Sweat and Corsets

Today, working out and taking exercise has become a way of life. Pictures from the gym, from races and fun-runs, of personal trainers and exercise retreats now fill the timelines and news-feeds of social media. But the way in which we exercise also reflects the development of technology.

4 May – 18 September 2016

The gyms of today have developed from a prototype designed by Doctor Gustaf Zander more than 150 years ago. This is an exhibition about his medico-mechanical gymnastic apparatus with which visitors to his gym – smartly dressed in suits and corsets – improved their bodies with exercises such as arm-twisting, thigh-chopping and the vibrating horse-rider.

Zander was born in Stockholm in 1835. In 1857, when working as a gymnastics teacher, he realised that he didn’t have enough time or energy to teach all of his students properly. His solution was to build a number of appliances made of wood, which he equipped with weights, levers and springs to provide a force of resistance. Each person was individually instructed by Zander on how long they should use each piece of equipment – in much the same way as today’s personal trainers organise an exercise programme. To begin with, these fitness machines were manually operated by muscle power. From 1868, however, steam engines were added to the gymnastic apparatus and, in the 1890s, these were replaced by electric motors.

Zander Institutes

The first Zander Institute opened in Stockholm in 1865. The Institute could be used by both women and men, who came for exercise, strength-training and for rehabilitation. The gym was divided into two separate sections, where women exercised in corsets and stays, while the men wore waistcoats and suits. The Zander Institutes were successfully exported worldwide. In 1911, there were 300 Zander Institutes around the world. Even on the Titanic, there was an exercise room featuring Zander’s gymnastic apparatus.

In today’s society, there is often a quite frantic approach to exercising. At the same time, however, we have major problems because of poor eating habits and a lack of physical activity. This situation causes obesity and an increase in cardio-vascular diseases. Zander exploited the technology of his time to increase the health of a greater number of people by adapting his methods of exercise to meet people’s individual requirements. Could physical education in the schools of today be made more fun by using modern technology?

Nowadays, there are a number of gyms that cater for visitors with different functional needs. Exercise is important to prevent injuries that can occur from an imbalanced use of muscles. Today, there are even psychological gyms that have a focus on exercising the psyche. Psychological gyms, yoga mats connected to mobile phones, lots of different fitness apps, sports clothes with in-built technical functions and pulse-monitoring watches are here to stay. Amid all these developments, one thing is certain: exercise and technology belong together.

Last updated 25 July 2023.