Sunday, 13th June 2021


This week I will take a sprint through the changing demands for exercise over the past two thousand years.

Exercise in the dark ages

Those who laboured  were kept active earning their keep. Increasing commerce brought plenty of walking and riding for merchants. Pulling the long bow and wearing heavy armour demanded strength training for warriors. Wrestling is also thought to have been popular among peasants. Kings and nobles went hunting. Organised sport and “working out” were a long way off

Games in the Middle Ages

An illustration of the extent to which popular recreation expanded in the Middle Ages is to be found in Pieter Breughel the Elder’s painting of children at play (1560) which heads this week’s Blog. More than 90 forms of children’s games are depicted, including sledding, skating, leapfrogging, archery and tug of war. Many have survived. Among games with a modern day equivalents was tennis, perhaps first played with the hand in the 12th century and which has been a racket sport since the 16th century. So called “real tennis” or “royal tennis” was commonplace across the courts of Europe but we know from Shakespeare’s Henry V that it was played well before then. Football has been played since the 15th century and cricket since the 16th century.

The Renaissance

The renaissance brought not only a rebirth of academic and other cerebral pursuits but, to a lesser extent, a recognition that the body was more than the mortal shell for the mind and soul. In 1553 a Spaniard, Cristobal Mendez, published a book on gymnastics and in 1569 an Italian, Mercurialis, extended the uses of exercise into the management of disease by natural methods in his book “De Arte Gymnastica”.

The Industrial Revolution

The next change in the practice of recreational exercise came about 200 years ago with the Industrial Revolution. Up to then most of the population was still dependent on physical activity to earn their daily crust. The mechanisation of many manual tasks meant that for the first time in history a large proportion of the population no longer had to exercise as part of their gainful employment. For many this also brought more opportunities for leisure time activities and led to the growth of team sports and other recreational physical  pastimes.

Over the ensuing years our need to be physically active has progressively lessened. The energy expenditure required by most jobs has gradually diminished so that today some 75% of jobs are sedentary or require only light physical activity.  The advent of the railways and then the motor car and other motorised transport have relieved us of much of the effort needed to travel or just get from place to place.

Industrialisation has given us huge advances in comfort, prosperity and welfare but has also brought the consequences of greatly reduced physical activity. This is not all good news for an animal which evolved for exercise. I will talk more about this next week.


One response to “THE DARK AGES AND BEYOND”

  1. Ian Fleming says:

    An interesting angle this time Hugh! The cycling mania in the late 19th century was an interesting phenomenon: it became both slightly fashionable and slightly daring to go for long bike rides, but the motor car gradually put paid to the activity for all but a minority

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