The health club you are using today, with its rows of treadmills, weight machines, pumping music, and cutting-edge programming, has taken centuries to come into being.
While not a straight line, there is a long history of public gyms, going back thousands of years to the first gymnasiums of ancient Greece.
In the Beginning
Sure, running to catch your food –or avoid being it—was the way humans got and stayed in shape from the beginning of time. However, over time, people looked for ways to improve their health and performance in less life-threatening ways.
While today’s health clubs are filled with yoga pants and electronics, in the early days of public gyms, you were more likely to see nude men training for competition and conflict. The origins of the contemporary health club or gym can be traced back to Greece.
The term “gymnasium” comes from the Greek word “gymnos,” which means “bear.” Gyms at the time were primarily used for the education of young males (we’ll get to ladies in the gym later), which included physical instruction, scholastic pursuits, and bathing.
These public gymnasiums were built by the ancient Greeks for athletes to train for open competitions such as the Olympics. Along with knowledge, fitness and bodily care were part of the ancient Greeks’ whole philosophy. In fact, the Academy of Plato and Aristotle’s School both emphasized Athens’ public gym foundations.
List of Gym Fitness Clubs in the U.S.
- LA Fitness
- Gold’s Gym
- EOS Fitness
- Blink Fitness
- Crunch Gym
- Planet Fitness
- Equinox Gym
- XSport Fitness
- Anytime Fitness
- 24 Hour Fitness
The Dark Ages and the Rebirth of Fitness
Gyms, along with art and music, vanished after the fall of the Greco-Roman Empires, as the enjoyment and pursuit of a healthy and sculpted physique were frowned upon. Gyms did not make a slight comeback in Germany until the early 1800s.
These were not, however, gyms in the sense that we know them today. However, by the nineteenth century, schools had begun to construct gymnasiums to help support their booming sports programs, reigniting public interest in not just the health advantages of exercise but also the aesthetics of looking fitter.
Early Commercial Gym
Hippolyte Triat, a French gymnast and vaudeville strongman, is credited with opening the first commercial gym. In the late 1840s, he launched his first club in Brussels, followed by a second in Paris. Eugen Sandow, an entrepreneur and music hall strongman, opened a new gym at the end of the nineteenth century.
Sandow held the world’s first physique competition in 1901, and he later pushed the developing fitness culture by promoting numerous periodicals, equipment, and dietary products, as well as running a chain of training facilities across the United Kingdom. This health club and fitness pioneer is still honored with an award at the Mr. Olympia competition.
The YMCA was founded in 1844 in London, England, and would go on to inspire many men to become in shape. The first structures with gymnasiums were built in 1869, according to the YMCA website. In 1881, a Boston YMCA employee named Robert J.
Roberts originated the term “bodybuilding” and created workout sessions that were forerunners to the modern health club model. The YMCA was established. At the vanguard of the health club model that will evolve over the course of the twentieth century.
In Oakland, California, fitness superstar Jack LaLanne built what is said to be the first U.S. health club in 1939. LaLanne found success and designed and introduced many of the machines that are still mainstays on traditional gym floors, such as the first leg extension machines and pulley-cable-based strength equipment, at a time when doctors advised patients that there were dangers associated with lifting weights and rigorous exercise.
He was even an early proponent of women exercising weights, albeit few ladies took him up on his offer in the beginning.
Of course, women now account for more than half of gym-goers, and some of this growth can be attributed to the establishment of health club franchises in the 1960s and 1970s.
Fitness centers were largely outlying gloomy boxes with rusty iron and maybe a boxing ring where predominantly males lifted weights in quest of perfection or trained for sports before the birth of the health club chain—not dissimilar to the motive for the first gyms in ancient Greece.
While still on the outskirts and a Mecca for early bodybuilders, the opening of Gold’s Gym in Venice, Calif. in 1965 signified the start of a new big-box health and fitness idea that could – and would be – duplicated to open the doors to the masses. Following the success of Gold’s Gym, Joe Gold founded the World Gym network in 1977.
Mainstream and the Women’s Movement
In the adrenaline-and big-hair-fueled 1980s, a growing number of gym chains arose, including 24 Hour Fitness (1983) and LA Fitness (1984), as Jack LaLanne’s European Health Spas surpassed 200 before being licensed to Bally Company.
Furthermore, the success of Jane Fonda’s exercise DVD drew a slew of legwarmer-clad ladies into these clubs to lift small weights and participate in aerobic dancing sessions.
As we approach the big-hair 80s, there’s an emergence of gym chains like LA Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness. Jazzercise and home aerobics with Jane Fonda are taking the fitness industry by storm.
Legwarmer-clad women burst through the doors at health clubs to lift weights and do their favorite aerobic dance classes. Mainstream fitness has fully arrived.
The Last Decade of Fitness: What’s Changed?
The mega gym chains from the 70s and 80s continue to this day. But, what has changed is that today’s consumers are looking for a more personal and intimate experience. Throughout the last decade, boutique gyms and fitness clubs, and specialty training facilities offer a new type of experience.
Looking back on the last decade, there have been so many changes. Around circa 2010, we start to see them move away from traditional brick-and-mortar-style gyms toward Bootcamp sessions and classes like Zumba and boxing.
Boutique studios like Orangetheory Fitness launched, followed by F45 a couple of years later. Interest in personal training and functional training continued to rise.
Fitness trackers and apps have come along leaps and bounds. What started as a basic pedometer now gives users a complete profile of their health like heart rate, steps, and hours slept. Fitness equipment is getting better and smarter and evolving alongside the industry.
As the fitness experience gets more personalized, technology and consumer behavior will continue to drive change.
The Age of COVID-19
COVID-19- has changed the fitness industry as we know it. Lockdowns and restrictions have had a massive effect on the way people exercise. People are socially distancing for several months and in-person group fitness almost feels like a distant memory.
But the COVID-19 crisis has left a positive mark and that’s the emphasis it’s put on the need for exercise. Nations are being encouraged to move daily as a way to stay healthy and prevent disease.
As new exercise habits have been adopted, we’re seeing a massive increase in home fitness as well as digital fitness. We’re seeing a huge upsurge in demand for online content.
Streaming platforms, on-demand fitness, and virtual personal training are on the rise. Many people are getting outside for a daily walk, run, or cycle to get their hearts racing.
The home is no longer the place you go to at the end of your workday. It’s your office, your gym, and in some cases your school. Technology has allowed many people to work from home and access digital fitness content.
As fitness brands leverage technology innovation, they can create even more personalized home fitness solutions for consumers. Smart home gym equipment like Mirror, Tempo, FightCamp give users the opportunity to bring smart boutique fitness into the home.
How Technology is Disrupting the Fitness Industry
To this day, technology has disrupted every industry. It’s often at the heart of change. It’s integrated into health, education, and of course, fitness. As technology changes the way consumers exercise, over time it has a huge impact on the fitness industry.
For example, wearables are not just for the avid gym-goer but for your regular person who just wants to move a little more throughout the day.
Health and fitness awareness is growing massively, and technology gives you access to a huge amount of information. This increases the demand for a completely personalized approach to fitness and health.
It’s not just personal fitness technology that is changing the industry. Nowadays, fitness centers and gyms offer completely technology-centered solutions. Technology is what fuels the fitness experience and allows businesses to compete in such a crowded market.
Technology such as wearables, artificial intelligence, mobile applications, and IoT will continue to disrupt the fitness industry. The demand for fitness technology looks set to increase as the user experience becomes even more important.
The mega-chains exist today, but as with many things, today’s consumers want a more personal and intimate experience, and smaller mom-and-pop health clubs, personal training, and mind-body studios, as well as Cross-Fit and other specialty exercise facilities that cater to a more personal touch, grew in popularity during the 1990s and 2000s.
It’s far easier to look back on history than it is to look forward to the future. What do you think the fitness industry’s future holds? Let us know what you think on social media.