How Fitness & Nutrition Have Changed in the Past 50 Years


As fitness and nutrition research methods gain sophistication, ideas about exercise and diet continue to evolve. Major changes occurred in the 1980s, with the founding of certification organizations that sponsored fitness and nutrition research studies. Certified instructors educated the public about current research findings. Technology played a role in information flow by the late 1990s, allowing people to make informed decisions about their diet and workout programs.

The Food Pyramid

Dairy and meat products once formed the base of the food pyramid, followed by fruits and vegetables and grain products. In 1977, the "Dietary Goals for the United States," was created, suggesting that Americans reduce their fat, saturated fat and cholesterol intake, and increase their carbohydrate consumption to 55 percent to 60 percent of daily calories. The United States Department of Agriculture formed an advisory committee in 1989, based on research appearing in "The Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health" and the National Research Council's "Diet and Health" report. These studies provided further evidence of the importance of fruit, vegetable and carbohydrate consumption, and about the relationship between high cholesterol foods and cancer and heart disease. As of 2011, whole grains form the base of the pyramid, followed by fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy products and fat and oils.

Sports Nutrition

Aerobic endurance athletes once believed that they needed a diet based primarily on carbohydrates, while bodybuilders adhered to a high protein diet. This changed in the 1980s, with the development of the sport nutrition field, says Marie Dunford, PhD, RD, author of "Fundamentals of Sport and Exercise Nutrition." The change of sports nutritional theories paralleled changing concepts in conditioning philosophies. Aerobic athletes realized that they needed to add resistance training to their workouts, and bodybuilders learned that aerobic exercise reduced their body fat, adding visibility to their well-developed muscles. These changes in training methods brought about dietary changes. Coaches advised strength training athletes to increase carbohydrate consumption, and aerobic athletes to eat more protein.

Women's Figure Salons

Coed gyms are a product of the late 1970s. Before that, fitness centers had men's and women's days. If men wanted daily access, they joined a bodybuilding gym, and women joined "figure salons," where they placed vibrating belts on their legs with hopes of shaking away the fat, or placed their bellies against wooden rolling machines in hopes of rolling away excess tissue. Exercise classes consisted of high repetition exercises that were supposed to spot reduce the so-called problem areas.

Coed Gyms

While the all-female gym still exists, most larger centers are now coed. Dr. Miriam Nelson, in 1999, wrote the book "Strong Women Stay Young," which suggested weight training as a means of preventing osteoporosis. Both men and women now practice resistance training exercises. Spot reduction was shunned as a myth, and overall weight loss became the focus of trainers.

Aerobic Evolution

Choreographed aerobic classes prevailed in coed gyms in the late 1970s through the 1980s. While some men joined the classes, women were the predominant participants. Step aerobics were introduced in the late 1980s. The athlete movements enticed more men to join the aerobic classes. Indoor group cycling classes also were introduced in the late 1980s. These classes drew even more male participants. During this same time frame, equipment manufacturers introduced new types of aerobic machines. Stair climbers, elliptical trainers and recumbent bicycles joined the treadmills and the upright bicycles.

From Choreography to Core

The words "functional training" became a theme in the mid-1990s, and thus far, the trend has continued in the 21st century. Functional refers to movement patterns that simulate daily activities or athletic moves. Instead of isolating one muscle group, functional integrates movements that teach the body to work as a coordinated unit. This type of training program incorporates balance and core training. Core exercise engages the body's deeper stabilizing muscles, required for maintaining dynamic balance, or balance in motion. Stability balls, the BOSU or half-ball and the balance board are core training tools.