Intense and strenuous physical exercise, we may take it for granted, do not go back as far as the days of the cavemen and women, who got all the exercise hey needed in the normal course of things. The Neolithic Age, however, brought in a settled way of life and, with it, a leisured class. Presumably it was among these people that the idea arose of taking measures to keep in trim. By Amenhotep’s time, such measures had become a regular part of a Pharaoh’s activities. And when the Greeks appeared on the historical scene, not only kings but all sorts of people, the low as well as the high, paid their devoirs to the divinity of physical fitness. What is more, they did it just about the same way we do today.
Among the Greeks, physical fitness was not merely a matter of private whim but of public concern: the men had to be in shape, for the national safety more or less depended on how the muscles of their legs stood up to marching and charging and, of their arms, to holding a shield and thrusting a spear. Every Greek city built and maintained at public expense a palestra, a sort of athletic center, where the young and middle-aged took military practice and worked out at track, field, boxing and wrestling; the elderly got their exercise by watching them or by indulging in a sedate game of ball. All this, unhappily, was almost always for men only.
The women were included in but one place, Sparta, where physical fitness was a government regulated way of life, and the total population, like a gigantic training squad, devoted most of its time to beautifying the body. The girls, it was felt, had to be in proper condition to breed the choice specimens that alone could receive the Spartan stamp of approval, and so, together with the boys, they ran, wrestled, and heaved the discus and javelin, sensibly garbed in nothing more than scanty tunics.
Outside Sparta the inclusion of the women met with general understanding, but their style of dress caused much lifting of eyebrows: though the Greeks as a people were casual about nudity, it was, like so much else, a male prerogative.