If most people are convinced that exercise is important, why are so few actually doing it? By tracing the evolution of exercise in the U.K. throughout the second half of the 20th Century. It is possible to see where things went wrong during and just after the second world war, the UK populations diet was controlled by strict rationing which not surprisingly had a positive effect on the health of the nation.
For the first part of the Twentieth Century most people still led a physically active lifestyle. Hard manual labour was the order of the day, with most people walking or cycling daily to their work place, as famously portrayed in LS Lawrys paintings of Matchstick Men. Therefore few people would have seen the need to attend a Gym. Indeed, they would have been hard pressed to find one. There were no private Health Clubs and no Leisure or Sports Centres. Bodybuilding and Boxing Gyms existed in most large towns and Cities, but these were minority sports and failed to cater for the rest of the population.
The Women’s League of Health and Beauty maintained a large membership during, and beyond the 1940s. During this decade, however, fitness and exercise became more focused upon physical attractiveness. That is, when women weren’t busy taking on the jobs occupied solely by men before the onset of World War II.
In fact, many women were so preoccupied with work that conscious exercise took a backseat, with hard labour and rationing being the things to contribute to better health. Infant mortality declined while life expectancy rose, simply because everyone now had access to a varied diet incorporating enough quantities of the right vitamins.
When exercise did come into the picture, it was carried out in a way that greatly reduced the appearance of sweat or muscle definition. These things were seen as very unfeminine, which meant that genteel home exercises were the order of the day. Archive footage from the time shows women standing on the spot in their bedrooms, in their underwear, rotating the top half of their body from the hips. Other movements involved an early form of sit-up, and touching the toes from a sitting position.
The 1940s also gave way to the ‘I must improve my bust’ movement. The waif-like figure of the 1920s was long gone, and a more curvaceous shape was now seen as desirable. To make this a reality, routines that involved gently rotating each arm like a propeller before rotating both arms while bent at the elbow, were common.
It sounds easy, but try doing it in the heels sported by many women during this era!