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In Shape: A Brief History of Exercise

Each month we delve into a new story inspired by our scent of the month. In honor of Waves' evocative ambiance and June's traditions of physical labor, we're sketching out a brief history of exercise — and thinking about how we can shed some of the more problematic aspects of contemporary wellness discourse.

Nobody had to exercise until we invented farming.

Sure, people moved around a lot — trekking from camp to camp, maneuvering through the woods to gather fruits and vegetables, chasing down bison for meat. But our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn't exactly consider "exercise" a special category of physical activity. That's because they didn't need to.

The rhythms of daily life were dramatically different for our pre-agrarian predecessors. Long before the Agricultural Revolution started to stratify society into specialized roles, everyone had to contribute more directly to the physical sustenance of the community. Because of that, regular arduous exertion was part of everyone's routine.1

Of course, things have changed since then — and so, too, has the average person's relationship with exercise. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for many of us to fit even a short walk into our busy days, to say nothing of hitting the gym. And the very notion of working out, saddled with the baggage of beauty standards and health moralizing, causes some of us some genuine anxiety.

19th century engraving of an Indigenous Australian encampment; Source: Wikipedia

But perhaps by taking a quick look at the history of exercise, we can reclaim physical activity as a source of joy — and start to think about building a world that supports everyone's physical health.

It's All About Balance

According to archaeologists and medical anthropologists, most hunter-gatherer societies, including those that exist today, adhere to a similar cycle of activity. Communities typically spend 1-2 days on subsistence tasks like hunting and gathering, followed by 1-2 days of rest. But even those rest days involve plenty of movement, with games, dancing, and other celebratory activities taking up much of people's time.2

With the advent of farming around 10,000 B.C., people didn't have to expend as much effort for food, nor did everyone have to pitch in to raise crops and livestock. As agricultural technology progressed so that fewer farmers could feed more people, vast swaths of the population were able to adopt more sedentary lifestyles. With exercise no longer a simple fact of everyday life, physicians and scholars began to reflect on it as a special kind of physical activity.

Susruta, the first recorded physician to prescribe exercise to his patients; Source:

One of the earliest proponents of exercise for health purposes was the Indian physician Susruta, who lived around 600 B.C. Like most doctors of his time and place, Susruta subscribed to the tridosa doctrine, a type of humoralism. According to humoralism — the primary medical paradigm before the development of germ theory — the human body comprises multiple chemical systems called "humors." When these humors are in balance, people are healthy; when humors fall out of equilibrium, people grow ill.3

While we now know humoralism misses the mark, this theory was a critical forerunner to modern medicine because it removed the supernatural from the equation. Instead of interpreting disease as a function of spiritual activity, humoralism correctly understood that illness is a physiological phenomenon.4 Thus, humoralists believed humans could take physiological steps to fend off disease. For example, Susruta thought exercise was essential to keeping the humors balanced, and he was the first doctor in recorded history to prescribe exercise to his patients.5

“Instead of interpreting disease as a function of spiritual activity, humoralism correctly understood that illness is a physiological phenomenon.”

Scholars came to similar conclusions elsewhere. In the Eastern Han Dynasty in China, during the latter half of the second century, the physician Hua Tuo wrote that "exercise expels the bad air in the system, promotes free circulation of the blood, and prevents sickness." He recommended his patients mimic the movements of deer, tigers, bears, and monkeys to get their workouts in.6

The Chinese doctor Hua Tuo recommended his patients mimic the movements of monkeys as a form of exercise; Source: Unsplash

Perhaps the most crucial figure in the history of Western exercise was the Roman physician Claudius Galenus, more commonly known as "Galen." Galen's theories on health, hygiene, and physical fitness dominated medical discourse in Europe from the time of their formulation in the second century well into the 1800s. A humoralist like Susruta, Galen argued (somewhat accurately) that human health was influenced by six factors over which people had control: air and environment, food and drink, sleep, exercise, retention and evacuation, and emotional state. By correctly attending to these factors, Galen asserted, people could maintain humoral balance and overall health.7

While each factor played a part in Galen's theory, he tended to stress exercise — which he defined as any movement that "alters the respiration" — as the most important for maintaining a "well-conditioned" body. There was something fundamentally holistic about Galen's philosophy of health. For him, being healthy didn't simply mean "not being sick." Instead, it referred to a general state of well-being, something akin to our contemporary notions of "wellness." And Galen also recognized that our bodies need different things at different times, once writing that "when, for example, the body is in need of motion, exercise is healthy and rest morbid; when it is in need of a break, rest is healthy and exercise morbid."8

The Flip Side of Fitness

One aspect of Galen's exercise theory would likely strike many of us today as odd: He distinguished between sports and exercise. For Galen, exercise wasn't about developing athletic prowess — it was about achieving balance in the body. He felt that athletes flouted this balance, overindulging in exercise to the point of ill health. As proof, he noted that many athletes in his era ended their careers in immense pain, having irreversibly damaged their bodies through overexertion.9

1894 poster for the Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles; Source: Wikipedia

Until the late 19th century, most physicians in the West shared Galen's view — and then came physical culture. A movement seeking to revive the Classical Greek aesthetics of idealized physical forms, physical culture arose in Europe during the 1880s. Proponents of the movement, like Eugen Sandow and Bernarr Macfadden, pioneered early forms of bodybuilding and similar contests of strength and prowess that hinged on a notion of health and fitness as a competition between individuals.10

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the physical culture movement overlapped with Social Darwinism, an erroneous application of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to the sociocultural realm. Many of physical culture's biggest advocates were, to put it simply, racist. They worried that white Europeans were growing weaker, and they believed it was every citizen's duty to stay in shape so that Western nations would have the physical strength necessary to continue politically and militarily dominating the world.11 This wasn't the first time in history people used exercise for violent ends — the Spartans had a similarly eugenic understanding of physical fitness.12 Nevertheless, the individualized, dogmatic, and combative concept of exercise introduced by physical culture has stayed with us in some form or another.

During World War I, concerns over the fitness of U.S. Army conscripts led to legislation requiring physical education in public schools. Rather than focusing on wellness, much of that physical education centered on competition and athleticism — and it continues to in many American schools today. As medical scholar Jack W. Berryman writes, "The idea of using competitive sports as a way to gain the necessary exercise for the general populace moved exercise away from most people's everyday lives and could be regarded in many respects as a dismal failure."14

College athletes; Source: Unsplash

Health Is a Social Phenomenon

Even though the physical culture movement receded in the 1930s, its personal-responsibility approach to fitness has remained with us, obscuring the fact that health is, like so much else, a profoundly social phenomenon.

In the 20th century, as the economy shifted toward less physically taxing service and information jobs, people could have used more opportunities to integrate holistic wellness practices into their everyday lives, much like their agrarian ancestors did. Instead, many Western nations adopted an approach to physical education that had the opposite effect.

As journalist Michael Hobbes reports in the 2018 article "Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong," "Since 1980, the obesity rate has doubled in 73 countries and increased in 113 others. And in all that time, no nation has reduced its obesity rate." This isn't an epidemic of personal failing or individual laziness but a reflection of changing social conditions.

Hobbes, who is one of the hosts of the Maintenance Phase podcast, points out that our diets are far different from those of our ancestors, thanks to government policies that incentivize the food industry to produce foods high in sugar and low in fiber. Such foods, which account for more than half of what the average person eats, can throw our metabolic systems out of order.15

Vending machine; Source: Unsplash

Our daily rhythms are different, too. If we're lucky, we might live in walkable communities with excellent public transport. Most of us, however, commute in cars to work, where we perform our duties sitting in a chair or standing in place. We can't stroll down to the corner when we're out of milk — we have to drive to the supermarket across town.

Of course Americans' bodies have changed — the world we inhabit has changed. And it's important to note that weight is an imperfect indicator of health. Hobbes cites studies showing 33-75 percent of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy, while unfit thin people are twice as likely to develop diabetes as healthy fat people.16 Yet the discredited Social Darwinism of an earlier era still informs how we understand health at both the individual and the social level, leading to judgment, shame, and persecution.

Rituals of Exercise

Exercise, it turns out, is far more complicated than we might think. It's a knotty topic, entangled with all sorts of less-than-savory subjects. If we look back through history, we might see how we can reclaim exercise for a more holistic wellness philosophy, one that's about finding balance.

“If we look back through history, we might see how we can reclaim exercise for a more holistic wellness philosophy, one that's about finding balance.”

Balance; Source: Unsplash

Of course, there are plenty of social interventions to pursue, starting with how our food gets made. Only 4 percent of agricultural subsidies go to fruits and vegetables, and healthy foods can cost eight times as much as their less healthy alternatives.17 Next, we might consider the built environment. How can we make our communities more friendly to pedestrians, bike travel, and public transit? How can we make green spaces more accessible and plentiful so that more of us can spend time outdoors? And then there are the social stigmas like fatphobia, which only make us less physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy.

That's a lot of work — but each of us can start with our own empowering rituals that help us reframe our relationships with our bodies. Because ultimately, the best exercise is whatever feels good to you. That might mean reaching for a practice like yoga, which combines physical, mental, and spiritual facets. It might mean crafting a rigorous gym routine or taking long walks in the park when the weather is nice. There's no one right way to do it.

And by making space for our physical well-being rituals, we can begin to work toward a world designed to support the health of every single person.

— The Keap Team

P.S. If the seasons and this story inspired you to take more outdoor wanders this month, check out our June drinks recipe, Junius. We’re crossing a classic Tom Collins template with an Americano. Bright, sour and sparkling, it feels like the transition between late spring and early summer in a glass.

The Seasonal Series

We select a Seasonal Scent of the month to send to our candle subscribers. We use the opportunity to cover seasonal themes through the written word with a monthly article. For our subscribers, this is complemented by a limited edition zine, art print and matchbox in their monthly package.
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