top of page


A Brief History of Humankind’s Desperate Attempts to Stay Fit


Having trouble sticking to your exercise routine? Don’t feel bad. Just look at our long drawn-out relationship with exercise gear—from discus to Thighmaster to jBells.


Jan. 5, 2017  Wall Street Journal

IT”S JANUARY again, and that means it’s time to repent: to repudiate December’s decadence and embrace anew the annual ritual of trying pointlessly to get fit. This is America’s number one New Year’s resolution, according to Nielsen, and one of the first abandoned each year. (The predictable January surge in gym memberships subsides by February, year after year.) In fact, the business model of the $80 billion global health-club industry depends on this annual triumph of hope over experience.

As a sedentary journalist trying to stay fit, I find myself seeking new solutions. I’m looking for motivation that can beat the instant gratification of a peanut-butter cup. I want something that provides results before I throw in the towel.

It’s not like the market isn’t trying: Every year brings monstrous, new, rubber-handled, spring-loaded exercise gear designed to make the ordeal of getting in shape more effective and easier to slog through. So why are we still a nation of out-of-shape slobs? A quick jog through the history of exercise might reveal some answers.

3000 B.C. To The Middle Ages: The Abs of the Ancients


Exercising is a modern indulgence. For early man, fitness was a requirement if you wanted to stay not dead. You’d use equipment like spears and clubs and rocks, in repetitive stabbing and striking motions, with a heavy emphasis on cardio, sprinting either to acquire your own dinner or avoid becoming someone else’s.

With civilization came regular physical training, in the form of continually prepping for war. Ancient Greece’s original Olympics were nominally about games, but the military focus was clear: chariot racing, wrestling and boxing, throwing javelins and the discus, footraces run with armor and a shield. For non-soldiers, work became less physically demanding as the centuries rolled on. Technological improvements gradually shifted the civilian workforce away from farming and blacksmithing and toward smoothie blending and dance momming, and our bodies began to potato up.


1750-1950: Strongmen Take the Stage

This new leisure time, in the lucky parts of the world that could afford it, started to weigh heavily on the average person’s health. Doctors began stressing the value of vigorous exercise in combating diseases of decadence, and Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt stressed its role in proving one’s mettle. Wrestlers and bare-knuckle boxers drew crowds; circus strongmen pulled train cars full of flappers with their teeth, or something (the details are hazy) and college coeds deemed athletes the absolute dreamiest.

By the 20th century, the publishing industry was busy extolling the benefits of working out to regular people. Charles Atlas, in the 1920s, built an empire targeting “97-pound weakling” boys through ads in the back of comic books. He was succeeded as America’s buffest gym coach by Jack LaLanne, who created what may have been our first health club (in California, naturally) and infomercial (“The Jack LaLanne Show”), which LaLanne produced from 1953 right into the ’80s, when a young Arnold Schwarzenegger took the baton (and accidentally crushed and ate it).


1960s-1980s: Rise of the Gym


There was more to health than muscles, however. Oklahoma doctor Kenneth Cooper, in 1968, released research promoting the benefits of aerobic exercise, and the world’s heart raced. Around the same time, a wildly popular book called “Jogging” introduced a New Zealand phenomenon to Americans. But how to bring aerobic exercise indoors? Entrepreneurs adapted early inventions, like the treadmill, an 1800s gargantuan paddle wheel designed to punish dozens of prisoners at once in order to generate power or grind grain (hence “mill”). Similarly, exercise bikes had been around since at least 1796, in a boxy, steampunk sort of form. Miniaturizing and modernizing these machines gave them relevance in a new world where their punishing monotony could blend seamlessly with newfangled distractions like TV.

The gyms introduced all-new weapons for terrorizing populations too, like Nautilus machines, endorsed by running backs and tennis stars, and built on a logarithmic spiral-shaped pulley wheel that provided variable resistance throughout a single exercise motion. A classic biceps curl is easiest in the outstretched starting position, then increases in intensity; the Nautilus makes the effort uniform. Bowflex featured a similar variable resistance in the form of “power rods.” The two companies are now one.


1990s and Beyond: Dance Revolution

“Jane Fonda’s Workout Video” (1982) was the first wildly popular exercise videotape, but it wasn’t the last; throughout the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s we did Tae Bo with Billy Blanks, got physical with Olivia Newton John, sweated to the oldies with Richard Simmons, cried our way through P90X with Tony Horton. Suzanne Somers’s Thighmaster video featured a folding tension bar you’d squeeze between your knees to get those taut sitcom-actress thighs you always wanted.

Today, home exercise equipment continues to proliferate in an evermore bewildering array. (See “Gym Dandies” below.) You race with specialized rowing and skiing machines. Exercise bikes have flowered into spin classes. There are colorful exercise balls that double as a desk chair/cry for help.

When I look back at the colorful history of man’s attempt to get up off the couch, one thing is clear: Machines are nothing; motivation is everything. A prisoner with two soup cans full of yard dirt to his name can transform himself into The Rock in three-to-five, with time off for good behavior. So whether you drag yourself to a gym or build one at home, whether you bike outside where you can imperil the neighbors or indoors where you can catch up on “Cake Masters,” you just have to find a habit that works for you.

But hurry: February’s coming, and that Valentine’s Day chocolate isn’t going to eat itself.

















The Benefits of a Little Small Talk

Fewer people engage in idle chitchat anymore, but research suggests that making small talk has surprising benefits

Sept. 30, 2016 11:35 a.m. ET

Anyone who passes regularly through busy public spaces knows that one casualty of our obsession with digital devices has been small talk. With our eyes glued to our smartphones, fewer of us engage anymore with people whom we don’t know well. But are we missing something in this loss of idle chitchat?


A growing body of research suggests that small talk has surprising benefits. In a studypublished in 2014 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers found that daily interactions with casual acquaintances, like chatting with your regular barista at the coffee shop, can contribute to day-to-day well-being.


In a series of studies, participants were asked to track their daily interactions with people connected to them by “strong ties” (family and friends) and “weak ties” (acquaintances). On days when participants had more “weak tie” interactions than usual, they reported a greater sense of belonging and happiness. The researchers hypothesize that, like having a diverse financial portfolio, possessing a “diverse social portfolio might make people less vulnerable to fluctuations in their social network.”

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014, another group of researchers looked at interactions among strangers. They recruited 118 commuters at a Chicago-area railway station and randomly assigned them one of three roles: to initiate a conversation on the train, to refrain from any conversation and enjoy the solitude or (as a control group) to do whatever they normally do on their commute. In surveys completed afterward, those who were instructed to engage in conversations with strangers reported “significantly more positive” and “no less productive” commutes than those who rode in solitude.


“Talking with a stranger may not offer the same benefits as talking with a close friend, but we underestimate its importance to us,” says the study’s co-author, Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Dr. Epley traded in his own smartphone for a less distracting featureless phone, which has made him, he says, more open to “wonderful, short conversations with strangers.”


Chitchat is also an important social lubricant, helping to build empathy and a sense of community. It is much harder to snap at a taxi driver for going the wrong way if you have just exchanged pleasantries. “Children learn empathy not just by how we treat those closest to us but also by how we acknowledge the strangers around us,” adds psychologist Richard Weissbourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They “notice if we appreciate the server in a restaurant and say hello to the mail carrier—or if we treat them like they’re invisible.” Small talk, he notes, “can humanize others across the usual divides.”


In settings like parties or events, Dr. Epley recommends starting with the 10/5 rule taught to many hotel and hospitality employees: When you’re 10 feet away, make eye contact; at 5 feet away, say hello. One surefire strategy is to pay a compliment: “I like your bow tie!” People overestimate the social risks involved in small talk, says Dr. Epley: “Most people not only want to talk to you, they’ll wind up confiding things they may not even tell a spouse.”


A few tips for successful small talk:

Find common ground. To strike up a conversation with a fellow party guest, ask, “How do you know the host?” says Frances Cole Jones, author of “How to Wow.” At a networking event, try, “Have you been going to a lot of these types of events? Are there any that you’ve found really useful?”


Commiserate. Frustrating little moments—being stuck on the train, waiting in a long line, dealing with cranky children at the park—are a good time to initiate a conversation. Humor can help: “Um, how many hours left until bedtime?”


Go deep. Instead of going from topic to topic, find one subject and dig deeper, says Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk.” Sports, family and travel are often good topics for sustained conversations.

Embrace ignorance. Small talk is an opportunity to learn something new. If the person sitting next you tells you that he works in renewable energy, admit that you have no idea how wind power actually works, says Chris Colin, co-author of “What to Talk About.” “People appreciate candor and will respond in kind.”

Ask interesting questions. “There’s always a path from generic small talk to something more memorable,” says Mr. Colin. If someone says, “It sure is cold,” you can ask, “What’s the coldest you’ve ever been?”

Exit gracefully. Ms. Fine says that instead of ending abruptly with, “Well, nice to meet you,” subtle verbal cues like “Before we take off” or “Since I only have a few minutes left” send a gentler signal that you’d like the small talk to end.

—Ms. Wallace is a freelance writer in New York.

Graphic from an additional GVWC newsletter blurb
bottom of page