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 with Plato and Aristotle’s School both emphasised Athens’ public gym foundations.

List of Gym Fitness Clubs in the U.S.

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 programmes, 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.

Recent History

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. 

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