Then vs. Now: The Bulking History of Fitness Clubs

How ancient Olympians inspired today’s Equinox and SoulCycle.

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Today, fitness and wellness clubs come in many sizes, with unique classes and workout opportunities, and at a spectrum of price ranges. When you can run on a treadmill at any average 15-dollars-a-month gym, it’s easy to wonder why someone might join a luxury fitness club that costs $500 a month. 

How and why people exercise has also evolved over time. In ancient India, China, and Greece, exercise was seen as a crucial component of health. China had qi gung (a mixture of meditation and martial arts, similar to tai chi), India had hatha yoga, and Greece had the Olympics.

Gymnasium literally comes from the Greek word gumnos, which means—oddly enough—“naked.”  That’s because male Greeks would exercise at these gyms in the buff, which allowed the other men to admire your form. And yes, only men would be watching: The gyms were male-only.

Today, we use the word gymnasium specifically to refer to brick-and-mortar facilities, but ancient Greek “gyms” were actually more like athletic fields with both indoor and outdoor spaces. They typically had communal baths so the athletes could plunge into the water afterwards, but this was more about beauty than hygiene. (Learn more about the history of personal hygiene here.) 

The glorious days of Greek training and the early Olympics came to an end when the Romans took over around 146 BCE. As Roman rule took over the Greek peninsula, the Romans destroyed Greek gymnasiums, considering them centers of immoral activity. 

“The Romans disapproved of public displays of nudity, which they associated with barbarians, criminals and defeated soldiers. Many of the enemies of Rome … fought naked,” writes Eric Chaline in his book The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym. While Romans made a few attempts to imitate Greek-style athletics in Rome, many considered this “to be decadent, shameful, and corrupting.”

And with that, the gym and the pursuit of fitness simply went away—that is, until the Renaissance Period, several centuries later.

The Renaissance of Greek Fitness

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 marked the end of the Roman Empire, after hundreds of years of rule. With it, Byzantine scholars emigrated to Western Europe and had a major impact on education and culture, teaching the Greek language and spreading ancient Greek texts. This is considered one of the major triggers of the Renaissance Era.

The Renaissance Period was a time known for rediscovering the literature and values of ancient Greeks and Romans. Renaissance education idealized intellect and physical fitness, and strived to create the “perfect” mind and body—the uomo universale, or universal man. Exercising to improve your body’s health was back.

The Italian writer and physician Girolamo Mercuriale wrote the book De arte gymnastica in 1569, in which he described exercise as “preservative” medicine to prevent disease and improve the health of “sickly individuals,” according to Nancy G. Siraisi in her book History, Medicine, and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning.

Building the Gyms

With this new embrace of exercising for self-improvement, the next couple centuries re-embraced athletics and physical education. The 19th century saw a surge of “gyms,” but these were still open fields, like the ancient Greek gymnasiums. These gymnasiums were often militaristic, with the goals of training future fighters. 

Gymnasiums finally became indoor facilities in 1858, when Archibald MacLaren opened the Oxford Gymnasium in England. MacLaren argued that it would be more beneficial to exercise indoors: It could preserve the exercise equipment from weather, improve the health of the students, and allow for heating and ventilation. (Western Europe has harsh winters, after all.)

Participating in these types of “fitness clubs” became normalized toward the end of the Industrial Revolution. As the upper class had more money and leisure time, more gyms opened: Hippolyte Triat’s club in France included group exercise classes and the first set of graduated dumbbells, Eugen Sandow’s club in England had individual stations and personal trainers, and the first YMCAs opened up in cities throughout Europe and the U.S. with the goal of helping young Christian men develop their physical and moral well-being.

U.S. Gyms in the 20th Century

In the 20th century, gym culture in the U.S. emerged on the beaches of California. Many lifted weights outdoors—hence the name Muscle Beach—but indoors, there was an ultra-masculine, bodybuilding culture brewing inside dark, dirty rooms. 

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Americans idealized muscular, masculine, superhuman men. Just like in Ancient Greece, these athletes (who were all male) sought to perfect their bodies for admiration. The men you’d find in these grungy California gyms trained for bodybuilding competitions—some even went on to Hollywood, like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As the U.S. economy prospered in the ‘50s and ‘60s, fitness clubs became larger, cleaner, and brighter, and they had more expansive and diverse facilities, including pools and courts for tennis and basketball. Of course, gym owners realized it was a better business decision to appeal to all ages and genders. 

The second wave of feminism urged more women to the gym as they desired to shed their stereotype as the “weaker” sex. There was a culture of female strength and empowerment, and the 1970s and ‘80s saw more women on the treadmills and in aerobic dance classes. Jane Fonda’s aerobic dance classes were a massive hit, and her book and exercise video were bestsellers.

Aerobics were all the rage, and gyms were difficult and expensive to maintain, so many fitness centers at this time simplified and cut costs by ditching the courts and pools. Cardio equipment (like treadmills and stationary bikes), weight-lifting stations, and rooms for group classes required less space and maintenance. Many also added stores within their gyms to sell branded clothing and protein products for additional profits.

Fitness in the Era of Social Media

The 1990s might be best known for its grungy teen fashion and alternative rock music, but it also was a time of prosperity in the United States. The early 1990s introduced “luxury” fitness clubs—most notably Equinox in 1991, which was founded in the ritzy Upper West Side in New York City. Where you worked out wasn’t just a matter of what was in your neighborhood: It was officially a status symbol.

The 2000s and ‘10s have a reputation for being increasingly image-conscious, thanks to the rise in social media and the concepts of “social influencers” and “branded identities.” Boutique exercise studios blossomed during this time, allowing individuals to join studios that specialized in niche and trendy workouts, such as:

  • Zumba

  • CrossFit 

  • Bikram Yoga 

  • SoulCycle

  • Pure Barre

  • And CorePower Yoga.

Belonging to any particular boutique studio tends to blur with your identity. For example, those who participated in CrossFit often dabbled in the Paleo diet, and the Paleo-eating CrossFitter became a stereotype around 2013. Women who did yoga had the stereotype of meditating and drinking green juice. Plus, atheleisure (athletic clothes worn casually) surged in these decades, allowing people to wear trendy workout gear and branded items from their studio of choice.

The workout trends of today aren’t totally cynical: Exercise in the name of health has made a comeback. The fact that so many CrossFitters were willing to overhaul their diet exemplifies the desire for a more comprehensive approach to health. The 2010s in particular marked a period of less processed diets, prioritized concern for mental health, and regular physical activity.

If you’re just looking for a treadmill, you can still ditch the glitz and find a no-nonsense gym for a fair price. Even the most basic fitness clubs still tend to offer showers and other amenities, harkening back to the communal baths and spas of ancient Greece.