Exercise is good for us. There is no denying that fact, provided you use the right techniques and don’t overdo it. But it can sometimes feel like it’s a bit of a modern invention, especially since exercise bikes, weight machines, and cross trainers are all relatively new inventions to help you work out.
It’s also hard to imagine cavemen and women putting on their workout clothes and heading to their local gym to lift some sticks with giant rocks attached to them like a scene from the Flintstones.
So how did our ancestors work out, and how did their techniques differ from what we do today?
The Aztecs are responsible for many inventions and ideas that have lived on into modern life. For example, universal education was a requirement in Aztec societies, though this was mostly about handing down trades and skills to new generations. Early fabric dies were also created by the Aztecs, the most popular being the colour red which was created by crushing cochineal beetles.
It is also believed that the Aztecs helped to introduce the world to popcorn, chocolate, and chewing gum.
In fact, Aztec culture is still influential today. There are dozens of movies and TV shows that take inspiration from the Aztecs, their architecture, history, and other elements of their way of life, including Eternals (2021), La Otra Conquista (1998), and Onyx Equinox. Aztec theming also shows up regularly in games, especially video slots like Aztec Explorers that feature stone carvings, gold colours, and pyramids in their styling.
But while most of us are familiar with many of these elements of Aztec culture, few people realise that they may also exercise like they did.
If you’re someone who loves to play ball games like soccer, basketball or football, then you have a lot in common with our Mesoamerican ancestors. The most popular game from the era was called pitz and it used a rubber ball that players would attempt to throw into a vertically mounted hoop.
The Romans made many contributions to life. They gave us aqueducts, underfloor heating, lotteries, newspapers, surgical tools, and concrete.
Roman life was generally very active, so you didn’t generally need to try very hard to stay fit and healthy. Most work involved manual labour and there were no cars to help get you around.
However, Romans did have their “thermae” – public bathhouses where people would go to clean themselves. But these bathhouses were much more than just a place to wash your hair and face, they were the centre of many Roman’s social lives.
While at the thermae, Romans would play ball games, lift weights, and do other exercises to help stay in shape. Paintings from the era show Roman women wearing bikini-esque outfits while holding dumbbells, running, and throwing balls – all activities that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern gym.
Ancient Egypt also contributed many things to modern life and left some spectacular pieces of architecture for tourists to admire to this day.
Like the Romans, the Egyptians lived very active lives. Nearly all of their work was very physical, especially for those involved in constructing the pyramids. For this reason, there was little need to do additional exercise, but that didn’t stop them.
Balance games were popular in Ancient Egypt, with people challenging each other to see how long they could stay in certain positions such as standing on one leg. They also enjoyed combat sports like boxing and wrestling, something that was used to help keep soldiers battle-ready.
Many other common Egyptian exercises are still popular today, including jogging, swimming, and various forms of jumping. Horse riding, archery, gymnastics, and even fencing were all widespread in the region. Evidence of early versions of hockey can also be found in Egyptian paintings, though it’s not known how similar the rules were.
So while our ancestors might not have used expensive gym equipment, it seems that we have retained much of their wisdom when it comes to working out.