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The history of physical activity (PA) as an intentional pursuit has been well documented by anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. Although prehistoric humans lived a life that required difficult daily PA for survival, evidence suggests that exercise, more specifically dance, was used as a means of communication, courtship, and/or social connection (1). These are the earliest records of humans using intentional exercise for a purpose beyond necessary daily survival tasks. One could argue that social connection and group coordination were essential for survival during that period; therefore, the need to dance was critical. Dancing also provided humans with the ability to “train” their bodies for long distance travel, hunting, and building shelter. This era of PA does not include references to specific items used for the sole purpose of physical training, what we would call exercise equipment today, but it marks the beginning of humans finding value in intentional exercise.

Exercise equipment, per se, first appeared in historical texts around 6000 BC, when ancient Chinese writings indicated stone lifting, archery, and weight throwing being used for both personal health and warfare preparation (2). Chinese martial artists would lift an irregular-shaped three-legged cauldron called a ding to show their physical prowess (3). Also during this period, ancient Egyptian murals indicate an activity similar to many modern day Olympic lifts. For example, “sack swinging” included lifting large bags of sand from the ground into an overhead position and holding it in place (4). Ancient Indians also began to recognize the value of building physical strength, as they swung heavy sticks to train their muscles for battle (5).

Ancient Greeks are perhaps credited with the earliest proliferation of serious physical training. Part of that perception comes from the city state of Sparta, which was founded around 900 BC. Spartan leaders felt that an army of warriors was necessary to defend their civilization or overtake others, and they would achieve this through a commitment to two things — PA and obedience. Athenians, by contrast, developed sophisticated PA programs to prepare competitors for the Olympic games (6). Held in honor of Zeus, the original Olympic games included footrace, javelin throw, and other PAs, with Athenians preparing contestants by incorporating physical training prescribed by physicians. One type of preparation involved the use of halters (7). These 5-lb to 12-lb stones included a handle and were the first real representation of what we now know as the dumbbell or kettlebell. During this period, ancient Greeks also created what is believed to be the earliest version of the gymnasium, derived from the word gymno — or naked (8). Training naked was the norm at that time, and not so much today, yet we continue to use the same terminology.

From the 5th to 15th centuries, PA fell out of favor as kingdoms and empires rose and fell during the Dark Ages. PA was not relevant again until the early 1400s, when an Italian humanist named Vittorino de Feltre opened a school that placed emphasis on physical education. During this period, exercisers used ladders that were introduced through the first textbook on gymnastics, published by Mercurialis, an Italian physician (9). Few exercise equipment developments occurred between that time through the 18th century, when Johann Bernard Basedow opened the Philanthropinium in Germany, a school with a focus on physical pursuits such as running, fencing, and climbing (10). This early form of gymnastics continued to be the primary form of intentional, recreational PA until the late 1700s, when the first real mechanical exercise machines were introduced, such as the Gymnasticon. Introduced in 1796 by Francis Lowndes, the Gymnasticon was similar to a stationary bicycle, except it had two flywheels — one for the upper body and one for the lower body (11). In 1818, Sir William Cubitt developed the first known treadmill, or what he called the “treadwheel.” Unfortunately, the treadwheel was not intended for the pleasure of PA; instead, it was designed for the sole purpose of further punishing convicts throughout Britain. Thankfully, the British government outlawed the use of treadwheels for punishment by the end of the 19th century (12).


Then, in 1885, what we now know as the commercial fitness industry began. Professor Edmond Desbonnet opened the first “physical culture center,” and later that year he introduced the first rules to the sport of weightlifting. Desbonnet’s fitness center included a variety of recently developed equipment, including a pulley system, heavy dumbbells, inclined parallel bars, and weighted barbells (13). Desbonnet eventually built his fitness club empire to more than 200 clubs, while also writing many exercise-related journals and books.

Barbells, dumbbells, and other gymnastic-type equipment continued to serve fitness centers throughout Europe and the United States until the mid 1900s. First, Robert Bruce and Wayne Quinton created the motorized treadmill (eventually becoming Quinton Instruments). Then Dr. Keene Dimick invented the first stationary bike, the LifeCycle, which was outrageously priced for the 1960s, at $4,000. LifeCycle eventually launched the company that is now known as Life Fitness (14).

From this time forward, the fitness industry rapidly evolved in regard to the development and introduction of exercise equipment. In the early 1970s and 1980s, fitness centers had niche pieces of exercise equipment, often by many different manufacturers. However, equipment manufacturers began to realize they could dominate the market by developing complete lines of equipment, such as leg presses, arm curls, and squat racks, and so they did. Smaller companies were eventually acquired by more established companies, and now equipment manufacturers provide such extensive lines of cardio and strength equipment that you can spend hours, if not days, browsing through their virtual showrooms.

As the industry was consolidating into a few large manufacturers, a new trend was emerging around functional training, which posed the question, how well was your exercise preparing you for the “real task.” Historically of course, all training was functional, so this “newly” emerging trend was really just a revisiting of something hundreds and thousands of years old. Regardless of old or new, functional training and its associated equipment has grown exponentially. Machines were created that allowed the user to exactly replicate sport-specific movement patterns, like a tennis swing, softball pitch, or swimming stroke. Now any sport could be dissected into its most miniscule part so that a piece of equipment could be developed to make the athlete better.

Along with the opportunity functional training brought to the development of new exercise equipment, it also brought renewed interest in the age-old method of body weight training, a mode of training that has literally been around forever. Push-ups, pull-ups, squats, lunges, and burpees are now being performed by young and old, in gyms and city parks, and all around the world. The low cost of body weight exercises is one appeal, as is the ease of use and always-there access. At the same time, the fitness industry saw this as a perfect opportunity to introduce technology into the daily workout, creating an explosion of tech-heavy exercise accessories that allow the user to track, stream, upload, and share virtually every step taken.

During the 2000s, fitness technology became widespread among not only committed athletes but also the average exerciser. “Exergaming” became a brief fad that resonated mostly with children. The Nintendo Wii Fit, EA Sport Active, and others created games that required the participant to balance, move, and perform various activities to score points in the game. The overall commercial success of exergaming was limited, but it spawned other ideas for combining gaming with activity tracking, which started with the basic pedometer.

Although the first pedometer was invented in 1780 (15), it was not the fitness-based device we think of today. More recently, Dr. Yoshiro Hatano and his 10,000 steps mantra led to widespread acceptance of the pedometer as a critical health-tracking device (16), which led to the industry turning its collective attention to what we now know as “wearables.” The first wearables were mostly wrist-worn bands and watches that allowed the user to track steps, calorie expenditure, and distance covered. They quickly evolved to also track sleep quality, heart rate, body temperature, and other key data points.

At the same time, smartphone developers recognized an opportunity to integrate activity tracking applications within the phone itself. Although most wearable devices already synced with mobile apps, the utility was limited. Today, virtually every smartphone includes its own activity tracking mechanism within its proprietary health app.


Wearables are now evolving into the tattoo realm. Today many companies are developing discreet tattoos or patches, made of high-tech conductive materials, which can track all of the usual parameters, along with blood sugar, heart rate variability, and other more sophisticated health data that can be streamed in real-time directly to a health care practitioner.

In fitness studios, tech advances involve real-time performance tracking among groups, where heart rate and caloric expenditure are projecting participant data on a TV monitor, allowing friendly competition between members. In fact, every increase or decrease in individual effort is reflected on the big screen with a higher or lower heart rate or caloric expenditure.

Other tech companies have partnered with large-scale fitness centers to produce individual “keys” that members carry and insert into each piece of equipment, thereby tracking every rep, set, and step, which can later be viewed on their proprietary app.

Along with all of the user excitement this tech brings, there is a downside. In 2015, manufacturers began to recognize signs of data hacking of personal health information collected through activity trackers (17). Although many of these concerns have been addressed through either more comprehensive manufacturer security protocols or user-driven enhanced password protection, the risk for personal health information privacy loss is real.

Nevertheless, the technology revolution in the fitness industry is here to stay. Users seek more information than ever before and are more technologically savvy than any other generation. In fact, an industry that began with dance and stone lifting now seems to require a personal minicomputer just to go on a jog. It is, by all accounts, an incredible story that will continue to develop, as artificial intelligence appears to be the next frontier on the fitness horizon.



The Nautilus® Blue Monster was introduced at the Amateur Athletic Union Mr. America contest in California. The variable-resistance cable machine featured revolutionary shell-shaped cams and became a staple of almost every fitness club.


Woodway produced its first treadmill with an attempt to make you feel as if you were running outdoors: it had sides covered in green carpet and a running surface covered with synthetic grass.

Johnson Health Tech, then Johnson Metals, produced sketches for its Ivanko fitness line. Johnson Health Tech is now the parent company of Matrix Fitness.


Keiser debuted its leg extension machine — the first machine to use pneumatic resistance instead of iron to build strength and power. Keiser applied for a patent on the concept of compressed air variable resistance, which the company continues to use today.


Concept2 created a winter training device for rowers, the Model A Indoor Rower, by experimenting with a bicycle wheel and chain pulley.


Technogym developed its first piece of fitness equipment, a hack squat machine, and has since grown into one of the world’s leading high-end fitness equipment and wellness companies.


The original StairMaster® was developed, featuring rotating stairs in a functional, but not-so-sleek design.


Star Trac® introduced the Star Trac 2000, the first DC-powered commercial treadmill exclusively for health clubs.


Precor introduced the industry’s first elliptical, the Elliptical Fitness Crosstrainer. This low-impact, easy-to-use machine became a big hit in fitness clubs everywhere.

Schwinn® partnered with Mad Dogg Athletics to introduce the original Johnny G Spinner® exercise bike.


The early prototype of what would become the TRX Suspension Trainer™ was developed for assisting Navy SEALs in their training.


Torque Fitness was founded and began to produce its first training systems, going on to introduce the XLAB, a functional training system intended for group use, in 2012. With storage for accessories and suspension training capabilities, facilities could train multiple people, even within limited space.

Disclosure: The authors declare no conflict of interest and do not have any financial disclosures.


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2. Crowther NB. Sport in Ancient Times. Greenwood Publishing Group; 2007. p. 1–12.

3. Hai-sheng QIN. The research on the weightlifting sports of ancient China. J Anyang Inst Technol. 2012;2(26).

4. Radley A. The Illustrated History of Physical Culture: The Muscular Ideal. Radley Publishing; 2001. p. 4.

5. O’Hanlon R. Military sports and the history of the martial body in India. J Econ Soc Hist Orient. 2007;50(4):490–523.

6. Michell H. Sparta. Cambridge University Press; 1964. p. 165.

7. Crowther NB. Weightlifting in antiquity: achievement and training. Greece & Rome. 1977;24(2):111–20.

8. Bucher CA. Foundations of Physical Education. Mosby; 1975. p. 316.

9. Grafton A, Most GW, Settis S, editors. The Classical Tradition.  Belknap Press; 2013. p. 583.

10. Chisholm H, editor. Johann Bernhard Basedow. In: Encyclopædia Britannica.  Cambridge University Press; 1911.

11. Good JM, Gregory O, Bosworth N. Gymnasticon. Pantologia. A New (Cabinet) Cyclopaedia. London; 1819.

12. Abbott G. Treadwheel. In: Encyclopedia Britannica. [cited 2020 June 3]. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/topic/treadwheel.

13. Pearl B, Moran GT. Getting Stronger: Weight Training for Sports. Shelter Publications; 2001.

14. Perkins T. The Best Gym Equipment Brands. LIVESTRONG.COM. 2019. [cited 2020 May 14]. Available from: https://www.livestrong.com/article/171577-the-best-gym-equipment-brands/.

15. MacManus R. Trackers: How Technology Is Helping Us Monitor & Improve Our Health. David Batemen Ltd; 2014.

16. Tabata I. Exercise and Physical Activity Reference for Health Promotion (EPAR 2006): Physical Activity, Exercise, and Physical Fitness. National Institute of Health and Nutrition. Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 July 2018. [cited 2020 May 14]. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6012512_Exercise_and_Physical_Activity_Reference_for_Health_Promotion_2006_EPAR2006.

17. Maddox T. The dark side of wearables: How they’re secretly jeopardizing your security and privacy. TechRepublic. 2015. [cited 2020 May 14]. Available from: https://www.techrepublic.com/article/the-dark-side-of-wearables-how-theyre-secretly-jeopardizing-your-security-and-privacy/.


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