Not so long ago physical activity was the assumed fundamental of human experience. Homo sapiens may have come to dominate the world by applying co-operative brain power, but the vast majority of individual human beings – from hunter gatherers through agriculturalists to industrial workers – spent a substantial part of their daily life in physical toil. Working lives entailed natural fitness

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. I am hunched over a computer screen as
I type this piece. You are sitting comfortably at leisure as you read it. When we want household tasks fulfilled we have homes full of machines to undertake the physical aspects of them. We don’t even stir ourselves to switch a TV channel or turn the heating on, there’s a remote to keep our physical effort to the very minimum. When we go out, we drive a car or let someone else do it for us on public transport; soon the car will drive itself.

The paradox is that, notwithstanding our cleverness in substituting artificial mechanisms for bodily functions, our bodies need to be worked to survive, at least in any degree of health. So welcome to sport, and other forms of leisured physical exercise, as a mass pastime.

In the nineteenth century Britain led the way in developing and codifying ball sports, then exporting them through imperial and trading connexions through the rest of the world: pure sport for its own sake, you might think, though its public promoters already liked to claim virtues of character building and manliness (yes, sport was very much a man’s world) for its practitioners. Elsewhere it was often military concerns which encouraged sporting activity. Armies needed healthy recruits: the Prussians set up mass athletic and gymnastic systems in the interests of toughening their population and other countries followed suit.

Nowadays public health authorities (i.e. in Britain, the NHS) are increasingly joining with sporting bodies in talking up the personal and social benefits of sport for all sections of the community – male and female, young and old, able and disabled. Business corporations, politicians and the media queue up to sponsor and promote.

Freedom Leisure is a not-for-profit organisation that runs sports and leisure centres across the country. You don’t have to be a branding guru to realise that, in name at least, they’re capturing a vibrant market.

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