It’s February, which research suggests is a prime month for giving up on your New Year’s resolutions. If your now-defunct goal involved fitness, you’re not alone: the most popular resolutions relate to physical health and weight loss. People have been inventing—and abandoning—new ways to exercise for centuries. We’ve gathered some of history’s most bizarre exercise equipment patents, which may make you grateful for your boring old exercise bike (whether or not you’re actually using it).
Rollerblading on your feet is so 1994. This full-body roller suit allows the user to glide on their knees, their elbows, even their stomach. The patent’s stick figure illustrations demonstrate the infinite possibilities: crab walk rollerblading, side-crawl rollerblading, squat position rollerblading. “The object of the present invention is to propose a new sport involving skill and speed in which the user can move at high speed by rolling on the ground and/or any hard and smooth surface in all positions while constantly varying his 30 bearing points,” the 1999 patent reads. The suit did go into production: check out this video of the inventor, Jean-Yves “Rollerman” Blondeau, flying down a mountain road in full roller armor.
Fitness buffs have been looking for a good full-body workout since Victorian times. This 1900 patent for a combo bicycle and rowing machine promises to “develop the muscles of the arms and body as well as those of the legs,” writes inventor Louis S. Burbank. The user perches atop the seat of the pedal-less bike and pumps a pair of wing-like sculls. The rowing motion turns the wheels via a set of pulleys. We’re not sure how it’s meant to stop: the patent makes no mention of the word “brakes.”
Office Exercise Kit
These days, treadmill desks and under-table pedal exercises are de rigueur in offices. But this exercise kit goes even further, turning the whole office into a mini-gym. It consists of a T-shaped anchoring post and a number of stretchy bands, which can be attached to your office chair. Raise the bands while sitting to work your arms, or stand while holding the chair back for leg resistance exercises. “Many exercise devices are cumbersome and much larger than is convenient to relocate,” reads the 2006 patent. “Additionally, many individuals have the desire to exercise in easily accessible locations without the difficulty involved in obtaining various types of equipment.” Given the rise of home workouts during the pandemic and the shortage of exercise equipment, the idea doesn’t actually sound half bad.
This 1964 patent could give you a headache just by looking at it. It consists of a helmet that straps under the chin, with an exterior designed to hold a set of nested, skullcap-shaped metal weights. The user can vary the weight by using more or fewer of the metal skullcaps. The idea? To bulk up your neck by making your head heavier. Ouch. “When not in use as a neck exerciser, the weights and securement means may be removed to facilitate the use of the head piece as a conventional athletic helmet,” the patent reads. Convenient.
Two-Person Mouth Exerciser
Are your teeth and gums not getting enough exercise? Do you have a (very) good friend who feels the same way? This 1923 patented invention is here for you. Simply bite down on one end of the exerciser while your partner bites on the other. Now pull, using the resistance to build up your jaw and mouth strength. The device was invented by one Charles Purdy, who was concerned that a modern diet didn’t offer enough chewing. “[M]odern methods of preparing food usually result in a cooked food requiring little or no mastication,” he wrote. “The use of such foods results in decayed teeth, undeveloped jaws, and various other complications due solely to the lack of exercise attendant on proper mastication.” Of course you could just fry up a nice chewy steak, but this looks like way more fun!
A Victorian precursor to the kind of strength training machines now ubiquitous in gyms, the Zander apparatus was invented by Swedish physician Gustaf Zander for “exercising the different muscles of a person.” The invention, patented in 1891, took off: it was popular in health spas through the early decades of the 20th century. A metal post that used levers and pulleys to offer resistance exercises, it's not terribly dissimilar to weight machines you might see in a gym today. It's just one of Zander's inventions—other versions of the apparatus allowed users to sit while exercising, to stretch ankles or backs, or to receive massages from a vibrating belt. Though all his devices eventually fell into obscurity, Zander was clearly ahead of his time. He recognized that physical exercise was crucial to health, and that growing industrialization meant many people were not moving their bodies enough.
This rather terrifying looking device was patented in 1923 for “the purpose of submitting the body to various useful flexions.” The user lies in the hammock wearing a special pair of slippers, which attach to the frame. The hammock is then twisted with a set of cranks, giving its occupant a nice healthy stretch. Weights can be attached to add resistance. It may look like a torture implement, but its inventor, Walter David Molby, insisted it was useful for exercising every muscle of the body, including the toes.