The Gym, for Millennia of Bodies and Souls

Today’s gyms, which depend on our vanity and body envy, are a far cry from what the Greeks envisioned

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Going to the gym takes on a special urgency at this time of year, as we prepare to put our bodies on display at the pool and beach. Though the desire to live a virtuous life of fitness no doubt plays its part, vanity and body envy are, I suspect, the main motivation for our seasonal exertions.

The ancient Greeks, who invented gyms (the Greek gymnasion means “school for naked exercise”), were also body-conscious, but they saw a deeper point to the sweat. No mere muscle shops, Greek gymnasia were state-sponsored institutions aimed at training young men to embody, literally, the highest ideals of Greek virtue. In Plato’s “The Republic,” Socrates says that the two branches of physical and academic education “seem to have been given by some god to men…to ensure a proper harmony between energy and initiative on the one hand and reason on the other, by tuning each to the right pitch.”

Physical competition, culminating in the Olympics, was a form of patriotic activity, and young men went to the gym to socialize, bathe and learn to think. Aristotle founded his school of philosophy in the Lyceum, in a gymnasium that included physical training.

The Greek concept fell out of favor in the West with the rise of Christianity. The abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), who advised five popes, wrote, “The spirit flourishes more strongly…in an infirm and weak body,” neatly summing up the medieval ambivalence toward physicality.

Many centuries later, an eccentric German educator named Friedrich Jahn (1778-1852) played a key role in the gym’s revival. Convinced that Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon was due to his compatriots’ descent into physical and moral weakness, Jahn decided that a Greek-style gym would “preserve young people from laxity and…prepare them to fight for the fatherland.” In 1811, he opened a gym in Berlin for military-style physical training (not to be confused with the older German usage of the term gymnasium for the most advanced level of secondary schools).

By the mid-19th century, Europe’s upper-middle classes had sufficient wealth and leisure time to devote themselves to exercise for exercise’s sake. Hippolyte Triat opened two of the first truly commercial gyms in Brussels and Paris in the late 1840s. A retired circus strongman, he capitalized on his physique to sell his “look.”

But broader spiritual ideas still influenced the spread of physical fitness. The 19th-century movement Muscular Christianity sought to transform the working classes into healthy, patriotic Christians. One offshoot, the Young Men’s Christian Association, became famous for its low-cost gyms.

By the mid-20th century, Americans were using their gyms for two different sets of purposes. Those devoted to “manliness” worked out at places like Gold’s Gym and aimed to wow others with their physiques. The other group, “health and fitness” advocates, expanded sharply after Jack LaLanne, who founded his first gym in 1936, turned a healthy lifestyle into a salable commodity. A few decades later, Jazzercise, aerobics, disco and spandex made the gym a liberating, fashionable and sexy place.

More than 57 million Americans belong to a health club today, but until local libraries start adding spinning classes and CrossFit, the gym will remain a shadow of the original Greek ideal. We prize our sound bodies, but we aren’t nearly as devoted to developing sound mind and character.

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