Early lifeLing was born at Ljunga in the south of Sweden in 1776, the son of a minister, Lars Peter Ling, and the former Hedvig Maria (Hedda) Molin. Through his mother, he was a great-great grandson of the famous Swedish scientist Olof Rudbeck (1630–1702), discoverer of the human lymphatic system. After graduating from Växjö gymnasium in 1792, he studied theology at Lund University from 1793, but went to Uppsala University and completed his degree there in 1797.
 Travels and Mr. MingLing then went abroad during seven years: on his first voyage he befriended a certain "Ming", a Chinese fellow who was both a martial artist and tui na practitioner. They soon became fencing and exercise partners in Copenhagen, where Ling studied at the University of Copenhagen and taught modern languages. During the first four years of his voyage Ling had received much guidance by his Chinese friend, specifically on fighting, exercise and health philosophies that fascinated him for their amazing integration and efficiency.
His journey then took him to Germany, France and England during which he continued to acquire more knowledge on his friend's special "gymnastics" or exercises designed to improve the strength, flexibility and overall stamina necessary to his fencing passion. Financial difficulties, joint (overuse) injuries and rheumatism caused him to return to Sweden where he took the time to heal himself by applying these pressing-pulling and squeezing exercises and maneuvers he had learned.
 TeachingHaving established himself as a teacher in these arts at Lund, Ling was appointed fencing-master to the Uppsala University (1805). He found that his daily exercises had completely restored his bodily health, and his thoughts now turned towards applying this experience for the benefit of others. He saw the potential for adapting these techniques to promote better health in many situations and thus attended classes on anatomy and physiology, and went through the entire curriculum for the training of a doctor. He then elaborated a system of gymnastics, exercises and maneuvers, divided into four branches, (1) pedagogical, (2) medical, (3) military, (4) aesthetic, which carried out his theories and would demonstrate the required occidental scientific rigor to be integrated or approved by established medical practitioners.
After several attempts to interest the Swedish government, Ling at last obtained government co-operation in 1813, when the Royal Gymnastic Central Institute for the training of gymnastic instructors was opened in Stockholm, with Ling appointed as principal. The orthodox medical practitioners were naturally opposed to the larger claims made by Ling and his disciples concerning cures of diseases, so far at least as anything more than the occasional benefit of some form of skillfully applied massage and maneuvers was concerned; But the fact that in 1831 Ling was elected a member of the Swedish General Medical Association (Svenska läkaresällskapet) shows that in his own country at all events his methods were regarded as consistent with professional recognition. He was elected a member of the Swedish Academy in 1835 and became a titular professor the same year.
 LegacyLing died in 1839, having previously named as the repositories of his teaching his pupils Lars Gabriel Branting (1799–1881), who succeeded him as principal of the Institute, and August Georgii, who became sub-director; his son, Hjalmar Ling (1820–1886), being for many years associated with them. All these, together with Major Thure Brandt, who from about 1861 specialized in the treatment of women (gynecological gymnastics), are regarded as the pioneers of Swedish medical gymnastics.
Ling and his earlier assistants left no proper written account of their treatment, and most of the literature on the subject is repudiated by one set or other of the gymnastics practitioners. The origins and greatest influences of Dr Ling's work was certainly those of his Chinese friend "Ming" who had introduced him to Tuina and martial arts. The loss of filiation with these oriental influences were uncovered inadvertently by Johan Georg Mezger (1838–1909) who coined a reduced set of maneuvers and techniques of Dr. Ling's system as the "Swedish massage" system. These techniques were effleurage (long, gliding strokes), petrissage (lifting and kneading the muscles), friction (firm, deep, circular rubbing movements), tapotement (brisk tapping or percussive movements), and vibration (rapidly shaking or vibrating specific muscles). These are also basic techniques of tui na and Chinese massage.
Ling's system of medical gymnastics also influenced later institutions and systems. The Gymnastic Orthopedic Institute was founded in Stockholm in 1822 by Nils Åkerman, which after 1827 received a government grant. Around 1857, Gustaf Zander elaborated a medico-mechanical system of gymnastics, known by his name, and started his Zander Institute at Stockholm in 1865. At the Stockholm Gymnastic Central Institute, qualified medical men have supervised the medical department since 1864. The course is three years; one year for qualified doctors.
Broadly speaking, there have been two streams of development in the Swedish gymnastics founded on Ling's beginnings, either in a conservative direction, making certain forms of gymnastic exercises subsidiary to the prescriptions of orthodox medical science, or else in an extremely progressive direction, making these exercises a substitute for any other treatment, and claiming them as a cure for disease by themselves. A representative of the latter, more extreme, section was Henrik Kellgren (1837–1916), who had a special school and following.
Other variants and accounts of Dr Ling's practice and philosophies were published: a Handbook of Medical Gymnastics (English edition, 1899) by Anders Wide of Stockholm represents the more conservative practice. Henrik Kellgren's system, which, though based on Ling's, admittedly goes beyond it, is described in The Elements of Kellgren's Manual Treatment (1903) by Edgar F. Cyriax, who, before taking the MD degree at Edinburgh, had passed out of the Stockholm Institute as a gymnastic director. See also the encyclopedic work Sweden: its people and its industry: historical and statistical handbook (1904), p. 348, edited by Gustav Sundbärg for the Swedish government.