JohnpauliiWhen he became pope in 1978, John Paul II was already an avid sportsman, and he traveled extensively during his papacy. At the time, the 58-year old was extremely healthy and active, jogging in the Vatican gardens, weightlifting, swimming and hiking in the mountains. He was also fond of football.

John Paul's obvious physical fitness and athletic good-looks earned much comment in the media following his election, which compared his health and trim figure to the poor health of John Paul I and Paul VI, the portliness of John XXIII and the constant claims of ailments of Pius XII. The only modern pope with a keep-fit regime had been Pope Pius XI (1922–1939) who was an avid mountain climber. An Irish Independent article in the 1980s labeled John Paul the "the keep-fit pope."

In 1981, John Paul II's health suffered a major blow after the first failed assassination attempt. He went on to a full recovery, and sported an impressive physical condition throughout the 1980s. Starting about 1992, however, his health slowly declined. He rarely walked in public and began to suffer from an increasingly slurred speech and difficulty in hearing. Most experts agreed that the frail pontiff suffered from Parkinson's disease, although it wasn't until 2003 that the Vatican finally confirmed it. From being strikingly fitter than his predecessors, he had declined physically to far more ill health than was the norm among more elderly popes.

In February 2005 John Paul II was taken to the Gemelli hospital with inflammation and spasm of the larynx, the result of influenza. He was released from the hospital, then taken back after a few days because of difficulty breathing. A tracheotomy was performed, which improved the Pope's breathing but limited his speaking abilities, to his visible frustration. In March 2005, speculation was high that the Pope was near death; this was confirmed by the Vatican a few days before John Paul II died.