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Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

Whether you’re a mom trying to shed a few pounds after having her first, second or 19th baby or a single gal trying to stay fit, you’ve likely tried a million different exercise routines over the years. This look at Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today proves that when it comes to getting in shape, the more things change, the more they stay the same:

  • Let’s Go! 1 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today
  • Late 1800s: Mechanotherapy 2 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    In the 1800s, a man named Gustav Zander created a series of machines meant to aid in physical exercise for healing purposes, or what we now call physical therapy. Zander's machines are essentially low-tech Nautilus machines, which came into use in the 1970's as body-building equipment. That's why today you'll see what looks like regular gym equipment in most physical therapy offices.

    Image: Retronaut

  • Early 1900s: Calisthenics 3 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    The Müller technique became popular in Europe in the early 1900s and consists of "Body swings. Stretches. Hopping on one foot. Lunges with arms windmilling, first backwards, then forwards. Sit-ups, push-ups, toe-touches," according to this great article on Slate by Sarah Wildman. She describes the Müller system as "a precursor to Pilates," saying "it borrows from ballet, and it needs no equipment, other than commitment. It is strict but appealingly accessible." She also notes that unlike other calisthenics routines of the era that were "aggressively nationalist, proto-fascist, and often anti-Semitic .... Müller was refreshingly secular and remarkably nonideological. Müller's system could be enthusiastically embraced by Jew and gentile alike. That is probably what appealed to his most famous devotee, Kafka." For more on Kafka's love of Müller, read Wildman's piece.

    Image: archive.org (Go here to read "My System" online!)

  • 1920s: Pilates 4 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Joseph Pilates, a German-born gymnast and circus performer, "brought his technique to the United States in the late 1920s, after refusing the German government's request to train its police force," according to the Los Angeles Times. Pilates Technique is all about forming core strength and lengthening muscles, as devotees who discovered Pilates in the last 20 years know. Pilates is done on the floor or on what is called the "reformer," pictured (and created by Pilates himself). Pilates lived to be 83 and was in excellent physical form when he died in 1967.

    Image: sattva sutras

  • 1930s: Electric Exercisers 5 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Yes, this is the electronic belt that made ladies' hip, thigh and butt fat jiggle itself away! Supposedly, anyway. No word about whether or not these machines actually worked to help women lose weight - and based on what we know now about cardiovascular function, we know these machines weren't doing anything to keep women healthy.

    Image: Denver Post

  • 1930s: Exercise Wheels 6 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    These exercise wheels, known in Germany (where they were invented) as Rhönrads, are for use by gymnasts. Created in 1925 and used in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, gymnastics wheels are still used today by a small group of enthusiasts. This still is from a brilliant old news reel narrated in a cheeky rhyming style. Watch it on YouTube to see the wheel in action!

  • 1930s: Parkour 7 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    You may recognize Parkour because of its recent resurgence in popularity within the last ten years among young people living in urban areas, but Parkour's roots are in military training. "Practitioners aim to move quickly and efficiently through their environment using only their bodies and their surroundings to propel themselves, negotiating obstacles in between. They try to maintain as much momentum as possible without being unsafe. Parkour can include running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, jumping, rolling,quadrupedal movement and more, if they are the most suitable movements for the situation," according to Wikipedia. This still is from an amazing YouTube video featuring John Ciampa, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, climbing a tree on Eastern Parkway and a pipe at PS 155 on Herkimer Street, according to his daughter Donna who left a comment on the video. There's a similar pipe on the wall at the Brooklyn school my daughter attends, and kids love to climb it, too! 

    p.s. - Don't try this at home, kids!

    Via MyMadMethods.com

  • 1930s: Hollywood Studio Regimens 8 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    The 1930s may have been when America's obsession with looking good enough for Hollywood began. This photo is from Literary Digest, published March 6, 1937, which featured an article titled, "Flesh Sculptors: Screen Players Find Its Fun to Keep Healthy - Here's How." The article eschews dieting and says, "The new Hollywood health formula calls for (1) exercise; (2) common sense." It also notes that "pep, vigor" and "the old zip" were essential qualities actors and actresses must possess, because "the box-office takes a lacing when actors are noticeably lacking" in those things. Each Studio had its own Director of Fitness (or some such title), who would advise actors about which exercises to perform. Donald Loomis of Metro recommended calisthenics, like Madge Evans is doing, above.

  • 1940s: Battle of the Bulges 9 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    "Girls, it seems that after you've helped to win the war, you'll still have another battle on your hands, legs and things: the battle of the bulges." So says the narrator in this hilarious video of women using 1940s "exercise" equipment to tame their jiggly parts. This equipment is similar to the 1930s exercise machine in that the women aren't actually doing any work, just the machines.

  • 1950s: Bongo Boards 10 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    "Models, or just anybody interested in keeping in shape find that by using Bongo, bingo! Everything shapes up nicely. You don't have to be good at figures to figure that out." From this wonderful retro YouTube clip promoting the exercise trend/toy.

  • 1950s: Marilyn Monroe Lifting Weights 11 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Marilyn Monroe may have been ahead of her time in many ways, and one of them was that she liked to lift weights to stay in shape. In 1952 she told Pageant magazine, "Each morning, after I brush my teeth, wash my face and shake off the first deep layer of sleep, I lie down on the floor beside my bed and begin my first exercise. It is a simple bust-firming routine which consists of lifting five-pound weights from a spread-eagle arm position to a point directly above my head. I do this 15 times, slowly. I repeat the exercise another 15 times from a position with my arms above my head."

    Image and quote: Cardio Trek

  • 1950s: Fitness on TV 12 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Then again, perhaps it's not so strange that Marilyn Monroe was lifting weights in the '50s, because America's first real fitness guru Jack LaLanne was encouraging women to participate in strength training. His TV career started in the early '50s, and by the end of the decade, his fitness show went national on ABC. Wikipedia notes, "The show was noted for its minimalist set, where LaLanne inspired his viewers to use basic home objects, such as a chair, to perform their exercises along with him. Wearing his standard jumpsuit, he urged his audience 'with the enthusiasm of an evangelist,' to get off their couch and copy his basic movements, a manner considered the forerunner of today's fitness videos." There were local moms, too, offering exercise programs on stations all over the country during the early days of TV, like Ethel Dougherty Wall of Omaha, Nebraska who started her class in her basement.

    Image: Wikipedia

  • 1960s: Trim Twist 13 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    The Trim Twist was called "The Executive Exerciser" because it was aimed at "keyed-up executives .. and their families, too!" It was a board that twisted on springs, so it was as much a toy as a piece of exercise equipment, and you were meant to simply mount it and do the twist dance to the twist music made famous by Chubby Checker and sung by The Beatles in their early years. Check out the amazing pamphlet that came with the Trim Twist here.

    Image: mnhs.org

  • 1960s: Exercising to Vinyl Records 14 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Exercise as we think of it today really started to take shape (ha-ha) in the 1960s. This is the cover of a vinyl album recorded by Debbie Drake, who also had a popular eponymous TV show as well. Click here to watch a clip on YouTube. It will make you glad you were not a woman in the 60s, unless you were a woman in the 60s, then it will make you glad we no longer live in the 60s, no matter how cool Mad Men is. To see more vintage vinyl exercise albums, check out this great Flickr set.

    Image: Amazon

  • 1970s: Stationary Bikes 15 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    No matter if you're in your 20s, 30s or 40s, chances are you grew up with a stationary bike in your home. Stationary bikes became popular in the '70s, and are much more advanced today than the one pictured above. (Imagine doing a spinning class on that thing in sandals? Ha.)

    Image: The Chive

  • 1980s: Jazzercise 16 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    This photo was actually taken at a Jazzercise class in 2011, but Jazzercise was born in the '80s after aerobic dance became popular in the late '70s. Jazzercise is fun because not only is it full of high energy movements, but you get to wear outfits like this! Hello?!

    Image: Flickr user jdudley

  • 1980s: Sweatin’ to the Oldies 17 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    In the '80s, I personally sweat (swat, sweatted?) to the oldies with one Mr. Richard Simmons thanks to my mom's copy of this workout, and let me tell you, it is life changing. His first Sweatin' VHS tape (!) was released in 1988, and since then Simmons has released 4 more along with a 20th anniversary collection of the programs. If you feel like it, you can actually do the entire Sweatin' to the Oldies program along with this video on DailyMotion. Not sure where to send you to get Deal-A-Meal cards, though.

    Image: Amazon

  • 1980s: Step Aerobics 18 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Step aerobics was first popularized in the late '80s and flourished in gyms and on video in the '90s and 2000's. Reebok was the first corporation to make the branded plastic steps used during the workout, and they released a step workout video in 1991. You can watch it on YouTube here. The opening sketch is hilarious, and the rest is as George Michael sexy as the '90s were.

    Image: Wikipedia

  • 1980s: Buns of Steel 19 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Buns of Steel was released on VHS in 1987 starring Greg Smithey, often called a "Chuck Norris lookalike." According to Wikipedia, "Over one million copies of Smithey's workout were sold on VHS."

    Image: Amazon

  • Late ’80s/Early ’90s: Nordic Track 20 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    As we headed into the brave new era known as the '90s, the exercise equipment industry exploded and there was tons of random, quirky gear out there to buy from great TV infomercials. My dad bought us a Nordic Track, and it sat in the basement family room next to the pool table forever. It was the stupidest piece of exercise equipment ever invented. Well, except for maybe the next few stupid pieces of exercise equipment.

    Image: Amazon

  • 1990s: Thigh Master 21 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Who could forget Suzanne Somers and the Thigh Master?! You know what it is. You know how it works (or doesn't). Squeeze this baby between your thighs and hope it doesn't spring up and smack you in the face! What a workout. Here's the original TV commercial on YouTube.

    Image: Amazon

  • 1990s: The Ab Roller 22 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Surely you remember the Ab Roller. It's a machine that helps you do sit-ups! Awesome! God I miss the '90s. Here's the Ab Roller Rock-n-Roll Ab Workout from 1995 on YouTube.

    Image: HubPages

  • 1990s: Tae Bo 23 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today

    Tae Bo was created in the '90s by martial arts champion Billy Blanks, pictured above teaching a Tae Bo class. The New York Times described Tae Bo as "a cocktail of tae kwon do, boxing and aerobics." According to the Times, sales of Tae Bo tapes had "reached almost $80 million" in 1999. Here's a Tae Bo workout on YouTube. Billy's outfit is beyond.

    Image: Wikipedia

  • 2000s: Hip-Hop Dance Class 24 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    By the year 2000, every gym in America started offering some kind of hip-hop aerobics or hip-hop dance class, even in the smallest of Midwestern towns. Now your grandma is a B-boy, son!

    Image: Flickr user Filin Ilia

  • 2000s: Strip Aerobics 25 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Carmen Electra made strip aerobics popular with her 2003 DVD Carmen Electra's Aerobic Striptease. Now gyms in most major cities offer classes in burlesque, aerobic strip tease and pole workouts.

    Image: iStock

  • 2000s: Yoga 26 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    Of course yoga has been around for centuries, but it only became "trendy" as an exercise practice in the last decade or so. For the very adventurous, there's Bikram Yoga, which is done in a hot room over 100 degrees. Fun!

    Image: iStock

  • 2000s: Zumba 27 of 27
    Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today (Photos)

    It's only fitting to end our Exercise Trends from the 1800s Through Today journey with a movement craze starting with the last letter of the alphabet: Zumba! Zumba, Zumba! Zumba, Zumba! Everybody loves Zumba, even my mother.

    Any exercise trends you think we missed? Add them in the comments below!

    Image: Flickr user San Diego City College

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More from Carolyn on Babble:

20 Colorful, Non-Traditional Wedding Gowns Worn by Real Brides

25 Cloyingly Unique Baby Names, AKA the New Parental Status Symbol

Life’s a Beach: What I Learned After My Phone Was Stolen

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