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How Leonardo da Vinci stayed in shape?

The workout secrets of 5 historical figures

In an era dominated by high-tech home gyms and viral workout videos, the pursuit of physical fitness may seem like a distinctly modern preoccupation. But physical activity has long been an integral part of daily life. From ancient philosophers sculpted by rigorous training to intellectuals who advocated for the importance of diet and exercise as part of a holistic approach to well-being, history is filled with people who placed a premium on their physical fitness.

Here are five renowned historical figures who aren’t typically remembered for their athleticism, but whose commitment to exercise profoundly influenced their lives. The paths they took to stay physically fit varied widely, reflecting the diverse approaches people have taken to fitness throughout history.


Plato, one of the three ancient Greek philosophers (along with Socrates and Aristotle) attributed with building the philosophical foundation of Western culture, was educated in both mental and physical pursuits. Like other Athenian boys, Plato was trained in a variety of physical activities, including gymnastics, wrestling, archery, boxing, and riding. His given name was Aristocles, but it may have been his broad-shouldered physique that earned him the name Plato, from “platos,” the Greek word for “broad.” Before turning to philosophy, Plato put his physicality to use as a skilled wrestler competing in the Isthmian Games, an event similar to the ancient Greek Olympics. “Lack of activity destroys the condition of every human being,” he wrote, “while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it.”

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci not only is recognized as one of the great artists of the Renaissance era, but also represents the archetype of the multitalented “Renaissance man.” Best known for his paintings, including the enigmatic “Mona Lisa” and the iconic “Last Supper,” Leonardo was fascinated with the human form, an interest that can be found throughout his artistic and scientific work. His belief that the human body represented a microcosm of the universe is reflected in his oft-reproduced “Vitruvian Man” sketches, which depict what he believed to be the ideal male body. In his own lifetime, Leonardo was known for hisathleticism and strength, and his superior physical fitness can be attributed to a number of athletic pursuits, including fencing, riding, and swimming.

Mary Wollstonecraft

As a pioneer for women’s rights in the late 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft was concerned about women strengthening their bodies as well as their intellect. She saw physical exercise as a means of empowerment and liberation from societal constraints and believed that physical activity not only strengthened the body but also cultivated mental fortitude and independence. “The woman who strengthens her body and exercises her mind will, by managing her family and practicing various virtues, become the friend, and not the humble dependent on her husband,” she wrote in her 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft incorporated rigorous physical activity into her own life, which included taking long walks and horseback riding through the countryside.

Theodore Roosevelt

After a childhood plagued by severe asthma,President Theodore Roosevelt, known for being an outdoorsman and conservationist, pushed himself physically to maintain his health and build his physical strength and stamina. To that end, he pursued a number of challenging activities, including horseback riding, boxing, climbing, polo, swimming, tennis, and martial arts such as jiujitsu and judo. In fact, Roosevelt’s interest in martial arts led him to become the first American to earn a brown beltin judo. During his years in the White House, Roosevelt even had a boxing ring where he could train or spar with professional boxers, such as John L. Sullivan. 

Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini’s name is synonymous with magic. The enigmatic illusionist’s awe-inspiring ability to escape from seemingly impossible situations captivated audiences, but behind his feats of illusion was a rigorous dedication to staying in peak physical condition. Before he became a world-famous magician, Houdinitransformed himself physically through weight lifting, swimming, running, and boxing. As a magician, his training regimen included cold water plunges as well as exercises to enhance his dexterity, flexibility, strength, and breath control, enabling him to contort his body, navigate confined spaces, and hold his breath for more than three minutes.

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