History of Gyms in the United States


by Dave Spector




Exercise has become a multi-billion-dollar industry with no signs of decline. Because lifestyles have evolved in such a way as to be primarily sedentary in the United States, the need for gyms and other workout facilities has risen tremendously over the years. People flock to these meccas of personal fitness in droves. You can find people pedaling on workout cycles, enjoying group classes, swimming laps, and so much more. While people can easily get enough physical activity to stay healthy by walking and doing bodyweight exercises at home, the appeal of structured fitness activities and facilities has people spending a lot of money.
Going to the gym is almost seen as a badge of honor nowadays. People pat themselves on the back for their commitment to exercise, get stronger, and even lose weight when needed. Not only that but there is a hierarchy of gym facilities as well. People who go to premier clubs are known to have more money, and thus more prestige than those who frequent more affordable gym locations. Fortunately, there aregym classes for people of almost any socioeconomic class, and going to the gym can be as simple as finding a place right up the road from your residence or workplace.
Gyms Go Back as Far as the 1820s
The concept of gyms overall goes back as far as2,000 B.C in ancient Egypt and maybe even older than that. In the United States, early settlers tried hard to create fitness facilities in the 1820s. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t take root until later. John Neal is noted as being someone who tried to bring the idea of gyms from Europe and into the United States. While of course, the equipment looked far different from what we see today, gyms have always had a similar function which was to improve strength and stamina. Additionally, in our culture now, the added function to help people lose weight is also quite prevalent.
The YMCA First Opened in 1851
The YMCA is considered the first official gym in the United States although another facility was actually opened in Cincinnati a few years earlier in 1848. What we know now as a family-friendly facility that offers everything from swimming pools and fitness classes to after-school programs and summer camps, started as a place to develop greater fitness. The use of ladders, rings, ropes, and other similar equipment may feel more like a modern gymnastics training facility than a regular workout gym.
In the 1920s Gymnasiums Became Common in Public High Schools
During an era of great prosperity following the first world war, many locations instituted gymnasiums into the public school system. The idea was to bring exercise to the students and to introduce them to gym environments. This grew in popularity and eventually all public high schools had their own gymnasium with fitness classes and exercise equipment.
Televisions Offered Women Exercises to do at Home
As more and more people started owning television sets at home, stay-at-home wives and mothers were targeted for exercise programming through The Jack Lalanne Show in the 1950s. This normalized much of the exercise culture we see today. Women were given specific routines to help them stay looking fit and healthy. This show actually ran for decades, ending in 1985. Jack Lalanne was known as a fitness guru and many people watched and participated in his shows.
The First Club Chain Opened in 1962
Do you remember Bally’s? They were the first club chain to go public in the United States. They eventually took over Health and Tennis in 1982 and then rebranded into one cohesive company that is known worldwide as Bally’s Total Fitness. Gold’s Gym is another early gym company. They opened in the United States in the 1960’s and have always had the image of being for bodybuilders. While they’ve since tried to rebrand, most people associate them with bodybuilding.
Motivations and Hindrances Gyms Face Throughout History
There are many reasons thefitness industry experiences peaks and valleys in business. The two major influences are consumer-based. Firstly, as the new year rolls in and people are pledging their New Year's resolutions. Secondly, men and women alike have been motivated to hit the gym for decades in order to get their beach bodies in shape for summer. Consumer motivation to get healthier and in shape whether for vacation, reunions, or resolutions will always be a factor in the history of gyms.
Yet, there are other factors that have influenced gym history that have nothing to do with getting consumers into the gym. Take for example, the pandemic.  Covid-19 put an unprecedented deathgrip on gyms and fitness centers around the world due to mandatory shutdowns and other social distancing regulations.
In turn, gyms experienced a hefty setback in their evolution through history as the pandemic took its toll on business. In fact, according to Club Industry News, 22% of gyms in the US were forced to close since Covid-19 reared its ugly head, amounting to an almost $30 billion dollar loss in revenue during the height of the pandemic.
The Future of Gyms
The advent of the internet has become a tremendous solution for many fitness experts and gym owners - especially in answer to the pandemic.  To explain, many gyms started providing online fitness tutorials and workout sessions. This allowed gym members to maintain their fitness routine, while gym owners were able to stay afloat with gym memberships or pay-per-view workout sessions online.
Moreover, technology has revolutionized the gym world over the last 30 years. Not only are classes available online, high tech is also providing vital fitness advancements.  For instance, sensors in workout equipment can provide gym members with accurate feedback such as heart rate, oxygen levels, calories burned and more. Technology-integrated gym equipment has helped gyms stay relevant, as well as boost memberships. 
In conclusion, gyms face the unique struggle to remain on the cutting edge in the fitness industry.  Today, technology such as online instruction or science-driven health monitoring tech can be a real boon to modernizing and upgrading traditional gyms.
While there will still be a need for old-school facilities, the history of gyms has changed dramatically over the last three decades. Most of these changes are fueled by consumer demand. However, gym owners are also harnessing the power of technology to stay pertinent in these ever-changing times we live today.