The Evolution Of Fitness In The City

The day is August 12, 2012. The realisation of £20 million is spent, 80,000 people filter through the streets of Stratford, 750 million viewers change channels and the ultimate celebration of sport simmers down to a silence.

At the hands of Damien Hirst, the curtains were drawn on the 2012 Olympics as fans bid goodbye to the thrashing of spikes on track, taming of the seas and rivers and the 27 other sports that culminated in London. The British capital hadn’t welcomed the summer games since rationing was still in issue yet people from every borough, community and street corner were captivated under the banner of ‘Inspire a Generation.’

It well and truly brought sport to the city. Images of Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill atop the podium, Sir Mo Farah clad in the Union Flag and Usain Bolt mopping up gold medals had sport participation shooting through the roof and inspiration bubbling away.


From the literal transformation of a brownfield site, locked in Japanese knotweed and electrical pylons, to the sustainable expanse of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – the games were a breeding ground for rejuvenation. Facilities such as the Copper Box Arena still nurse the rise of boxing stars such as Daniel Dubois and the London Aquatics Centre has school children swimming through the strokes of Rebecca Adlington and Michael Phelps.

And although the Olympic games have always embodied the marriage of sport and urban life, it was perhaps no more apparent than in 2012. It raises the discussion as to sports and recreation’s place in a world increasingly punctuated by the city environment and nine-to-five lifestyle.


In 2010, the population of those living in cities and towns usurped those residing rurally for the very first time with urbanisation plundering its way towards a 70:30 split by 2050. Staying fit and healthy around office jobs, daily commutes and workplace stress is a very real challenge but one to which sport is rising.

The very face of healthy eating and fitness is changing across cities such as London. The premise that fast food is reserved for unhealthy meals is being torn down by companies such as Leon and Pod making the lunch hour a swift and beneficial affair. ‘Fruitful Office’ will even bring as many parts of your five-a-day as possible straight to your desk – an intriguing meeting of convenience and healthy eating.

Fitness and exercise is also evolving in the wake of the nine-to-five with the rise of workouts, before work. Commuters are rolling back their alarms to eat up kilometres on the streets, take to the gym or even rave away the sleep inertia if you’re in the vicinity of Morning Gloryville in Cambridge Heath.

The need for brevity and general want of immediacy with fitness routines has also seen the very nature of how we exercise change - take the advance of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Championed by the ‘Body Coach’, Joe Wicks, the idea of a 15-minute workout with breaks is not only an appealing approach to working out but can be thoroughly effective.

Intense segments of cardiovascular exercise can have a highly beneficial impact on body fat and general fitness with such an impetus on anaerobic respiration. The sheer variety of possible exercises within the training means it can be adapted, as a style, to almost everyone and no environment, or imperative equipment, stands in its way and profits.


Moreover, it’s credit to the unwavering desire to stay in shape that there’s such a variety of fitness classes – from yoga, pilates and poleography – being routinely staged before an office door is opened. The idea of ‘getting it out the way’ and setting oneself up for the day is holding an allure strong enough to tackle early awakenings.

These are growing trends to which the march of technology is not opposed but welcoming and most apparent in the ever-present companions of smartphones. Apps supporting fitness endeavours are rife with the device empowering movement and fitness as opposed to idleness.

The likes of MyFitnessPal serve up quick and convenient fitness plans with not a calorie missed from its extensive database or a single step ignored by its GPS. Married to an app akin to MapMyRun and individual workouts can be analysed in superb detail from your hand with each playlist, route and kilometre tailored.


London certainly isn’t alone in its urban fitness tropes, either. Millionaire cities are rising in each corner of the Far East with Japan and China taking enviable steps towards not only workforce fitness but general employee cohesion.

Born from the reign of Emperor Hirohito, Raijo Tasiou – a Japanese take on Tai Chi – sees labourers undertake 10-15 minute workouts to tackle obesity and fatigue in the work place. It’s an attitude mimicked and extended across the East China Sea with Calisthenics standing as a physical and psychological exercise before opening hours. Everything from enhanced team work, spirituality and clear-mindedness have been cited as benefits.


Sport also has an increasingly adventurous place in city life with the growing role of adventure sports and an infatuation with the high octane.

There’s perhaps no finer example than free-running. Introduced to many by the crane-scaling stunts of Sebastian Foucan in Casino Royale, brutalist architecture and stubborn urban landscapes are taking the role of a concrete jungle gym.

Facilities accommodating the next generation of free-runners are becoming common place in London and its rising acknowledgement as a sport has seen some of the world’s finest athletes fly from the sugar cube houses of Santorini and the precarious scaffolding of Yokohama.


It’s perhaps fitting that for all of the intricacy of free-running, that a movement so close to the complications of urban life focuses so much on the simplest and finest of sporting apparatus – the human body.

Free-running isn’t alone in making the city a home for sport. Marathon participation has soared in recent years with the once ‘exclusive’ London course now a grand meeting of the physically and charitably ambitious. The 2017 race saw a record 40,382 pound the streets with fridge-carrying philanthropists quite literally following in the footsteps of Olympic medalists.

Mountain biking has found a competitive home down the steps of Montmarte, skate parks are filling up in the quirkiest corners of the Southbank and even cliff diving has its place in the city life of Mostar. Some of the world’s great divers – as well as adrenaline seeking tourists – leap from the city’s famous bridge, flanked by homes and businesses just metres to their side.

Fancy skiing in London? Just hop on a train to Hemel Hempstead. Mountain climbing? Take the tube to Bermondsey. The list is endless – with sports born from city environments, refusing to be bound by them and changing their nature for the better in the face of it. If there’s any doubt of sport’s place in the city, then the abundance of case studies certainly isn’t it.


Technology is equally accommodating of adventure sports as it is the rudimental workout, too. Products such as LifeProof phone cases means quick access to text messages, phone calls and emails are as safe and close when you’re zipping through a skate park as you are walking down the street. It’s durability and hardiness proves yet another supporting act for city-bound sports.

The aforementioned and gloriously successful London games undoubtedly served as a catalyst in the UK yet it would be unwise not to look beyond it. As long as the mainstream sports and athletes plant the seed with their inspiring moments and achievements, their example will percolate down to following generations.

The ramifications of city life on the pursuit of good health are merely a challenge to which sport already stands strongly with its perpetual adaptability. Whether it’s a set of crunches before work, a clean salad in the lunch hour or cliff diving and free-running, fitness and sport are very much at home in the city.

Mo Farah
Commonwealth Games
Usain Bolt

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