Do we think of people who keep fit as more successful? The history and politics of an idea. Steven Poole, the Guardian. January 2021.
When did “fitness” become a pastime in itself, an interest separated from any particular physical activity? When people employ a “personal trainer”, what are they training for? What is the thing for which they must sweat to attain a state of perpetual readiness? And when did “fitness” become not just a physical but a moral good, the obligatory aim of every citizen? Luckily this book enables one to approach such mysteries from the comfort of one’s armchair.
The word “fit” appeared in English (as “fyt”) in the 15th century, meaning appropriate or well suited. In Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII, when the king sends for his new secretary, Gardiner, saying “I find him a fit fellow”, he doesn’t mean that the man has admirable cardiovascular capacity. And so something may be fit for a king, or not fit to be repeated, down the ages.
Early on, too, “fitness” acquired a moral patina, as it could mean a person’s worthiness rather than simply suitability, and “the eternal fitness of things” was an 18th-century catchphrase about humans’ correct (“fitting”) relationship with a divinely ordered universe.
Only in the 19th century does “fit” acquire the modern sense of having some athletic capacity, apparently influenced by Darwin’s employment of the term “fitness” in On the Origin of Species, where it describes the likelihood of an organism’s leaving offspring in a particular environment.
According to the OED, the first animals to be described as “fit” in the modern athletic sense were racehorses in the 1870s, followed a decade later by “men and camels”. The word became fashionable: by 1891 a dictionary of English idioms notes that if asked how one is one may reply “Very fit, thank you; never felt better”.