Swedish gymnastics was an invention of the early 19th century, and was intended to improve the physical fitness of the general public in schools, in the military and as a medical healing process. The concept and practice of Swedish gymnastics quickly spread beyond Sweden and beyond Europe, and has been a major influence on the development of physiotherapy as a medical treatment option.
The creator of Swedish gymnastics was Per Henrik Ling, a master of the sport of fencing who was active during the early 19th century. Together with his son Hjalmar, Ling developed a program of functional physical gymnastics training, and founded the Central Gymnastic Institute in the Swedish city of Stockholm in 1813. Ling's initial aim with this Institute was to provide training in Swedish gymnastics for teachers of school children and members of the military. Ling was appointed as a fellow of the Swedish Medical Society in 1831.
Ling's Swedish gymnastics programs contained four distinct categories -- medical, aesthetic, military and pedagogic. Training in Swedish gymnastics involved practicing the correct performance of prescribed gymnastic movements, under the supervision of a trainer. Group gymnastics in which people stood and practiced free-standing movements in formation were adopted as an effective training mode. Later, Ling tried to develop his "medical gymnastics" as the dominant category, however, he had difficulty recruiting enough physicians to use Swedish gymnastics in a medical context.
Swedish gymnasts competed in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, and this greatly increased the visibility and popularity of Swedish gymnastics as a national sporting activity. The Swedish government has given annual economic support to gymnastics since 1913. Studies in the 1950s indicated that Ling's methods of gymnastic training were beneficial for public health, and his concepts became commonly used in Swedish medical rehabilitation programs following the Second World War. Gymnastics programs based on Ling's concepts were also introduced in Swedish schools.
Other European countries were interested in Swedish gymnastics, and its potential to aid physical healing and promote overall health, from the early 19th century. In Hungary, gymnastics programs based on Ling's ideas were adapted, and a Hungarian Institute for Gymnastics was established in 1835. Ling's "pedagogic gymnastics" were modified for use in schools, and his ideas have been incorporated into the modern practice of physical therapy in Sweden and other countries. Swedish gymnastics has been a major cultural export for Sweden, with Swedish practitioners using Ling's gymnastics as a form of physiotherapy.