The developing understanding of Human Health and Fitness: 8. The Modern Era

  • Roy J. Shephard University of Toronto
Keywords: Acute infections, Chronic Disease, Doping, Female participation, Fitness testing, Health Care, Insulin, Nutrition, Olympic competition, Paralympics, Physical Education, Rehabilitation, Sports Medicine, Worker Olympiads


During the Modern Era, a growing range of effective treatments for acute disease and improved conditions at work and at home led to a substantial reduction of mortality, particularly in childhood and early adult life. The discovery of insulin also enhanced the prognosis for individuals with type I diabetes mellitus. Developed societies thus saw a substantial increase of average life expectancy, and an overall aging of their populations. But at the same time, a progressive reduction in habitual physical activity and a resulting loss of physical fitness was associated with an increased premature mortality from chronic conditions, particularly atherosclerotic heart disease. The main elements of cardiac, respiratory and muscle physiology had by now been clearly established, and investigators were focussing their research on how these various body systems were affected by vigorous physical activity, both in comfortable and in challenging environments. New methods of counting and identifying leukocytes prompted an exploration of immune function and the impact of exercise upon resistance to infection. There was also a growing understanding of the negative effects of physical inactivity upon cardiac health, and a progressive acceptance of the value of exercise in cardiac rehabilitation. Physical educators continued to rely on simple field tests of an individuals physical fitness, but exercise physiologists began to develop precise, objective and standardized measures of physical function. Politicians showed a wide range of attitudes towards health and fitness, but authors with a strong social conscience prompted improvements in housing, working conditions, nutrition, and social support for the pooer members of society. In most countries with the exception of the U.S., there was a move towards the introduction of universal state-sponsored health care. The Western democracies generally continued to deliver the types of physical education programme that had been initiated during the previous century, although some instructors became increasingly interested in combining physical activity with music. In contrast, new totalitarian regimes saw fitness programming as one more tool to gain control of the population, and their physical education programmes were modified to maximize military preparedness. During the 1950s, field tests suggested that American children were much less fit than their European counterparts, and this spurred development of the Presidents Council on Fitness. National and international competitions were marked by a progressive improvement in athletic records, a gradual acceptance of female participation, and the development of events for those with various forms of disability. However, there was also a growing politicization of the Olympic Games, and for a short time a rival Workers Olympiad served as analternative venue for a substantial segment of the working-class population. The blatant doping of many athletes marred International competition, sometimes with fatal consequences. Beginning in Germany, both comprehensive textbooks and professional associations began to develop a systematic and comprehebsive understanding of Sports Medicine and Sports Science. Activity patterns of the general population were modified by the introduction of paid holidays. New sources of vigorous physical activity included various ball games, roller skating, ballroom dancing, indoor swimming, visits to National and Provincial Parks, mountaineering, orienteering, and Youth Hostelling. However, stadia of ever-growing size, new forms of gambling, movie theatres, radio and television all encouraged the adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle by most of the population.

Author Biography

Roy J. Shephard, University of Toronto
Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education
How to Cite
Shephard, R. (2013). The developing understanding of Human Health and Fitness: 8. The Modern Era. The Health & Fitness Journal of Canada, 6(3), 3-113.

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