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Published: June 28, 2011


A systematic grouping of physical exercises designed to improve student strength, rhythm, balance, flexibility and agility. Although used in informal physical fitness programs at both the elementary and secondary school levels, gymnastics is also a competitive sport, consisting of a prescribed set of dancelike, tumbling routines and acrobatics on special equipment such as suspended metal rings, parallel bars and other devices. Gymnastics probably dates back to the circus acrobatics of ancient Egypt. Teachers in the gymnasia of ancient Greece refined gymnastics into three systems of prescribed exercises to develop physical fitness appropriate for soldiers, athletes and the general citizenry, respectively. Although the Romans adopted the Greek system for training soldiers, acrobatics all but disappeared until the early 1800s, when the so-called father of gymnastics, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778–1852), developed a series of planned exercises using rudimentary stationary devices to help practitioners develop self-discipline and physical strength. Meanwhile, Pehr Henrik Ling (1776– 1839) was developing a system in Sweden, using hoops, clubs and small balls, and designed to develop rhythm and coordination. Although Swedish and German immigrants brought both systems to the United States after the Civil War, the two were merged in the first physical education programs introduced in American schools at the end of the 19th century.