While not perfect, the following nine individuals are my choice for a short list of important pioneers in weight lifting, body building, aerobics, health, and fitness.
Eugen Sandow The Non Pareil (1867 – 1925) Born in Germany, Eugen Sandow has often been called “Father of Modern Bodybuilding”. Like Charles Atlas, as a youth, Sandow was a great admirer of Greek and Roman statues depicting athletes and gladiators. Sandow is considered to be a pioneer in bodybuilding because he measured statues to determine exact proportions and then worked to develop his own body parts to match them. In his late teens, while performing in strongman shows, he was spotted and taken on by legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld. His big splash in America was at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His intelligence, natural charm, and cultured appearance combined with his astounding physique and strength made him a star. Women actually paid him money for the privilege of feeling his muscles. For the men, he wrote widely on health, fitness, and bodybuilding. He, like Bernarr Macfadden and Charles Atlas offered a mail order course teaching his students how to achieve health and fitness. He eventually opened a progressive fitness club in London which stood in stark contrast to the dank, dark, and sweaty gyms of the day. Through his personality and innovation, he made exercise and physical fitness popular for a broader audience than had previously been reached.
Bernarr Macfadden (1868 – 1955) Born Bernard Adolphus McFadden in the state of Missouri, Bernarr Macfadden changed his first and last names because he felt that the new names had a greater appearance of strength. This was not the only strange activity of the man who advocated regular fasting, and some very esoteric health practices for the day and whose wife called him a kook. He combined his own personal views of fitness training and health practices into an entity he referred to as “Physical Culture” which became the title of his first magazine. He eventually became a bit of a publishing mogul, but was usually considered to be skirting the edges of reality in his obsessive approach to physical fitness. However, he inspired young men like Charles Atlas and brought the idea of health and fitness as a way of life to a broader portion of the public.
Charles Atlas (1892 – 1972) was born Angelo Siciliano in 1892 in Acri, Calabria, Southern Italy. In 1905, his parents emigrated to America with young Angelo. A few years later, he had changed his first name to “Charles” when he won a photo competition in a magazine run by the creator of “Physical Culture”, Bernarr Macfadden. Young Charles was inspired to improve his physique.by Greek statues he saw at the Brookly Art Gallery. His first attempts at fitness was with improvised barbells made of sticks and stones. His observation of animals in the zoo, however, led him to base a series of fitness actions on their apparent means of maintaining their fitness in captivity. He called his discovery Dynamic Tension and went on to market his program to thousands of boys and men. On the path to becoming “Charles Atlas”, he posed for statues of Atlas. Some of which were exhibited in the museum where he found his initial inspiration. At the time of his death, he was still exercising daily and running every other day. His course on Dynamic Tension had been the inspiration for over three million men and boys.
Bob Hoffman (1898 – 1985) Bob Hoffman is considered by many to be “Father of World Weightlifting” and was the founder of York Barbell. He was an athlete, nutritionist, weightlifter, coach and philanthropist. Although an exceptional athlete as a young boy, the mature Bob Hoffman was never a great weightlifter or coach. However, his vision, sense of purpose, and personal belief in the value of weightlifting led him to create York Barbell, a company which was long recognized as the leader in the manufacture of weightlifting equipment and which is still in existence today. while many felt his writings and opinions were “over the top”, his personal bravery and willingness to face adversity was shown not only in his later life as he espoused and defended his positions, but also during World War I where he was awarded three Croix de Guerres with two palms and a silver star from France, The Belgian Order of Leopold by Belgium, the Italian War Cross by Italy, and the Purple Heart by America.
Jack LaLanne (1914 – present) Francois Henri LaLanne, better known to the American public as Jack and considered the “godfather of fitness”, had a widely viewed TV show in the 1950’s. Interestingly, his show was probably seen and followed by more women than men, and he may have been instrumental in promoting the idea that women could “get fit”. Unlike many of the earlier proponents of fitness, Jack LaLanne studied his field very carefully and introduced what he felt his studies told him was the proper way to do things. He is still active in fitness today, marketing a wide line of fitness and nutritional products.
Joe Weider (1922 – present) Joe Weider is probably one of the most easily recognized figures in the field of bodybuilding today. He has been credited with not only being a driving force in the fields of body building and fitness, but has helped the careers of innumerable bodybuilders, not the least of which was a young Austrian named Arnold Schwarzenegger. He began his own fitness career by building his first barbells out of junked car wheels and axles. At age 17, with a stake of $7, he began his publishing career by rolling out the first issue of “Your Physique” in 1939. In 1968, he changed the name of the magazine to Muscle Builder, and in 1982 changed it again, this time to “Muscle & Fitness”. Together with his brother and partner, Ben Weider, Joe Weider founded the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB). His publications now include such diverse offerings as “Shape”, “Men’s Fitness”, “Living Fit”, “Prime Health and Fitness”, “Fit Pregnancy”, “Cooks”, “Senior Golfer”, and “Flex”. Weider now offers a broad range of books on fitness and bodybuilding, nutritional supplements, and bodybuilding and weight lifting equipment and accessories.
Kenneth Cooper (1931 – present) A doctor (MD) and former Air Force officer, Dr. Ken Cooper is probably most widely known for his book, “Aerobics” which was published in 1968 and which was a driving force in getting me interested in fitness. Dr. Cooper’s down-to-earth description of what he called the “Training Effect” as well as a formatted process by which one could achieve health and fitness coupled with vivid descriptions of what the personal effects would be for someone pursuing a fitness program, made his book a success. In fact, some have speculated that Kenneth Cooper’s simple little book, “Aerobics”, may have been the impetus which put physical fitness into the minds and hearts of millions around the world. Today, Dr. Cooper is the head of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas.
Richard Simmons (1948 – present) Flamboyant is one word commonly used to describe the bouncy, incessantly cheerful aerobics guru, Richard Simmons. It has been estimated that Richard Simmons has helped and encouraged people around the world to lose over 3,000,000 pounds through a combination of healthy eating and energetic exercise. Simmons has produced several programs, such as “Disco Sweat”, “Sweatin’ to the Oldies”, and “Stretchin’ to the Classics” that all include his humor and signature high level of excitement. He has created instructional products and programs that range from gentle stretching for the elderly to highly intense aerobic workouts. My wife, who hates exercise, loves Richard Simmons and actually got to where she could follow some very intense routines although she had to begin by sitting on the couch and just making the hand movements.
Jane Fonda (1937 – present) Many would not recognize the famous star of such films as “Barbarella” and “Coming Home”, and daughter of actor Henry Fonda, as a fitness pioneer or guru. For many years she was better known as an actress with a sexy body, a big name, and intense political views. However, beginning in 1982 and continuing into the mid 90’s, Ms. Fonda released several fitness videos which became very popular, particularly with women. In fact, today, many people who know of Jane Fonda know her more as a proponent of fitness, health, exercise, yoga, and aerobics than as a famous movie star. While Jane Fonda made no immediate contributions to the science of health and fitness, she, like Richard Simmons, was able to elevate its stature among a large female audience and helped make it fashionable to work out, sweat, be fit, AND feminine. Jane Fonda may have helped move the public awareness of the value and virtues of exercise and fitness to the point where many people now consider a physically fit woman to be a sexy woman just by virtue of her fitness.