A Brief History of Exercise Machines

When it comes to exercise, man always comes up with some sort of gadget or another to help keep him fit. Whereas for centuries, the plow, the pitchfork, the shovel, and the hoe were the primary tools providing exercise, more recently, there have been a large number of machines designed for the sole purpose of exercising.

Though manual labor was – and still is – the basis of most people’s livelihoods worldwide, over the last century, a large portion of the population has become very sedentary. These people, for the most part, live in urban and suburban areas and are mostly employed in trades other than farming, mining, construction, loading and unloading trucks, or what is described as “physical labor.” We have developed a huge culture of people that sit on their rear ends for work. And, as we transition into more and more of a service oriented economy, that trend is rapidly becoming the daily norm.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a movement began to get people to exercise. At first, “organized” exercise was only for the wealthy as they were primarily the only ones who could afford it and most obviously were not normally involved in physical labor in their daily occupations. Gustav Zander, 1835-1920, born in Stockholm, was a pioneer in the field of mechanotherapy, using exercise and skeletomuscular manipulation for therapy and good health. Since that time, “exercise” per se has become the domain of the general public. Schools started providing physical education as a required part of their curriculum, instilling a feeling that a strong body is as important as a strong mind. The advent of the YM/YWCA brought the availability of organized exercise to urban neighborhoods and local communities. The rise of independent and corporate health clubs and exercise centers in the last several decades has also helped fuel the growth and awareness of exercise as a means to stay healthy and live a longer life.

Zander, along with John Harvey Kellogg and Arthur Jones, were very influential regarding the way fitness is viewed today. In the late 19th Century, Kellogg, 1852-1943, who invented the corn flake with his brother Will, ran one of the first “sanitariums” in the US. One of his primary points of emphasis was exercise. In the 1970’s, Arthur Jones, 1926-2007, invented the Nautilus series of exercise machines.

As always, when a new trend develops, so does the “miracle product” market that goes along with supporting it. As expected, many exercise contraptions were designed and sold over the years to address the growing “physically fit” marketplace. And of course, that led to the development of the “non-exercising” fitness equipment. Exercising doesn’t mean you can’t still be lazy. These machines were invented to do the exercising for you effortlessly. You just sit there and let it happen.

Besides the infamous vibrating belt, there were other lesser-known gizmos:

The Molby Revolving Hammock – In the 1920’s, corsets were gone, but inventors found new ways to combine painful bondage with physical fitness. The Revolving Hammock was said to straighten your spine, stretch your muscles, and “calm your anxiety.” It also promised a tiny waist, bigger breasts and “an hour-glass profile for any woman.”
The Battle Creek Vibratory Chair – This apparatus, developed by Kellogg, claimed it would “stimulate intestinal peristalsis as well as cure headaches, heal back pain, and increase the supply of oxygen to the bloodstream.” The chair, which vibrated very violently, supposedly stimulated muscle tone to keep people fit, but was too painful to sit in.
Gustav Zander’s Abdominal Machines – Zander’s machines were among the first ever developed specifically for use in an exercise “gym.” The theory behind his designs was that the machines would raise “sunken vital energy.” This was accomplished by hitting a person’s body with “perfectly rhythmic oscillating leather disks.” Zander felt that the key to health was to practice “progressive exertion,” the controlled, systematic engagement of the body’s muscles, in order to build strength and fitness.
Dr. Lawton’s Guaranteed Fat Reducer – This device was marketed to make any part of your body thinner in days. It was a non-electric disk that was rubbed on the desired body parts and would supposedly break down and disintegrate fat tissue. The fat would then become waste and be expelled the next time the user visited the bathroom.
In today’s world of Fitbits and Bowflexes, it’s good to know that we don’t have to deal with painful vibrating chairs, revolving hammocks, or get beaten with leather paddles to keep ourselves in good health.