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The Evolution of the Gymnasium

Gyms are enormously popular in America. In fact, statistics suggest that about 12 percent of the population has a membership. Gyms have become so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine a time when they weren’t found dotted across the landscape. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the modern gym is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Ancient Persia

More than 3,000 years ago, the innovative Persians established Zurkhanehs, which were essentially the ancient-world equivalent of modern-day gyms. The word “Zurkhaneh” translates to “house of strength,” and the facilities were strictly for the use of men. Scholars have described the physical activities there as being a cross between the martial arts and Iranian yoga. Men came to the Zurkhaneh to improve their speed, endurance and concentration while also turning themselves into warriors.

Ancient Greece

greek gymnasiumThe concept of the gym was refined by the ancient Greeks, from whom the modern word “gymnasium” arises. Their word for it was “gymnasion,” which has its roots in the word “gymno,” meaning naked. Although the connection is less obvious now, the Greeks did have good reason for using this word to describe their centers for physical culture. At the time, exercise was performed in the nude to better showcase the fitness of the competitors at massive public events like the ancient Olympics. Just as in Persia, the gymnasium of the ancient Greeks was solely reserved for the use of men, who were meant to be training for battle. The gym was not just a place for sweating for the Greeks. They were also centers of philosophy and education.

The concept of the gymnasium all but disappeared from all cultures after the fall of the Greeks. Most people didn’t need to follow a program of exercise because mere survival gave them all of the physical challenges they needed. While members of the lower classes struggled to earn a living, those in the upper strata preferred to lead lives of leisure. An excess of physical exertion was considered unseemly.


bicycle craze of the 1800'sThings began to slowly evolve in the latter half of the 19th century when more people began to take an interest in fitness and health. Members of the middle and upper classes were constantly looking for ways to improve themselves, and exercise formed a part of that. People began riding bicycles for fun and as part of a more active lifestyle. In fact, there was an outright “bicycle craze” in the 1890’s when an increasing number of people began taking advantage of the improved technology of the machines. Even women were increasingly permitted to cycle, with feminist Susan B. Anthony referring to the bicycle as the “freedom machine.”

At the same time, an increasing number of gyms were being founded. Swedish doctor Jonas Zander was creating ingenious exercise machines, many of which form the basis for the machines that are found in the modern gym. Suddenly, the leisurely members of the upper classes were being enticed toward physical exertion. It was viewed as being beneficial for the mind and body as well as being increasingly socially acceptable.

Early 1900’s

early 1900 gymMany 19th century gyms were centered around colleges and universities where young men and women would take part in physical culture classes. This was also the time during which the earliest YMCA facilities were established. Of course, these facilities were often more than places to exercise as they included accommodations and auditoriums. Rudimentary gymnastics became popularized through the Turnvereine movement, which led to the creation of Turner gyms where aspects of German-American politics were explored in addition to offering a space for exercise.


early boxing gymsSeveral new innovations hit the scene during the 1930’s. Boxing gyms began to spring up in urban areas. These facilities were specific to sparring and learning to fight, which meant that they were really only intended for men. However, this is also the decade when Jack LaLanne opened a health club in Oakland, California, which was much more akin to the modern gym than anything that had gone before. In fact, many industry experts refer to it as the first health and fitness club in America. Like Dr. Zander before him, LaLanne designed many of the exercise machines that are still familiar to gym members today.

Late 1900’s

The next gym revolution took place in the 1970’s and 1980’s as chain gyms began springing up across the country. It began to be quite normal for people to pay a monthly fee for a membership and the pleasure of sweating on a machine or participating in a class. The tradition continues today in diverse facilities, with members having more choices than ever before. No matter how you prefer to exercise, you’ll find a gym and trainers who can help you achieve your fitness goals.


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