had set in – and soon it would be aided by technology. In 1796, the “electrotherapist” Francis Lowndes invented the “Patent Gymnasticon”, a “machine for exercising the joints and muscles of the human body”. It involved an alarming number of wheels, flanges and pulleys. Advertisements suggested the user, “while occupied in writing or reading, may have his lower limbs kept in constant motion by the slightest exertion, or by the assistance of a child”. Coincidentally, this is exactly how I like to exercise: seated, while reading, assisted by a child.
In the late 19th century, an opinionated cartoon-like strongman called Edmond Desbonnet opened his first “physical culture centre”, with fixed and free weights and other resistance training equipment. It grew into a chain of more than 300 proto-gyms. From there, it was a short, regrettable stumble to Joseph Pilates attaching springs to beds to create his reformer during the first world war, and the modern tyranny of “leg day”.
Time for pictures. Remember kids: the treadmill was designed as a prison punishment.
There are more mutinous rolled eyes here than in a lower-set netball team. I guess that’s what happens when some bright Roman spark introduces you to the concept of the “bikini body”. I like the sullen ball throwers especially; the Greco-Roman health opinion-haver Galen wrote a whole treatise on exercise with a small ball, claiming it was “extremely beneficial for health, and brings about a well-balanced condition, without any undue accumulation of flesh or excess thinness”.
Behold the mighty vélocipède, or draisienne – a toddler balance bike for the 19th-century dandy. Invented by the nobleman Karl von Drais, latterly self-styled “Citizen Karl Drais” (he was into the French Revolution in a big way), it was heavy and near-impossible to steer, but adopted enthusiastically in the US. One doctor even called it “the grand desideratum that will emancipate our youth from muscular lethargy and atrophy”. Contemporary roads were so rough that users took to the pavements, “to the terror of pedestrians” – a familiar-sounding complaint.
The Swedish gym pioneer Gustave Zander designed devices to remedy “a sedentary life and the seclusion of the office”, promising “increased wellbeing and capacity for work”, with the creepy zeal of a Silicon Valley chief wellness officer. However, while terrifying to contemplate, there is absolutely no indication users – often in full crinoline or heavy suit with pocket watch – are exerting themselves. Zander’s USP was that no effort was needed; the machine did all the work.
It’s a horse that can’t bite! There are his and hers versions! It trots, canters and gallops (but only if the rider makes it)! One 1897 advert claimed Vigor’s horse-action saddle was “a perfect substitute for the live horse”, which underestimates the main selling points of horses: providing transport and smelling wonderful. In all other respects, however, this is a 10/10 and I would happily try it.
Bathing machines took off in the 18th century when people foolishly decided to lower their vulnerable meat into the sea – things live in there, you know – and survived until the early 20th century. Being trundled into the water in a shed, then raising a flag when you wish to be dragged out, is a distinct improvement on the modern “dry robe” business. I wish we still had “dippers” – women who would dip you in the water, keep you afloat, then help you return to the bathing machine. Alfonso XIII of Spain’s bathing machine was so elaborate that it looked a bit like Brighton Pavilion.
Thirty years after Vigor’s equine saddle, replicating a horse without the best bits of a horse was still a popular exercise strategy. The lady on the bucking bronco is Aileen Conquest-Allen (a god-tier name), not only an Olympic diver and silent movie star, but also the coach of the US women’s track and field team for the 1928 Olympics. I hope this is how she did it, although this was supposedly “an exclusive gymnasium class for members of the fashionable colony in Pasadena”.
What do you mean “if it takes place on the edge of a table while wearing fur-trimmed ankle boots it’s not exercise”? I actually used one of these vibrating belt things – another Zander invention – in a hotel gym in Lanzarote once. It was as pointless as it looks, but I kept going back for the fascinating sensation of my thighs being jiggled at warp speed.
The spring leg
Designed to shape the “perfect leg”, this apparatus from 1935 is just two Ikea bag handles connected with flimsy spring: shoddy. You could definitely buy – and be bitterly disappointed by – something similar from an Instagram advert. If I came home with one, I would have to hide it or my husband would be all: “I could make that.” He once “made” an electric whisk from a coat hanger and a drill, with predictably catastrophic results.
This 1936 snap shows “tennis player Miss Mary Heeley in an exercise wheel being given a push by fellow athlete Miss Hardwick”. I love their pointless exuberance, but as a veteran of a single disastrous Cyr wheel training session, I am predicting Miss Heeley vomited on Miss Hardwick’s impeccable plimsolls 15 seconds after this shot.
Keeping fit with Mrs Garner
“How Mrs Garner keeps fit” is the caption here. “In three strands of pearls and a significant heel”, evidently. Respect, Ma’am. The caption also describes Garner and her husband – John Nance Garner, FDR’s first vice-president – as “strict observers of the simple life”, but I feel as if life would have been simpler still if she hadn’t subjected herself to this rickety-looking rowing-machine contraption.
There is enormous “Florida man” energy to this wildly stupid “nautical treadmill” (I prefer “death pedalo”) from 1953. The only redeeming features are Charles Smith’s stylish workout gear and flawless cheekbones. Invent an exercise device that can give me those, sir.