The History of Exercise, Part 1: Bill Hayes on the Ancient Exercise Expert You’ve Never Heard Of

Before I moved to Chicago in 2011, my concept of fitness was split into two dichotomies: sports, which I had retired from upon graduating high school, and the elliptical at my university’s tiny, carpeted gym. That is to say, working out to stay skinny. 

But my arrival in Chicago gave me what happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin calls the “fresh start effect” – the chance to rebuild my relationship with fitness anew. And unbeknownst to me, I moved to this major metropolis right on as two major fitness trends were becoming mainstream: running and boutique group fitness classes.

Running, I reasoned, would be a good way for me to exercise because it was largely free and I lived a mile from the lakefront, which was a novelty to me at the time. And after a couple of years, I moved from downtown to Lincoln Park, right as Nike opened a Nike Training Club studio above their Armitage shop and began offering free – yes, free – classes every single day of the week (real ones remember). Quickly, fitness became a landmark in the History of Kristen; it was through running and group fitness that I met many of my best friends, my boyfriend, and Jeana, who had just started a fitness-focused blog as a fun side project that is now both of our full time jobs. And now, it’s probably safe to assume that if you were to ask a random Instagram acquaintance what they know about me, they’d mention fitness in some capacity – second only to my dog, Phoebe.

Fitness has been such a significant part of my life, and I was really excited when Jeana suggested we do the History of Fitness as our second deep-dive series on the podcast. My own perspective of the fitness industry runs both narrow and deep; I know a ton about the fitness industry’s most important verticals as they exist today, but before the mid-90s, I didn’t have a great grasp of how fitness, sports, and recreation have evolved over time. To be honest, I wasn’t even totally sure why Jane Fonda was so important to fitness until taking on this project.

At times, I sort of feel like Anne Hathway in The Devil Wears Prada – the scene where Meryl / Miranda absolutely tears Hathaway’s character Andy apart for not understanding the significance of Andy wearing a cerulean sweater. And worse, for not respecting the hundreds of people and the years of fashion history that brought her cerulean sweater to the shelves.

I don’t want to be Andy, for many reasons. So, I’m taking y’all along with me as I dive into the history of fitness. We’re starting at the very beginning – like literally, going all the way back to ancient Greece and Renaissance-era Italy.

In this episode, you’ll meet Bill Hayes, the author of Sweat: A History of Exercise. His book is part history, part memoir, and it traces the different origins of exercise as they evolve. He flips between analyzing the past and memorializing the future, so you’re left with a better context for the cultural and scientific history of exercise and how it’s affected our view of exercise today.

bill hayes

Bill is a complete delight, and I’m excited to share this interview with y’all. A few highlights: we meet Mercuriale, whose seminal text De arte gymnastica aimed to revive the lost Greek art of exercising. We gush about the joy and satisfaction of swimming, as well as the flow state one can find in boxing. Bill gives a brief context for women in the pre-20th century history of exercise (and we’ll get more into women’s place in the fitness movement next week), and I learn for the first time ever that Plato wasn’t his real name (plus who gave him the nickname Plato and why).

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About Kristen Geil

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.