Getting fit for summer

By Mellissa Martinez

Last month, I started a class at The Claremont Club called Bikini Boot Camp. Yes, as grueling as it sounds, a group of dedicated women suffer through 45 minutes of sit-ups, weight lifting and various unimaginable exercises in order to get in shape for summer.

Back in the 1970s, it seemed less complicated to stay fit. One could count calories, jog, jazzercise, pump iron or hop onto the Nordic Track in front of the boob tube. Nowadays, choices include cross-fit, boot camp, yoga, Pilates, Zumba, P90x, Wii Fit, spinning, booty barre and rowing, not to mention gluten-free, wheat-free, raw and other ambitious diets. There is virtually something for everyone.

Surprisingly, we can thank a former President of the United States for the recent evolution of the word ‘fit.’ It comes from the Old English fitten meaning ‘suitable or qualified.’ For centuries it meant ‘worthy, or appropriate to perform a function.’

In 1953, a New York University professor conducted a study in which he concluded that American children were losing muscle fitness (worthiness) because of “the affluent lifestyle of the 20th century.” President Eisenhower took immediate action and, by 1956, he had established the President’s Council on Fitness. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson followed up and, by the end of the 1960s, the Presidential Physical Fitness Award had been created. Kids across America began throwing softballs with vigor, jumping, dashing and jogging in hopes of earning a certificate signed by the President.

Even as late as 1971, the word fitness still had no official dictionary reference to physicality. The Presidential slogan ‘physical fitness,’ however, eventually had its semantic effect. As the nation became more body conscious, ‘fitness’ became synonymous with muscle, very little fat and healthy eating habits.

Representations of fit have also changed throughout the ages. In the 1960s and 1970s, sleek Jack LaLanne epitomized a fine male body. In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, the new male motto seemed to be the buffer, the better. The emergence of ultra-buff role models like Lou Ferrigno, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, later, Vin Diesel defined the ideal for many boys.

The buff-obsessed may be surprised to know that the many meanings of ‘buff’ come from buffalo. In the late 1500s, ‘buff’ referred to the soft leather from buffalo hide. Later it connoted the pale, light color of skin and also nakedness, as in swimming in the buff. In the 1900s, a strong coat, or ‘buff,’ was made from buff leather and used in military uniforms. Volunteer firemen in New York were famous for wearing buff jackets and also for being general fire enthusiasts. This enthusiasm led to the meaning of buff as an expert. Today we have Civil War buffs, history buffs and even exceptionally buff fitness buffs.

The verb ‘to buff’ or ‘to polish, make attractive,’ came about in the late 1800s as people used buff leather to polish delicate items. Much later in the 1980s, the ‘well-built, hunky’ buff came from this association. After all, one is polishing or making the body more attractive when buffing it out, so to speak. Finally, Urban Dictionary and other online slang sources document ‘buff’ as meaning ‘good looking or hot,’ as in “George Clooney is buff!”

As I struggled through boot camp with our strong, tenacious trainer, Stephanie, urging us on, it occurred to me that perhaps there is an easier way to stay fit.

If we simply chose to interpret the word from a historical perspective, we would have another viable option. Instead of lunging, holding plank, running up and down stairs and cutting fat from our diets, wouldn’t it be a lot simpler to behave in a worthy manner and consider ourselves fit for summer?


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