The Historical View of Exercise

If I were to ask you “is exercise important” you would almost undoubtedly say “yes”.


You’ve been exposed to the concept of fitness and exercise your whole life. You see celebrities openly brag about their fitness routines; on social media, you see selfies of people at the gym; every few years there’s a new fitness craze—from aerobics in the ’80s to pilates in the ’90s, to yoga and boot camps and HIT (high-intensity training). 


Whether you actually do any of these activities is a separate point, but you are most definitely aware of fitness as a priority.


When talking about “fitness” or “exercise” to someone who is older than 85 years, you may find that the context is totally different.  They did not grow up in an era when fitness was promoted as an activity in and of itself. It didn’t need to be. Fitness was just part of everyday lifestyles.


We served a lovely couple who met in Kitchener when it was still known as Berlin.  They married young, as couples of that generation did, and moved into their first home together on Queen St. S.  Their home was past where St. Mary’s hospital is today; it would have been the suburbs on the edge of town at that time.  They each worked at a factory in downtown Kitchener. Every day, they walked kilometres up Queen St., kissed each other goodbye for the day once they reached Charles St. and worked for the day at the factory.


At the end of the day, they met up again on the corner at Queen St and walked home. Besides being rather romantic (he carried her lunchbox and everything!), it was also a built-in form of exercise. There was no way that a young couple could possibly afford a car; that was out of the question. Rain or shine, all through the frigid winters, it didn’t faze them—they walked to work daily. Once they got to work, they were on their feet all day, working factory jobs that were moderately demanding physically.


What a contrast to today’s jobs!  Most of today’s jobs involve sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen. You’d be hard-pressed to find youth today determined enough to walk kilometres in the driving rain or freezing cold to get to a factory job.


No wonder we need to make such a concerted effort to focus on exercise today when our lifestyles are so sedentary otherwise.  In past eras where daily routines required so much physical activity, there was no need to expend energy strictly for the sake of expending energy.


You can see why the concept may continue to feel foreign to someone who is 87 or 92 or 99. They were raised in an era where people worked hard because they had to, and you reserved your energy when possible.  No one was expending energy just for the sake of it!  And once you had worked hard, you earned the right to sit down and relax and take a load off.


That mentality sometimes persists, even though their lifestyle has changed.  Most 87-year-olds are not walking kilometres every day to get to a physically demanding job. But if they did that for decades, they may feel that they’ve earned the right to no longer be active—or do anything once associated with “work”. The catch is that our bodies continue to need physical activity regardless of our age.


Don’t get frustrated if an elderly loved one seems dismissive about exercise. Remember that they grew up in an era where energy was only expelled for productive purposes. The idea of expending energy just for exercise is a foreign concept that may seem strange. While they may nod and say “yes I know I should do more” they may not be following through because deep down, it just doesn’t fit with their decades-ingrained view of energy preservation.


Understanding the context and background can be helpful in recognizing why a loved one is not overly enthusiastic about physical activity. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not important to get moving!


Be sure to read our other blogs on how to inspire more physical activity.

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