The use of mechanical means for the application of exercise in therapeutics was first systematized and employed in a complete way by Dr, Gustav Zander, of Stockholm, about 1857. Zander’s vision of regular exertion using machines to honor health and well-being was certainly a novel idea in an age when the rising industrialization and mechanization moved millions of people into a more sedentary life.
Incorporating machinery allowed for less exertion, opening up therapeutic movement to those with injuries, deformities, and those just not in good enough shape. Zander devised nearly one hundred machines to give his exercises and manipulations, and his system of mechanotherapy did enjoy wide popularity in Europe and considerable following in North America.
Dr. Gustav Zander came up with a novel approach to physical therapy based on machines that used weights and levers to vary resistance. The lever worked as an extension of the muscle group being exercised. Sliding the weight towards the end of the lever increased resistance, thus increasing muscle workload. Moving it closer created less resistance.
This was revolutionary because it allowed each machine to be adjusted to suit each user’s strength and physical goals. For those with paralysis or extreme weakness, motorized machines kept the affected muscles from atrophying, and some of them even came with massaging rolls.
Even if you look at their design, these early exercising machines look remarkably similar to that of the machines used today in gym clubs, hospital therapy departments, wellness centers, or spas. Each of Zander’s machine models targeted a specific set of muscles or mimicked a precise massage technique intended to help the user.
Zanger started his first wellness institute in Stockholm in 1865 and gained international fame by exhibiting his gym devices at the International Exhibitions in Brussels and Philadelphia in 1876. By the time he released his book, Dr. G. Zander’s medico-mechanische Gymnastik in 1892, the Zander Institutes had gone worldwide. In the 1880s Dr. Zander came to New York to establish an institute near Central Park.
Dr. Zander died in Stockholm in 1920, and unfortunately, his death, coinciding with the after-effects of World War I and the worldwide depression of the 1930s, swept his exercising machines into the backseat of history. However, his revolutionary ideas are still receiving the attention and respect they deserve.
(Photo credit: Tekniska Museet / The National Museum of Science and Technology in Sweden).