Fitness: How Early Science Led to Modern Activities That Benefit Your Health

From the concept of maximal oxygen uptake to the boom of boutique gyms, the industry of exercise has come a long way.


In ancient times, exercise was unheard of.  Without modern conveniences, the basic activities of daily life provided sufficient activity for health.  Modern technology has removed much of the activity from daily life.  Rather than hunting and foraging for dinner, we can now open a package, toss it in a microwave for a couple minutes and dinner is served.  We no longer carry heavy containers from a water source to our homes.  We simply turn on a faucet.  When we want to travel, we don’t have to walk, or even hitch up an animal to carry us – we hop in our automobile and arrive at our destination in relative comfort thanks to air conditioning and heat in our cars.  All those changes made life easier and freed up time for other activities.

However, people became much more sedentary and chronic health issues began to rise.   Even when the medical community began to realize the cause was a lack of activity, there were few options for them to recommend.  It’s hard to imagine, but in less than 100 years, the fitness industry has grown from a mostly scholarly concept of aerobics, to the simple gyms of yesterday, and into the multitude of fitness programs currently available today.   While exercise trends continue to evolve, the basic concept of exercise to increase heart rate has remained consistent thanks to research proving its effectiveness and individuals who have been creative in finding ways to accomplish the needed activity in an enjoyable way and make it available for the masses.

Discoveries Behind Aerobics Are Not Hot Air

The foundation for this booming industry was laid in part in 1922 when the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to British physiologist Archibald Hill.  Hill introduced the eye-opening concept of maximal oxygen uptake (also referred to as a person’s VO2 max) and oxygen debt along with German physician Otto Meyerhof who was known for his extensive work related to muscle energy metabolism.  In taking a closer look at the cardiorespiratory fitness of a person and how it factors into endurance and exercise performance, these researchers inspired others to explore this field of research.

Scientists continued to make strides in understanding how the human body is affected by exercise, and for many years aerobics remained a mostly scholarly field.  Then in 1961, Bill Orban published “The Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plans” marking the beginning of a take-off of modern fitness culture.

On this side of the pond, US Air Force Colonels Dr. Kenneth Cooper and physical therapist Pauline Potts, were fervent advocates of aerobic exercise.  Dr. Cooper conducted research on preventative medicine and the first extensive research into aerobic exercise with over 5,000 USAF personnel being the study participants.  He was interested in the idea that exercise could help preserve health.

In 1968, Dr. Cooper published “Aerobics” sharing his ideas.  In the book, he defined aerobic exercises as those that “demand oxygen without producing an intolerable oxygen debt, so that they can be sustained for a long period of time.”  He proposed that aerobic exercise is better than calisthenics that were popular at the time, weightlifting or anaerobic exercise.  Prior to this book, aerobic exercise was considered to be for professional athletes, not the general public.  In some ways, it was even discouraged.  Sweating was seen as “unladylike” and it was thought to be “dangerous” for men over 40.  In an interview, Dr. Cooper recalled the initial response to his book:  “My colleagues back in the ‘50s and ‘60s were very much afraid of exercise in people over 40 years of age,” he said. “I would see titles in newspapers that would say, ‘The streets are going to be dead of joggers if more Americans follow Cooper.’”  However, time has shown these concerns to be unfounded and Dr. Cooper has been proven correct.  He made some revisions and published “The New Aerobics” in 1972 and worked with his wife to put out “Aerobics for Women” in 1977.

Two years later, he created the Cooper Institute, a non-profit research and education organization focusing on preventative medicine.  His research produced verifiable proof that aerobic exercise helps reduce the risk of disease.  As a result of his findings, classes began to form to help people achieve those health benefits.  Due to his extensive work, Dr. Cooper is regarded as the “father of aerobics.”

Let’s Get Physical

In the 1970’s, aerobics progressed into an exercise format in and of itself, making the word synonymous with popular workout classes of the era.  Jacki Sorensen, a dance teacher and former UCLA cheerleader, is credited with developing the first aerobic workout routines.  She had been teaching Officer’s Wives Club dance classes on various Air Force bases where her husband was stationed.   In 1969, she took the 12-minute fitness test described in “Aerobics” and had a good score.  But she said that “all” she did was dance.  When she was asked to create a fitness television program for Air Force wives at the Puerto Rico base, she choreographed dances to upbeat music.  She contacted Dr. Cooper and showed him a 20-minute dance routine she had designed.  This routine would get the heart racing, but interest women more.  In the interview, Dr. Cooper said “I still remember that, I said, ‘Jacki, that’s great. Go for it!’ ”  She introduced the first Aerobic Dancing class at a YMCA.  Over the years, she has authored 2 books, choreographed, and produced several Aerobic Dancing records and three best-selling aerobic videos and has lectured to groups throughout the world.

Also in 1969, Judi Sheppard Missett took these concepts and developed her Jazzercise program which now thousands of franchisees teaching classes around the world.  Like Sorenson, her roots were in dance, and she modified her class to shift focus from proper dance technique to various fitness-focused movements.  Jazzercise became wildly popular and helped create the commercial fitness market which has since grown exponentially.

As new technology gave people the option of working out at home with instructor-led videos and TV shows, fitness gurus such as Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons became household names, and aerobics started to become a global phenomenon.

Step It Up

While aerobic fitness classes and videos were gaining steam, Gin Miller realized that some people were being left out.  For those who avoided aerobics because of its high impact movements like jumping and bouncing, Miller designed step aerobics in 1989 as a low-impact alternative to accommodate people with injuries or people who were beginning at a lower level of fitness.

As the wide-reaching health benefits of regular exercise gained recognition, the fitness industry quickly became a booming business.  It grew more and more common to find a variety of group classes offered at health clubs, gyms, and community centers.  Standalone exercise studios began to emerge, and fitness franchises were born.  Stores carried aerobic workout videos for every demographic: pregnancy, post-partum, low-impact, high-impact, youth and children, with soundtracks spanning from popular and oldies hits to religious hymns.

The Transformation Continues

As with all things, the passage of time brought innovations to the world of aerobic fitness.  In the 1990’s, working out and fitness became a business for a more widespread audience.  One of the Billy Blanks introduced Tae Bo – a cardio-boxing workout that combined aerobics and martial arts movements.  Programs such as P90X and Insanity offer more intense workouts at home.

Appealing to busy individuals looking for more bang for their exercise buck, spawned HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts.  These combine bodyweight movements, weightlifting and cardio exercises.  Today, while some gyms are still all-service style (weights, classes, training, cardio machines), new boutique gyms, specializing in specific aerobic workout classes have emerged.

There is an App for that

With mobile technology has come the addition of technology-based aerobic exercise apps, podcasts and web services enabling individuals to work out where they are, often with little or no equipment.  Some programs merge the social aspect of a live class with the convenience of a video, app, or podcast.  Other programs help you find various gyms when you are traveling, making it easier for you to stay on track.  As technology continues to evolve, our understanding of the human body increases and no doubt, further changes will come to the fitness industry.

Whatever type of exercise you do, the primary component is to find something that works for your lifestyle.  Whether that is a live class, a video, or an app, if it’s not convenient for you or you don’t enjoy it, then odds are you won’t continue.

Where will fitness take you?

With the variety of programs and gyms available, along with the technology options at your fingertips, there is sure to be something that will be a good fit for you.  Talk to your chiropractor about what types of exercise styles are most suited for your current health condition and goals.  Then, try various methods (live, video, pod casts, etc.) to see which fits your personality and lifestyle.

Once you find what works for you, stick with it.  You’ll feel a difference in your daily life and have an improved prognosis for the future.  If you don’t have a chiropractor, you can find one convenient to your home or work at



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Andreasson, J., Johansson, T. (2014)  The Fitness Revolution: Historical Transformations in the Global Gym and Fitness Culture.. Sport Science Review, XXIII(3-4): 91-112

Team Sorensen Bios.  “Jackie Sorensen, President” accessed 1/9/24.