Spurious exercise crazes have come and gone for over 3,000 years. I take a breather and ask, ‘Is any of this really necessary?’
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Life must have been simpler for our ancestors, albeit shorter, nastier and lacking in such basic amenities as the George Foreman grill. Exercise was something early humans just got, not something they thought about. It was all “Quick, follow that gazelle!” or “Look out, it’s that big, toothy, stripey thing we don’t have a word for yet!”, and anyone who stood around suggesting: “Yes, this running’s all very well, but you really need to be working on your core stability” ended up inside a tiger.
So how did we arrive at today’s infuriating situation, where staying fit seems to involve a bagful of kit, the services of at least one personal trainer, and a plethora of gadgets? How come Amazon – which started out selling books, remember – now flogs rowing machines, cross-trainers and exercise bikes – to say nothing of the Slendertone System Abs Toning Belt (“models available for men and women”)?
Let’s start by blaming the ancient Greeks. Having created the unattainable ideal that is the Olympic athlete almost 3,000 years ago, they then gave the world the concept of sports equipment. Their halteres – semi-circular chunks of rock with a hole to make them easier to hold – would later inspire the dumbbell and the now-fashionable kettlebell, AKA “that Russian bowling ball thing with a handle on it”. Skip forward to the early 19th century and it’s a German we should be cursing: Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the “father of gymnastics”, who invented now-standard equipment such as the parallel bars, the rings and the balance beam. He made such a splash that the authorities outlawed gymnastics for more than 20 years. It would be nice to think this was Jahn’s comeuppance for being such a cleverdick. In fact, they were worried his radical nationalism would corrupt the youth. Yes, really.
In the end Jahn contaminated a whole region. Eastern Europe’s Sokol movement, with its heady mix of politics and press-ups, was so popular it spawned a series of festivals known as slets. The biggest, a “pan-Slavic” event in 1912, pulled in 30,000 activists for its open-air calisthenics. As one delegate put it: “You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I was once a skinny weakling who weighed only 97lb.”
Sorry – got my quotes mixed up there. That actually came from the American bodybuilder Charles Atlas. He liked to claim that inspiration came to him at the zoo, as he watched a lion stretch. “Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers?” he thought. “And it came over me … He’s been pitting one muscle against another!”
What works for a cat should work for a human, Atlas reckoned, so his plan doesn’t involve any costly equipment.
Apart, of course, from his 13-lesson course, illustrated by photos of the “most perfectly developed man in the world”. Millions forked out for it between the 20s and … well, it’s still going strong today. And why wouldn’t it, when ALL IT TAKES IS JUST 15 MINUTES A DAY?
It seems safe to assume that many of Atlas’s customers also bought a Bullworker, a giant spring-filled piston that could be compressed in 26 ways. (Twenty-six! Count ’em.) Nine million were sold in the 60s and 70s. My dad had one but it’s not shocking to note that I never witnessed it leaving its box. It wasn’t long before the next crazes came along. Which were, of course, running and bouncing around.
You’ve got to hand it to the fitness industry: it’s got a gift for rebranding the most banal actitivies. In the hands of Jim Fixx and Jane Fonda, “jogging” and “aerobics” swept the world, offering new hope to the saggy and middle-aged. Fixx’s Complete Book of Running sold a million copies, though that seems like chicken feed alongside Jane Fonda’s first workout video, which eventually shifted 17 times as many units. No wonder British talent like the Green Goddess and Mr Motivator wanted a slice of the action.
If you can’t be a world-famous actor, it helps to be a model of some description. Just ask Cindy Crawford, star of 1992’s Cindy Crawford: Shape Your Body Workout, 1993’s Cindy Crawford: The Next Challenge Workout and 2000’s Cindy Crawford: A New Dimension. Where’s the British talent, you’re wondering? Have you already forgotten 2005’s The Jordan Workout?
And now? Anything goes. The Wii games console, launched in 2006, has pumped up the sector known as “lounge fitness”. Wii Fit has sold 23 million copies. According to Tesco, “Weighted hula hoops are the next big thing!”, which must be annoying if you’re pushing the mixture of dance, aerobics and Latin beats known as Zumba (itself a modern take on another 1970s phenomenon, Jazzercise). For those who prefer balancing on a wobbly plank, the options include the T-Bow and the Indo Board. Jowls need a workout? The Face Bra! And who would live in a world without the Shake Weight, the revolutionary new way to … STOP! That’s quite enough. Let’s just be thankful no one actually needs any of this.