On the History of Fitness: A Look at Popular Trends

Source: Collector's Weekly

Source: Collector’s Weekly

Ever wonder what crazy ideas people came up with to improve their fitness? Here, we take a step back in time to see what some of the craziest and funniest trends were in fitness history.
Belt Vibrators
Source: Kansapedia, Kansas Historical Society

Source: Kansapedia, Kansas Historical Society

Belt vibrators or exercisers were pitched to the public as a way to get maximum exercise whilst exerting little effort. These machines were meant to massage people into a healthy body, operating under the pretense that massages were linked to improved mental fatigue, cleansing of bodily toxins and better circulation. The popularity of belt vibrators has fluctuated throughout the 20th century, with their peak in popularity being between 1900 and 1930. They made a comeback in the 1950s and 1960s and were popular with doctors and spa owners, who believed that machines could deliver better and much more efficient massages than people. Since a key draw of belt vibrators was their claim to improve mental health, these machines were targeted at white-collar workers, who would return home mentally exhausted after work.

Zander Therapy Machines

Named after Swedish physician Gustav Zander, Zander machines were popular with the American business class during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These machines were believed to improve the overall wellbeing of people and as Zander explained, “prevent against the evils engendered by a sedentary life and the seclusion of office.” Unlike belt vibrators, Zander machines were marketed towards the American upper class and began to appear in the first gymnasiums and health spas.

Source: Cabinet Magazine

Source: Cabinet Magazine

With their rise in popularity in the United States, Zander machines and access to them became markers of status at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike in Sweden, where gymnasiums were subsidized by the state, Americans had to pay to use Zander machines in fitness facilities. Zander machines were marketed towards the American upper class due to the belief that the American working class were already physically fit because they do not sit in an office. With the rise of the Zander machines in the United States, body power shifted from labourers to upper class office workers.
Zander machines are credited as the historical equivalent of today’s Stairmasters, Cybexes and Pilates equipment.


Here’s an invention that we can proudly call our own. Invented in 1984 by Canadian chiropractor Dennis Colonello, the Abdomenizer was a flat, saddle-like piece of thermoformed plastic with handles and a tailbone depression. In its first infomercial broadcasted in 1988, the Abdomenizer was marketed as a way to “rock, rock, rock your way to a firmer stomach.” The product was advertised as “designed to protect the lower back during sit-ups.” Though these are no longer sold, 1.5 million Abdomenizers were sold from TV infomercials (the product’s primary focus of marketing) and another 2 million were sold in stores by 1992.
Here is one of the informercials we would have seen for the Abdomenizer.


The Relax-A-Cizor is an Electrical Muscle Stimulator. The device is a series of wet pads strategically placed so that one is able to strap the device onto their stomach, head, chest, thighs, arms and pretty much anywhere. The Relax-A-Cizor is meant to “reduce girth by giving electric shocks to the muscles” and does this by sending electric shocks (via a cord attached to a power source) through the wet pads and into the body. By shocking oneself in specific places on the body, this product was believed to achieve a slimmer figure. Sold from the 1940s up to the 1970s, the Relax-A-Cizor was selling for up to $400. Sales of the device were stopped in 1971, when they were banned by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) for causing and aggravating medical conditions.

Source: Science Blogs

Source: Science Blogs


Believe it or not, yawning was actually considered an exercise trend in the early 1900s. In a news article published by the British Colonist on June 19, 1910, Dr. Emil Bunzi of Austria was quoted as recommending yawning as a “valuable exercise for the respiratory organs.” According to Benzi, “yawning brings all the respiratory muscles of the chest and throat into action, and is, therefore, the best and most natural means of strengthening them.” A treatment was suggested in the newspaper, “consist[ing] of from six to eight yawns, each followed by the operation of swallowing.” Though yawning is now thought of in a much more casual manner, it appears this wasn’t the case in the early 1900s.