When Victorians Hit the Gym

Here’s something to think about the next time you strap on your crusty gym clothes and curse “whoever invented exercise.” Swedish physician and said inventor Gustav Zander pioneered mechano-therapy — i.e. fitness through manually operated contraptions — in the late 19th century, circa industrialization, when hard labor wasn’t a choice for most.

Dr. Zander explored the connection between mechanics and muscle building while in medical school in Sweden, winning a gold medal at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia for his elaborate exercise machines that utilized chains and pulleys.

By the turn of the century, his machines were in health spas around the world, where well-to-do Victorian women in full petticoats and tight-fitting bodices attempted leg extensions and chest expansions. Men, meanwhile, hit the machines in long coats, buttoned collars, and neckties, ever dapper as they worked up a sweat.

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