Notion of physical culture: history and origins

PhD, Associate Professor Ya.G. Grigoryan1
PhD, Associate Professor K.V. Bogatyreva1
1I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University of Russia (Sechenov University), Moscow

Keywords: physical culture, physical education, history of physical education.

Background. Physical culture is viewed as one of the key elements of a classical training system geared to form a perfect individual. Although the foundations of physical culture were laid in the ancient tradition, its modern conception was shaped up in the mid-XIX to early XX century. In Russia the term physical culture is found only in the records of early 1900s; and it should be noted that despite the long history of physical culture in practical and theoretical applications, the national research community still differs on its detailed interpretations and origins [1-4]. Difficulties of the physical culture definition and interpretation are somewhat aggravated by its application geography, since the term in the present Russian meaning is little known and virtually unused in the US – in contrast to Canada and many European nations [8, p.10]. The international notions largely synonymic to physical culture in the national meaning are sports, physical education, physical nurturing (PN), body culture, gymnastics, physical activity etc. We have been long interested in the physical culture notion origins and specifics, and offer our analysis herein.

Objective of the study was to analyze the origins and history of the notion of physical culture since the mid-XIX century.

Methodology of the study. Applied for the study purposes were the historical/ genesis analysis and chronological method.

Results and discussion. In our analysis of the origins of the term ‘physical culture; in the English-speaking research communities, we found a piece;Physical Culture adapted to the times’ (1831) by Edward Hitchcock, Chemistry and Natural History Professor at Amherst College [7]. The publication summarizes the Professor/s lectures on diet, regimen and employment delivered to students – where he argues that physical practices harmonized with the intellectual ones form a basis for active longevity, good health and creative energy. The piece is sub-headed by the Plato’s quote ‘ Ought it not to be every where maintained, that a good education, gives the mind and the body all the power, all the beauty, and all the perfection, of which they are capable?’ to underline the connection of physical practices with the notions of physical culture and health.

The great importance of physical culture for the nurturing process is emphasized by the fact that Edward Hitchcock included the above piece in the second updated edition of his book ‘Dyspepsy forestalled and resisted: or, Lectures on diet, regimen, and employment; delivered to the students of Amherst college, Spring term, 1830 [6]. These lectures provide guidance for a healthy lifestyle; analyze the harmful effects of alcohol and drugs on body and mind; and recommend the healthy regimen and diets to prevent and cure dyspepsy with its negative physical and mental effects. It should be noted that the 30-page sixth lecture is totally about physical practices. Edward Hitchcock was very much devoted to physical culture which he interpreted as an indispensable part of an individual cultural self-perfection agenda. ‘Piety promoted by physical culture. Once more; this physical culture of which I speak, would have a most propitious influence upon the piety pf those in the sacred office. Those complaints, which are induced by neglect of this culture, are almost as destructive in their influence upon the religious character, as upon the physical and intellectual ‘[6, p. 372-373].

It was in 1861 that the Physical Culture and Hygiene Sub-department was established at Amherst College, and among its core missions was physical wellbeing of every student, with a special attention to a ‘healthy constitution’, and the university physicians were made responsible for a timely aid to correct the students’ physical disorders and improve health. The College curriculum required that every student (save for those diagnosed with health limitations) should attend the obligatory academic physical practices designed to develop every bodily part. It was underlined in the College policies that the objective of the physical practices is to train the whole body for the harmonized physical and intellectual progress – rather than for training some specific muscle groups for strength and agility. The physical culture course was more than obligatory since the students’ determination and progress in the physical training sessions and their compliance with the hygienic rules was scored and rated in the academic progress reports. The emphasis made since then by the American national education system on the students’ physical fitness viewed as an indispensable part of the academic progress made the physical culture obligatory for academic studies.

Conclusion. The term physical culture was found to first appear in ‘Physical Culture adapted to the times’ (1831) by Edward Hitchcock, Professor at Amherst College in the US who considered physical culture as an inalienable part of an individual cultural self-perfection process. Edward Hitchcock viewed the physical practices, in line with the ancient tradition, as the tool for a harmonized improvement of the student’s physical, intellectual and moral health. Therefore, the notion of physical culture has shaped up and developed since then on in close connections with the notions of culture, health and education.


  1. Evstafyev B.V. Fizicheskaya kultura v mirovoy literature [Physical education in world literature]. Leningrad: VDKIFK publ., 1980, 112 p.
  2. Morozova E.V. Fizicheskaya kultura kak tsennost: sotsiologicheskiy aspekt [Physical education as a value: sociological aspect]. Vestnik Udmurtskogo universiteta. Ser.: Filosofiya. Psikhologiya. Pedagogika. 2012, no. 3-4, pp. 38-42.
  3. Sobyanin F.I. O sushchnosti fizicheskoy kultury (ili k voprosu ob odnoy predlozhennoy diskussii) [The core of physical education (regarding some proposed discussion)]. Teoriya i praktika fiz. kultury, 2010, no.  4, pp. 20-24.
  4. Fedotov E.V., Nazarov Yu.N. Logiko-metodologicheskie i kulturno-istoricheskie osnovaniya analiza ponyatiya ‘fizicheskaya kultura’ [Logical-methodological and cultural-historical basics for analysis of physical education concept]. Nauchny poisk, 2012, no. 25, pp.  60- 63.
  5. Fomin Yu.A. Fizicheskaya kultura (kratkaya istoriya termina i sovremennaya teoreticheskaya traktovka ponyatiya) [Physical education (brief history of term and modern theoretical interpretation of the concept)]. Teoriya i praktika fiz. kultury. 1982, no. 8,pp. 45-48.
  6. Нitchcock Edward Dyspepsy forestalled and resisted: or, Lectures on diet, regimen, and employment; delivered to the students of Amherst college, Spring term, 1830. Amherst.1831. 452p.
  7. Нitchcock Edward The physical culture adapted to the times. An address delivered before the Mechanical Association in Andover Theological Seminary Sept. 21, 1830.  Amherst. 1831. 40p.
  8. Kosiewicz Jerzy Physical culture and sport as a title of a periodical and as a research problem. Physical culture and Sport. Studies and Research.  Warsaw, 2007. Vol. 1 (XLV), pp.9-12.

Corresponding author:


Physical culture is viewed as one of the key elements of a classical training system which mission is to form a perfect human being. Although the foundations of physical culture were laid in the ancient tradition, its modern conception was shaped up in the mid-XIX to early XX century. The article analyzes the history and origins of the notion of physical culture. It was long commonly believed that it first appeared in the late XIX century, since B.V. Yevstafyev and S.T. Shishkin argued that the term first came up in England – reportedly in the works by L. Peerce (1890), J. Mabel (1891), C. Emerson (1891), and Le Favre (1891). Later on B.V. Yevstafyev found that the relevant foreign and national scientific literature and records give no verifiable historical evidence on the actual origins of the term in fact. ‘The research ethics of the author made it impossible for him to believe that the origin of the term was found, and he left the room for further research and solutions’, wrote Y.A. Fomin. Having analyzed the relevant study reports for about 30 years since the latter work was published, we have good reasons to believe that the national researchers have made no progress despite the above encouragement from B.V. Yevstafyev, and it was the reason for our attempt to bridge the gap. Based on the study data and analysis, we found the most likely date of the term coming into practice, its place of origin and its definition and meaning in the research and practical lexicons since the early XIX century; plus traced the origins of the idea that physical culture is pivotal for the individual harmonic and balanced progress in the physical and intellectual domains.