Gymnasiums began as venues for gymnastics – systems of physical exercise developed in Europe in the early 19th century that encompassed a wider range of activities than later gymnastics did. Gymnastic exercises were inspired by ancient Greek models, and emphasised moral as well as physical virtues. The self-denial and suffering involved in intensive exercise were seen as a price that must be paid for personal vanity or patriotic duty.
A public gymnasium opened in Paris in 1842, and over the next two decades many gymnasiums were set up in the cities of Europe and North America.
Some thought gymnasiums would help combat the evils of urbanisation. In 1894 the New Zealand surgeon and politician (and later eugenicist) William Chapple remarked that ‘one well-equipped gymnasium exerts a greater influence against social vice than one sensational sermon.’1
New Zealand’s first gymnasium (gym) may have been the school opened by J. H. Rule in Sydney Street, Thorndon, Wellington, in December 1842. ‘Combining physical exercise, intellectual improvement, and religious training,’ its facilities included a ‘swinging poll for gymnastic exercise and amusement.’2
In 1866 an Auckland Gymnastic Club was formed with Major Gustavus von Tempsky as president. Also in the 1860s Harold Palmer opened a public gymnasium in Christchurch. Oscar David ran a gymnasium for Dunedin businessmen in the 1880s.
The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) promoted gymnastics and physical culture for young men. In the 1860s the Auckland YMCA imported gymnastic equipment from the United States, and in 1884 the Christchurch YMCA erected a gymnasium at a cost of £191 (equivalent to $33,000 in 2013). ‘Professor’ Carrollo’s Gym at the Auckland YMCA and classes at Whanganui’s Young Men’s Institute were in operation before the turn of the century.
Christ’s College in Christchurch had a gymnasium from 1876, initially with a floor made from wattle bark. In the 1880s instructor Jock Hanna was behind the building of around 20 halls as gymnasiums in Otago schools. This set a precedent for the gradual acquisition of gyms by other public and private schools around the country.
Bodybuilding was popularised by touring showmen such as Prussian Eugen Sandow, who toured Australasia in 1902–3. Gymnasiums and physical culture classes were soon flourishing all round New Zealand.
Minister of Internal Affairs William (Bill) Parry was remembered as a large man who enjoyed and was proud of keeping fit. He set up a gym in the basement at Parliament, and colleagues could often hear him thumping the punchbag.
Jack Hanna, the son of Jock Hanna, who had built numerous gyms in Otago schools, ran a ‘School of Physical Culture’ in Dunedin’s Burns Hall in the first half of the 20th century. His Thursday afternoon businessmen’s class ‘was attended by about twenty or more of some top men in Dunedin … His programme consisted of a burst of freestanding, a spasm of apparatus and a game of scrag (i.e. basketball without any rules!)’1
A similar establishment, Baldock Institute in Dunedin, operated from about 1930 until 1986.
Jenkins Gym was founded in Wellington in the 1920s and was still going at a Lower Hutt venue in 2013. As well as providing facilities for weight training, this gym – like others – entered teams in basketball and other sporting competitions. Jenkins and gyms like it were initially no-frills, weights-oriented and male-only. Many emphasised boxing.
Vigorous exercise for girls and women was still a novelty in the years following the First World War. That was when the Auckland YWCA advertised ‘The First Gymnasium in Australasia exclusively for Women. Classes for Growing Girls, Employed and Leisured Women, Special Remedial Work. Tired Housekeepers, Teachers, Business Girls and Children.’2
Fitness classes for Christchurch women were offered from 1900 by instructors Madeline Nunneley, Miss Lowe and Fred Hornibrook. Hornibrook established the New Zealand Physical Culture Association in 1911, catering for both men and women.
In 1918 the new headquarters of the Auckland Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) incorporated a large gym, and soon female members were able to take classes in ‘ju-jitso (judo), folk drill, games to music, signalling, gymnasium work and Swedish drill.’3
Later the YWCA introduced women to the regimes of the British Women’s League for Health and Beauty, formed in London in 1930. The exercises (‘fizzy jerks’) were done to music and designed to get results in a minimum of time.
Both world wars sparked concerns for the physical health of the nation. In 1938 the Physical Welfare Branch was set up within the Department of Internal Affairs by its minister William Parry to promote health and fitness. The government hired halls for public service keep-fit classes. Men and women attended the lunchtime and early evening classes in their hundreds, and exercised to music.
Physical welfare officer Roy Sheffield set up an ‘indoor sports centre’ at remote Te Araroa in April 1948, and a year later juvenile delinquency statistics there had dropped.
The YWCA introduced ‘Keep Fit’ classes for women in the 1950s.
As boxing and weightlifting declined in popularity after the Second World War gyms were increasingly taken over by bodybuilders – people who might once have pursued other sport and fitness options.
Les Mills opened its first gym in Victoria Street, Auckland, in 1968. Phillip and Colleen Mills introduced New Zealanders to Jazzercise, dance-style exercises to music, which became fashionable through the 1980s.
The dance aspects of Jazzercise and later aerobics appealed to young people in particular. In the words of Phillip Mills: ‘The underlying principle was to make it a buzz to get a room jam packed with people, have a party’.1
The jogging boom of the 1970s further popularised aerobic exercise. By the 1980s ‘aerobics’ described choreographed mass exercise in a ‘fitness centre’, as gyms were restyled. Its exponents promised flexibility, strength and cardiovascular fitness.
The new gym culture, featuring pop music and lycra clothing such as leotards, became mainstream through movies such as Perfect and on-screen tutorials such as Jane Fonda’s workout and Aerobics Oz style. Les Mills’ 1995 slogan appealed to the aspirations of many gym-goers, who were often young urban professionals: ‘Become some body.’
In the 2000s New Zealand had approximately 400 health and fitness centres, catering for 500,000 members and employing some 5,000 staff. Three-quarters of these facilities were privately owned single-site operators. The rest were run by multi-site operators. About half of the centres employed only trainers who were listed on the Register of Exercise Professionals.
Skills Active Aotearoa, formerly the Sport, Fitness and Recreation Industry Training Organisation, created by the government in 1992, was operated by a coalition of industry bodies, and it set standards for the many tertiary qualifications offered in exercise science and leisure studies. The fitness industry’s advocacy and coordinating body was Fitness New Zealand.
In 2012 Les Mills operated 10 sites in New Zealand. Its classes were licensed to 14,000 gyms in 80 countries. Configure Express and Contours (both women-only) were the largest New Zealand-owned franchises, with 30 and 15 sites respectively.
The most striking trend was an influx of overseas franchises. Curves, Jetts, Snap Fitness, and Anytime Fitness were the largest chains. Organisations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), universities and city councils also ran gyms.
Diverse styles were evident in the 2000s. Corporate gyms suffered from the economic recession, but new operators emerged, focusing on weight loss and specific ethnic groups and ages – including babies, pre-schoolers, children and the elderly. Big gyms became bigger; small gyms described themselves as ‘boutique’.
Gyms moved outdoors from the 1990s, as adherents of ersatz-SAS ‘boot camps’ invaded public parks at dawn to undergo punishing drills designed to fit them for the corporate rat-race.
Most gyms incorporated a main workout area with free weights and exercise machines; a cardio area with treadmills, rowing machines, stationary bikes and elliptical trainers; and a large space with a sprung floor for group exercise classes. Some gyms had extra facilities such as swimming pools, saunas, squash courts and solariums. Women’s gyms emphasised circuit training on exercise machines – 30-minute routines that promised quick results.
New exercise trends emerged. In 2013 Les Mills group classes included routines based on aerobic and strength exercises, weights, martial arts, yoga, t’ai chi and Pilates, stationary cycling, steps (a form of cross-training for all fitness levels) and dance. Team training and individual programmes designed by personal trainers were also available.
Many fitness centres also offered other health and wellness services such as nutritionists and physiotherapists. For example in 2013 Flexa Clinic in Northcote, Auckland, offered a 12-week supervised programme of massage, physiotherapy, personal training and dietary change.
It was not just young people who sought the body beautiful: in 2007, 36% of gym goers were aged over 35. Many gyms offered 24-hour access by card, and membership options became more flexible, especially as they could be traded online. One 2008 study categorised 60% of gym-goers as ‘transient’. And, in an indication of the difficulty of keeping to a fitness regime, about 30% of members dropped out each year.
Andrews, Catherine. ‘Become Some Body: A history of aerobics, instruction, and body culture at Les Mills World of Fitness from 1980–1992’, BA(Hons) dissertation, University of Otago, 1995.
Coney, Sandra. Every girl: a social history of women and the YWCA in Auckland 1885–1985. Auckland: Auckland YWCA, 1986.
Daley, Caroline. Leisure and pleasure: reshaping and revealing the New Zealand body 1900–1960. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.
Macdonald, Charlotte. Strong, beautiful and modern: national fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935–1960. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2011.
Stothart, R. A. Rolling forward: a history of New Zealand gymnastics. Christchurch: R. A. Stothart, 1982.