clock menu more-arrow no yes
A woman riding a Peloton exercise bike and an archival photo of a woman on a treadmill.
Peloton’s connected spin bikes and retro treadmills have a lot in common.
Courtesy Peloton (left); Getty Images (right)

How the gym came home

From kneading machines to the “Swiss Army knife approach to exercise”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak surfaced in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given daily press briefings with guidance on acceptable activities under stay-at-home and social-distancing orders. One of them, in mid March, turned to his fitness routine.

“Have you been using the gym?” a reporter asked.

“Are you asking me if I go to a public gym?” Cuomo replied. “No, I have my own workout routine that I have developed over a number of years that I do alone. So I don’t do it in the gymnasium.”

While the exact composition of Cuomo’s workout is still a mystery to me, his former residence offers some clues. (Requests to his press team went unanswered; they must be busy with something else.) The real estate listing for the Westchester home Cuomo once shared with his former partner Sandra Lee shows a workout room replete with a treadmill, running shoes, dumbbells, boxing gloves, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and an excessively large mugshot of Jim Morrison. Picturing an elected official sweatin’ to the oldies under the cold stare of the Doors’ frontman isn’t a mental image I thought I’d ever have, but here we are.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed countless aspects of our daily routines, including how we exercise: More of it is happening outside or at home. Smart bike sales are booming. Health and fitness app downloads are up 40 percent on Google Play and 30 percent on iOS compared to the same time last year. Nintendo’s Ring Fit is sold out. Instagram is serving me ad after ad for home gyms that disappear into minimalist full-length mirrors. I’m sure many people who have treadmills, like Cuomo, are now putting extra miles on them.

This all got me wondering: How did all of this equipment wind up in our homes in the first place? The story involves the evolution of technology, medical advancements, the emergence of the middle class, prison torture devices, and wallet-draining fad after fad after fad.

Exercise as a concept dates back to ancient times. Sushruta, an Indian physician, prescribed exercise as a form of medicine to his patients in 600 BC. The Greeks built gymnasiums for male athletes and invented an early form of dumbbells. The emergence of orthopedics as a science led to the 1796 invention of the gymnasticon, an early form of a stationary bike. In 1818, the British civil engineer Sir William Cubitt invented the “treadwheel”—a large wheel paddle wheel that the user rotated by stepping on the paddles—as a punishment for the incarcerated.

A row of men march side by side on a torture device from the 1850’s. Archival image.
Prisoners at a house of correction in Brixton in south London are forced to walk on a treadmill.
Getty Images

It wasn’t until the Victorian era that exercise, and particularly exercise equipment, became a nascent version of recreational, social, and leisure activities we know today. The Physical Culture Movement in the United States began due to concern over “diseases of affluence.” In other words, there were more white-collar workers after the Industrial Revolution and they were leading sedentary lives. Exercise was still viewed as a type of medicine, as it had been since Sushruta’s times, but it was transitioning from specialized facilities into the home with this new fitness frenzy. An 1897 article in The Rambler, for example, explored “the curious domestic uses of the bicycle.”

A field known as “mechanotherapy” emerged during the late 1800s and gave rise to strange-looking equipment that used machines to supposedly cure disease. A pioneer of this industry was Dr. Gustav Zander, a Swedish physician who believed that machines could promote health and healing with less exertion by his patients. His physical therapy devices included vibrating exercise machines, stationary bikes, “kneading” machines (aka massagers), and adduction equipment.

In 1861, the self-described “orthopedic, anatomical, and gymnastic machinist” Gustav Ernst published the best-selling book The Portable Gymnasium, a manual of exercises to use with his invention of the same name. In the manual, Ernst described a 6-to-9-foot-tall mahogany pedestal, which was secured to a wall and contained various ropes, pulleys, and weights, and wrote that the machine should enable every family to complete the same exercises taught in public or private institutions.

An archival magazine ad for a vibrating saddle
Vigors Horse Action Saddle promised to “bring vital organs into inspiriting action.”
Universal Images Group via Getty

While Ernst’s and Zander’s machines look like steampunk versions of today’s Bowflexes and Nautiluses, other machines from the same era were a bit stranger. Consider Vigor’s Horse Action Saddle, a vibrating contraption marketed as “horse exercise at home” and a “complete cure” for obesity and gout. I showed one of the saddle’s ads to a friend, who called it out as a Victorian sex toy. She wasn’t wrong; The saddle also treated “hysteria” and promised to “bring all the vital organs into inspiriting action.” She was reminded of an episode of Mad Men in which Peggy writes ad copy for a vibrating weight-loss belt. Upon testing it, Peggy discovers that it makes more sense as a sex toy.

The next major shift in home exercise came in the post-World War II years alongside the American economy’s transition to a consumer culture. Many of the specialized machines invented during the Victorian era were reintroduced as convenience products for the average person. Belt vibrators from the likes of Sears Roebuck and Master Craft were dead ringers for Zander’s physical therapy devices. You can still find some of these collector’s items for sale on eBay. These products were often risky. The Relax-a-Cizor—a vest and belt that claimed to burn fat from electric shocks and sold between the 1950s and 1970s—was so dangerous the government banned it for causing miscarriages and hernias.

Between 1948 and 1955, two-thirds of American families bought a television, and with this new technology came a new way to exercise: through the screen. In 1951, the first episode of the Jack LaLanne Show aired; it taught calisthenics to millions of viewers until its last episode in 1985. With the invention of the VCR came videos like Richard Simmons’s Sweatin’ to the Oldies series, Jazzercise (which began in studios but moved into homes), and Jane Fonda’s Workout. Growing up, I remember coming across episodes of Sit and Be Fit when I was channel-surfing for cartoons.

A flamboyant fitness instructor wearing a pink tank top and striped white and pink mini-shorts stands with his arms stretched wide in front of a group fitness class mirroring his movement.
American fitness coach Richard Simmons.
Sygma via Getty Images

Changes in commerce affected home fitness too. The home shopping network QVC launched in 1986, and ads for Total Gym—the incline trainer made famous for its celebrity spokespeople like Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley—would become the longest-running infomercials in the channel’s history after first airing in 1996, selling over 85 million units. Marketing emphasized that home fitness could be done while multitasking, as was the strategy with the Suzanne Somers-approved Thigh Master.

The home exercise trends today are pretty similar to the past—stationary bicycles, treadmills, weight-and-pulley systems—but are remixed to reflect the technology and living spaces we’re accustomed to. One product that’s emblematic of this shift is Forme Life, a new home fitness system designed by Fuseproject, the San Francisco-based studio behind slick products like the Snoo and the Jambox.

Fuseproject founder Yves Behar describes Forme as a “wellbeing station”—a nod to the recent emphasis on health as being about mind and body. On its surface, Forme looks like a very beautiful, minimalist mirror that’s designed to blend into apartments. It’s as compact as possible because of smaller apartments and the reality that most people don’t have space for a separate workout room. The mirror—essentially a large screen that is the user interface for the system—hides a cable system for resistance workouts and a drawer for yoga accessories. Behar calls it “a Swiss Army knife approach to exercising.”

“You compare this to the single-use machines that are large scale and that have been sold for years on infomercials: Those tend to collect dust, take up space, and become unsightly,” Behar says. “We focused on a modern life.”

Minimalist aesthetics aside, one of the most modern aspects of the system is that it offers AI-powered personal training to replicate the one-on-one relationship a person might have with an actual personal trainer.

A fit young woman does upward facing dog on a yoga mat in front of a mirror that looks like a large smart phone. She’s in a minimally decorated space that feels open, light and airy.
The Forme, a new home fitness and wellness product, offers an AI personal trainer.
Photography by Peter Belanger. Courtesy of Forme Life, fuseproject.

What’s fascinating about this product is that when you strip back the tech, it’s a lot like Gustav Ernst’s Portable Gymnasium—they’re both intended to be used by an entire family, they both involve cable systems, and users can do many different exercises with them—except instead of being encased in a mahogany pedestal, it’s in a smart mirror.

Since stay-at-home orders and the closure of nonessential businesses like gyms began, home exercise changed again. While people with means rushed to buy flashy new equipment—as Curbed SF Editor Brock Keeling keenly observed in late March—the rest of us have gotten creative with what we already have.

Many fitness studios and gyms have pivoted to digital classes and workouts. My roommate took advantage of Peloton’s 90-day free app trial to stream aerobics classes in our living room. For now, propping a laptop on a dining chair to watch an instructor lead sets of mountain climbers suffices.

I’ve never enjoyed exercising in my apartment, since planking or lunging while someone else is making dinner or watching TV feels needlessly awkward to me. But these days, I’ve unfurled my yoga mat for stretches, and maybe even a sun salutation, or two after walks or bike rides. At this moment, it feels much less awkward than before—and certainly less tortuous than running on a treadmill while staring at a dead rockstar.