The developing understanding of Human Health and Fitness: 2. Early city life.

  • Roy J. Shephard University of Toronto
Keywords: Assyria, Babylon, China, Egypt, India, Recreation, Sedentary pursuits, Sport, Yin, Yang, Yoga


This article examines the effects upon health and fitness of a transition from a hunter-gatherer life to an agricultural and/or pastoral society. Data are considered from Simeria/Assyria/Babylonia, Egypt, Israel, India and China. In many of these regions, fertile alluvial flood plains and the development of skills in irrigation facilitated the emergence of large cities. Agricultural surpluses fostered the appearance of class structures, often with an elite ruling class, government officials, soldiers to protect and augment the new-found wealth, common labourers and slaves from subjugated territories, each with specific health and fitness needs. Occasionally the ruler was expected to demonstrate physical prowess, and the elite pursued hunting and other sports for pleasure. However, spectator sports, feasting and sedentary games brought obesity to many of the elite, with the appearance of lifestyle diseases such as atherosclerosis. Soldiers typically wore heavy clothing and carried heavy weapons, with fitness maintained by a combination of military duties and sports. Heavy occupational work was required of labourers and slaves, making it likely that they also were fit. However, this phase of history saw a gradual increase in passive transportation, and the introduction of waterpower as an early harbinger of industrial mechanization. Illness was generally attributed to offences against the gods and/or an imbalance of poorly understood body humours. Physicians emerged from the priesthood with a healing repertoire that included herbs and some forms of surgery, plus a heavy reliance on magical incantations. Only a few lone voices from this era advocated exercise for its health benefits. The Indian physician Sushruta stands out from his colleagues for recommending physical activity in the aerobic training zone.
How to Cite
Shephard, R. (2012). The developing understanding of Human Health and Fitness: 2. Early city life. The Health & Fitness Journal of Canada, 5(1), 27-46.