A Short History Of Women’s Fitness, Part 1: The 1800s

Welcome to the start of a fun history series, where I’ll be taking a look at the history of women’s fitness from the 1800s to the present.

In this first installment, the 1800s.

Fitness is probably not the first thing (or even the 10th) that you think of when you picture women in the 1800s. When I think of the 1800s, I think of poor people struggling to make ends meet, and with no time for leisurely exercise–or, about wealthy women who get made up in expensive gowns and spend their days taking care of children and participating in high society events. Not exactly the picture of fitness.

Women’s fitness did exist in the 19th century, however–just in a format very different from what we see today.

It was primarily the wealthy who participated in fitness. They wanted to preserve their high class look, so they did not wear athletic clothes. Instead, they did exercises in their gowns and corsets!

Corsets are a very restrictive form of clothing, severely compressing the abdominal region and limiting range of motion in pretty much every direction.

Women would have been incapable of doing modern exercises in these outfits (Imagine trying to do squats or deadlifts in a corset–It would be impossible!), so their exercises looked a lot different.

They focused primarily on increasing blood flow and preventing bad posture instead of intense cardio or strength training.

A book from 1827, A Treatise on Calisthenic Exercises, details some of the specific movements popular at the time. They include walking in zigzags, skipping, marching while standing still, and bending the arms and legs. There were also some balance related exercises.

In the mid 1800s, a new guide published by Catherine Beecher pushed the boundary even further. It requested that all children (regardless of sex) be able to participate in school athletics. Although women were still depicted wearing dresses, they did have some more advanced movements proposed here, including beginner ballet and arm circles.

[A sample arm circle exercise from Beecher’s guide]

Potentially the oldest women’s fitness fad was actually the magnetic corset, which was advertised as a weight loss tool for building good figures. Not that far off from some of the trends we see today!

The first true gym equipment was developed in the latter half of the 1800s by a man named Dr. Gustav Zander, a physician from Sweden.

Dr. Zander believed in the idea of muscle growth over time, so he developed machines that were designed to mimic traditional human movements in a way that could be repeated over and over.

Like the modern gym machines we see today, Dr. Zander worked to develop a variety of machines that all focused on different body parts. Some machines were even powered, with steam pistons and motors.

Like earlier in the 19th century, these machines were designed to be used in full dress outfits, with women wearing corsets and gowns and men wearing suits.

Dr. Zander even opened the world’s first sports hall, which offered strength training and physical rehab services for both men and women. It proved to be a very successful concept and was replicated over the following decades all around the world.

You can see women testing out Dr. Zander’s machines in the gallery below, the images of which are managed by the Smithsonian Libraries:

It wouldn’t be until the 1900s that we’d get to see women participate actively in real sports and get to exercise in true athletic equipment. Women from lower classes would also not get their shot at leisure sport until much later.

We’ll learn about all that and more in the next installment!