This is my beautiful Granna! Granna is my mum’s mum and you wouldn’t believe that she’s 92! When I first told Granna that I had started instructing Pilates classes she said “like keep fit?” She wasn’t familiar with Pilates, which was known as Contrology when she was younger and was taught exclusively to dancers until after the 1970’s! Granna’s comment inspired me and I decided to explore the evolution of exercise over the last century. This post looks at women’s exercise in particular*.

The Second World War and Early 1900’s

In the early 20th century when Granna was a girl people still led reasonably active lives and therefore didn’t use gyms. Cars were relatively new around this era, so people travelled by foot and bike much more. Granna would help her mother with household chores such as hand washing clothes. This could be hard work and laborious, but kept the women fit!
Later, when the war erupted, women had to take over the jobs that men left to go to the front line. Many of these jobs were physical. Granna herself was a land girl through the war. She spent a lot of time ‘digging for victory’ and also has many tales of evenings spent dancing with the American soldiers! 
Conscious exercise was not very common in the early 1900’s. Gyms and exercise classes were rare. However, people were moving a lot more with physical jobs, active transport, and active hobbies. 

Post War

After the war women’s role changed again. They no longer had to do the jobs that they’d been doing whilst the men were at war. Conscious exercise started to come into fashion for women.
Curvier figures were the trend so there was a stronger focus on aesthetic benefits of exercise. However sweating and muscle was considered unladylike. As a result, gentle exercises and stretching were popular. A popular move involved holding the arms out to the side and spinning in small vigorous circles. Most large cities held bodybuilding and boxing gyms, but women’s exercise still mostly took place at home. We leave this decade to the echoes of “I must, I must, I must improve my bust!” 


Lots of change came about in this era! Thanks to advances in technology many household chores were made simpler and easier. Most households had vacuum cleaners and dishwashers. Cars and televisions became more widely used and active hobbies fell in popularity. 

This reduction of physical activity coincided with an increase in availability of convenience foods. The UK’s waistline started to balloon. However, the medical professions dismissed the role of exercise in obesity related conditions.

In the 60’s gyms started to become familiar to the general popultation for those who did want to exercise . To start with, they were mostly filled with free weights and dumbbells and not much thought was given to cardiovascular health. However, as their popularity grew, gym equipment became more varied. These types of gyms were more popular with men.

The emphasis was still on appearance for women, who attended “figure salons”. Here they stood on vibrating plates, were wrapped in tight belts, and rolled with massaging tools to passively eliminate fat! 


Fast forward to the 70’s and aerobics is IN! Aerobics was based on research for NASA’s space fitness program. Suddenly. exercise became hugely fashionable, thanks to backing from Hollywood star Jane Fonda. Slim women were desirable and gyms became less welcoming to those who didn’t fit the description. Aerobics classes were filled with thin women in leg warmers, leotards and scrunchies.
The aerobics trend continued in the 90’s. Videos were a useful tool for those who didn’t want or couldn’t get to a gym. I have a fond memory of joining in with my mum exercising to Rosemary Conley videos! During the 90’s spinning and step classes were all the rage.

2000 – Now!

Perhaps as a backlash of the obesity epidemic, exercise seems to have become more intense. Programs like meta fit, P90X, and Insanity  are popular. We are judged and judge others by our bodies. Our society sees slim as healthy, whilst overweight is synonymous with lazy and irresponsible. Most women have been on a diet at least once in their lifetimes in a desperate effort to fit the ‘skinny ideal’.

Technological developments mean that people have access to online workouts on demand. Our mobile phones and smart watches alert us when we have completed our daily steps. Most gyms have a huge array of classes and equipment to try.

Exercise is regularly prescribed to help manage a range of conditions. The holistic benefits of exercise are recognised and it is encouraged to improve mental health.

The Future?

Exercise is becoming more and more equal between the genders. There are more opportunities for girls and women to participate in sports that were historically “for men”. There is still work to do in breaking barriers for women in sport, and especially for women from minority groups. Society’s emphasis is still on exercising for appearance over health. However, body positive movements are inspiring discussions and representation of different bodies is improving. 

So what will fitness look like? At the moment our smart phones monitor our vital signs but scientists are developing epidermal electronics that stick to your skin and collect data on your fitness! These wearables may eventually be able to harness the energy you generate to use as electricity. 

Drones could become our future running buddies. The drone flies just slightly ahead of you as you run to motivate you to go further. Similarly virtual reality and apps can make exercise more appealing by adding a fun factor.

The possibilities for future exercise are endless. It will be fascinating to see where we go from here!

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