The History of Exercise by Bill Hayes

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Intellectual Humiliation

Confront your own ignorance.

The History of Exercise by Bill Hayes

The immortal gods have made it so:
To achieve excellence, we first must sweat. —HESIOD, WORKS AND DAYS, CA. 700 B.C.

New York, New York

The earliest recount of a scholarly study of exercise that the author finds is a book by the Italian doctor and physician Girolamo Mercuriale named De Arte Gymastica published in 1573. 

Girolamo was born in Forli, Italy on September 30, 1530. The son of a doctor he took a degree in medicine and philosophy from the University of Venice and finished his degree in the University of Padua. Even before graduation, Mercuriale was already making a name for himself in the medical authority since he was un afraid to challenge the status quo. At twenty two he wrote a paper on child rearing titled Nomothelasmus in which he made the case against using wet nurses and instead encouraged the mother to breastfeed, which he felt was healthier for the child.

He made a name for himself in his home town when he went out of his way to care of his patients concerns, complaints, maladies, and minor injuries exceptionally. 

It was his devotion to his patients that got him nominated to travel on a diplomatic trip to Rome in 1562. There he met Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a scion of the wealthy and powerful Farnese family and a grand son of the late Pope Paul III. Farnese was so impressed by his work that he invited Mercuriale to become his personal physician. It was in this position that Mercuriale gained access to the Vatican Library and Farnese extraordinary private library that he began to work on Gymnastica. He died in Forli at age seventy-six. The last edition of Gymnastica was published in the seventeenth century. Or so the author thought. He discovered that a translation was made by a London scholar in 1996 called Vivian Hayes. He travels to London to talk to the translator about the book and the history of exercise. 

London, England

Vivian Hayes was a former Cambridge don, now director of the medical history program in University College London. He was one of the world’s foremost experts on ancient medicine and its practitioners. He had written more than a dozen scholarly books, including definitive works on Galen, and hundreds of academic papers. 

Dr. Hayes explains that the Gymnastica was written first and foremost with one reader in mind: Cardinal Farnese. Mercuriale had been given unlimited capital to pursue his intellectual curiosity of the anatomy of the human body and his works had reached such a success in the field that he was later appointed as the person physician of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. 

Mercuriale, sadly, never wrote down anything to do with his personal exercise or diet regimens; instead he wrote the book with the idea of laying down universal principles. A medical encyclopedia. What can be inferred from the text, is that Mercuriale did advocate for daily exercise as a way to maintain one’s health and fitness. 

This was of course more radical proposition than it may seem now. Exercise and athletic prowess were not considered of any real importance at the time, if they were consider at all. The whole culture of exercise and athletics, as demonstrated by the Olympic Games, had been essentially snuffed out with the rise of Christianity more than twelve hundred years before. Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, formally banned gladiatorial contest in A.D. 325 and some seventy years later, Theodosius I brought the Olympic Games to an end completely. This was not only because exercise and athletics were antithetical to the tenets of Christianity but instead because athletic competition was linked to pagan rituals and dedicated to the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods. This certainly gave the notion that exercise for the sake of exercise was considered indecent. 

Mercuriale’s book thought, was no the first printed book on exercise – the credit goes to an obscure Spanish physician, Christobal Mendez, whose book Book of Bodily Exercise was published in 1553 . None the less De Arte Gymnastica was far more substantial, comprehensive, and prodigiously researched of the two. 

In Gymnastica, Mercuriale made the case for exercise, dedicating individual chapters to cover walking, running, swimming, jumping, boxing, wrestling, and may more. Even considering other forms of activity as exercise such as laughter, crying, and holding one’s breath. 

Gym Rats

Recent scientific research shows that stretching before working out actually reduces one’s strength and power by expending energy in muscle tissue. 

Warming up fell into the first of three distinct categories of exercise for Mercuriale’s eye: preliminary, simple (the main workout), and terminal (equivalent to a cooldown). The preliminary stage was more specific than one might expect today as Mercuriale advised one wash their body, comb the hair, wash the hands and face and dress appropriately. It comes a long way from the very word that gymnastics since in Ancient Greek it means “exercising in the nude”.

The author notes that Mercuriale never fails to mention any exercise emphasizing any core muscle activity like crunches, sit-ups, and such. But the author speculates that it’s mostly because the physical manual labor at the time likely developed these powerful trunks muscles without any further effort needed. 

Mercuriale had a very clear definition of exercise: “Strictly speaking, exercise is a physical movement that is vigorous and spontaneous, which involves a change in breathing pattern, and is undertaken with the aim of keeping healthy or building up a sound constitution.” Mercuriale borrowed from Galen, who had defined exercise fourteen hundred years earlier as “vigorous movement” that caused the breath to increase, but he added an important distinction with his final clause about the aim of exercise. Mercuriale felt that intention is the critical factor separating exercise form work and other forms of movement. If the purpose of the physical activity is any other than health then it’s physical labor. 

The notion of intention is also useful in distinguishing exercise from sports. Sports imply competition, rules to play by, and, whether it’s a team or individual activity, the declaration of a “winner” and a “loser.” Exercise on the other hand, for the most part is done individually, with the primary intention to increase and better ones health. 

In Ancient Greece and in the early Roman Empire, there was at least one gymnasium in every town. The gymnasium was as much a part of the culture as a theater and marketplace. Women were not permitted into the gymnasium, no were children or senior citizens. They were official buildings in the cities with dedicated staff, including trainers and ancient equivalent of “towel boys.” Day-to-day administration was the responsibility of a general manager called the gymansiarch. Private gyms existed, too, and for these, records confirm, visitors paid a fee just as one does today. But by the sixth century, in Mercuriale’s Italy, the only gymnasia left were in shambles. 

Mercuriale took the idea of the gymnasiums of Ancient Greece and tried to incorporate them in his day Italy as a means of preventative medicine, a concept that was credited to Athens philosopher 5th B.C. Herodicus. 

Hippocrates, Herodicus student, would be the one that would articulate the very modern idea of a good diet and a good exercise routine as a way to produce health. Hippocrates wrote two treatises on healthful living, Regimen in Health and Regimen, covering diet, exercise, rest, bathing and other matters of hygiene. He also took great care to pay close attention to the constitution of the patient, the age of the individual and the diet they’re following, giving us a glimpse of modern day medicine. 

No Athlete

Spiriting events date back at least to the Bronze Age, when evidence that wrestling and boxing matches were staged as entertainment for the king of Crete, but the concept of an athlete, as we know it today, comes to us from ancient Greece. Here, athletic competition was born in the Olympic Games, first held in. 776 B.C. Actually, make that Olympic Game, singular, for in the beginning there was but one: a spring, roughly two hundred meters. A man named Corobeus was crowned the winner with a wreath of olive leaves. Seventeen Olympiads later, the discus, the javelin, the long jump, and wrestling were added to the competition; boxing and other sports followed soon after. 

Olympic athletes developed strength, speed, skill and stamina needed to compete through certain exercise regimes – lifting, jumping, sparring, throwing, trapping, running. This gave fitness a new purpose and popularized it amongst the mases, which was a certain departure from the past since exercise was used not for health or beauty but for training soldiers and preparing them for war. Women, of course were excluded from this training and the only exception to this rule was the kingdom of Sparta, a Greek-city-state that emerged around the 10th century and rose to prominence as a warfare state. They made emphasis on training the girls and women alongside their men to prepare them for combat or to keep them in shape so the could bare strong male children who would become exceptional warriors. 

The Greek word for athlete has two forms of meaning: a masculine one that means contest and a neutral one that means contest winner’s prize.

An interesting feat of athletes in Ancient Greece was that their sweat was a coveted prized commodity. After an intense workout athletes would scrape the sweat and oil from their bodies and funnel it into small pots with a metal tool created expressively for this purpose. It such a prized commodity at the time that some would scrape the sweat of bathhouses in order to bottle it and trade it as a medicine for different ailments, mostly for private parts such as hemorrhoids and genital warts. 

A Boxer’s Diary 

Much of what we know about boxing in its earliest form come not from boxers but from artisans, poets, philosophers, spectators – witnesses. The so-called Boxer vase form the ancient Minoan settlement of Hagia Triada, 1500 B.C., shows Victorios boxer standing over his fallen opponents. Both wear what look like close-fitting helmets, possibly of leather, and their hands are similarly covered with straps of leather.

The Greek philosopher Philostratus asserted that it was Sparta who “discovered” boxing roughly in the 10th century B.C. The purpose, of course, unlike today was to train troops in hand to hand combat in war, something that continued the thread of exercise as a means of warfare training and not as a form of keeping fit or healthy. 

During the Middle Ages this changed. The whole Dark Ages emphasized the bettering of the soul, one’s spiritual life. The body, which was the emphasis of the Greeks, was then seen as a vessels for sin. Exercise was considered self-indulgent; but this changed with the rise of humanism in the 14th century. 

On the Nature of Running

What made running the supreme form of exercise for Mercuriale was that not only did it fit the careful definition of exercise he lays out in his book, but that it is “granted for all.” Anyone is capable of doing it – man, women, children. It doesn’t need a gym, an opponent or skill to be performed. One only needs the ability to walk fast. 

It wasn’t a given that being able to stand upright and walk would lead to this remarkable ability to cover long distances at short lengths. So what little piece of evolution allowed this special ability? 

Certain theories explain the reason why humans went from a four leg animal to a two legged one. The change of habitat scenery from jungles to sabanas allowed humans to stand up right. The higher visual position helped evolve not just navigation but the ability to hunt and take care of potential threats. Others see bipedalism (the ability to stand on two feat) as a defense strategy: by being seen one wards of predators. Certain advantages for females came into play too: the weight of pregnancy was easier for the lower spine to bear. But that wasn’t the end of it. If humans could’ve survived by walking alone evolution wouldn’t have given us the ability to run, so the next logical step was a change of eating habits. 

Gradual changes to the climate and the environment, early humans had to supplement the vegetarian diet with the carnivore one. Since humans hadn’t evolved yet to develop effective weapons for a quick kill, they came up with what is called persistence hunting; this means exactly what it sounds like: chasing after animals and running them into exhaustion and/or heatstroke at which point they wind up as dinner. We had the advantage of course, a head that stayed still while running, the ability to breath efficiently while moving at a fast pace, large gluteus muscles to keep the trunk steady and sweating, an ability exclusive to humans alone. 

Sweat is often considered a detox mechanism of the body. People often think of sweating away the toxins. Cleansing the system through sweating up a good workout or going into the sauna, but this is complete misconception of sweat. We have other organs that do the detoxing for us. The primary benefit of sweating is to keep us from dying. In a simple concept, sweating is a way for the body to cool down.  

Two types of sweat glands evolved: apocrine and eccrine. The apocrine is deep in the skin and adjacent to the hair follicle. It’s the reason we sometimes produce the funky sexy smell after a good workout. Eccrine glads are far smaller and far more numerous since one has four to six million. They each open the skin through the pores individually. Eccrine are the primary reasons we stay cool on a hot summer day. They produce salty water and are found everywhere except in extrasensitive places: the lips, the ear canal, and the sexual organs. 

Exactly when running became a thing isn’t clear, but there are recorded instances of running in ancient Egypt dating back to 1,500 B.C. long before the first Olympic Games were held. A “ritual run” was a running ceremony from a starting point to a finishing point. The purpose of the ceremony was for the upcoming pharaoh to symbolically show the gods and his people that they were going to be governed by a young and vital subject, and impress the gods so much that they would in turn bless him and his reign for abundance and peace. This ceremony, thereafter would be turned into a every three years ceremony called the Saqqara. 

This would later inspire the Greeks and the Egyptians to take running as a vital and important part of their culture. 

The Art of Swimming

Our earliest recorded evidence of swimming comes in a group of cave paintings created during the Neolithic period, dating back to about ten thousand years ago. The cave painting, found in southwest Egypt and the Libya border, portray the landscape full of lakes and rivers where now there’s nothing but desert. Many experts say that the scenes portrayed in this paintings are of every day life for people back in the day, throwing away the motion that swimming was merely done of the survival of predators and other enemies. 

Among the Greeks it seemed to have been expected that everyone – man, woman and child – should be able to swim, which makes sense since most people lived near the water. 

In anciet Egypt too, it was expected that people knew how to swim since most lived near the Nile or a branch of it. Swimming was a life or death matter for fishermen and boatmen and a mark of proper education for the higher classes. However, it didn’t become an Olympic sport until the modern games of 1896. 

While swimming was not considered a competitive event to ward an Olympic spot, it was appreciated by most for its athletic value as an all-around exercise.

The Rest Principle

The prominent Greek teacher and philosopher Flavius Philostratus wrote what is considered the first book on physical fitness training. Gymnasticus was different from Mercuriale’s book for a number of reasons: first Flavius wasn’t a physician, hence the book wasn’t a medical text, also his focus was on training athletes and not on the pros or cons or various forms of exercise.

It was an interesting time in Athens when this book was written, mostly because Greece was under the Roman Empire and even thought the Olympics continued, and the culture of gymnasia and baths continued in Rome, it wouldn’t be long before Christianity became a predominant force, banning exercise for the sense of athletism. 

Exercise didn’t disappear after this time obviously, but during the Middle Ages, it was simply not separated out, promoted so self-consciously, as it was during the previous era. Except for wealthy people, peasants still swept the floors, garden the goods and produce, took care of the animals, cooked and cleaned, and cared for the children, installing a form exercise that we merely think of today as chores. Mercuriale himself pointed out that dancing was still something that people, even in the Medieval Period still enjoyed, not as a form of exercise, but as a form of rhythmically moving’s one body out of pure joy. 

A Physical Education

During the period known as the “Scientific Revolution”, dating as early as the 17th century roughly to the mid 18th century, a series of discoveries were made which completely turned the previous thought about the body and anatomy on its head. One of the first and most important was the English physician William Harvey’s On the Motion of Heart and Blood published in 1682, where he lays out his conclusions on his experiences on how the heart was a logical and crucial role in the circulation of the blood through the body via the veins, arteries, and lungs. His conception of the circulatory system served as a long-overdue corrective to Galenismo and the theory of four humors, which Mercuriale and all physicians had ascribed to. 

Late in the 17th century, the Dutch scientist Antoine van Leeuwenhoek crafted the first powerful microscopes, leading to his discover of bacteria. The Italian biologist, taking a page from the Dutchma’s work, Marcelo Malpighi was the first to identify capillaries and understand the link they provide between arteries and veins. He was also the first to study red blood cells, which ferry oxygen to the body. Meanwhile Italian scientist Giovanny Bocelli was conducting groundbreaking studies on what we would later call biomechanics. His work was notable, not only for its scientific analysis of how muscles work and limbs move, but also its virtual dissection of different forms of exercise, including running, jumping and swimming. 

In 1693, John Locke had published Some Thoughts Concerning Education in which, among other things, he advocated incorporating physical exercise into school curricula. 

Christian Gotthilf Salzmann founded an innovative school in 1974, the Schnepfenthal Educational Institute where exercise was a key part of the curriculum, as important as geography or foreign languages. 

While Ling utilized some apparatuses in his classes, his primary innovation was in creating “free exercises” for both sexes that didn’t require the use of equipment. These free exercises included body-weight exercises like push-ups and plank positions, synchronized dance steps, and vigorous, continues movement. They were precursors to fitness classes you’d find at any gym today. He was credited to bringing PE classes to both the UK and the United States. 

The Proof

Indisputable scientific evidence for the benefits of exercise was established only relatively recently. It wasn’t until 1950 that a handful of scientist began investigating whether exercise actually contributes to lower morbidity and mortality rates in human beings. The leading scientist, at the time, was British epidemiologist Jeremy Morris, “the man who invented exercise.” 

Morris decided to focus on the study of transportation workers – specifically, the drivers and the conductors of double-deckers buses, trams and trolleys. He studied the job form 1949 through 1950 and although the job was the same the work was completely different. The drivers sat in the car all day with virtually no movement whatsoever, while the conductors were forced to get out of the car, carry the package, get back on the car, a virtual workout. 

Morris and team scrutinized all available data and found that conductors suffered less from inadequate blood supply to the heart and of coronary thrombosis (total or partial obstruction of the artery due to a blood clot), leading to either a non fatal heart attack or to immediate death from a heart attack than drivers since their job was a workout. The study was published in the Lancet, November 21, 1953 to scrutiny and skepticism over the medical community. 

The Seventies

In the 1950s’s the US government was trying to promote physical fitness to improve its citizens overall health, but one invention would become an important influence on this trend: the television. 

Jack LaLanne, began airing his exercise program “The Jack LaLanne Show” on San Francisco TV station in 1951. Eventually picked up by ABC, it went nationwide as a daytime program in 1959 and ran until 1986. His primary audience was women – often stay at home moms that would follow along as Jack did leg raises, jumping jacks, and sit-ups. 

In 1970s, Arnold Schwarzenegger would replace him and change the very reason for people to exercise. 

Exercise, bodybuilding, and health clubes, as some gyms began to market themselves, took on the “culture of narcissism,” and began the well known trend today of: to be fit was to be sexy, not just healthy. People began to see exercise as more than just a way to keep fit and healthy. 

In 1970s there was another figure that ignited the interest in martial arts as a way to exercise: Bruce Lee. He did for martial arts what Schwarzenegger did for body building. He created an interest and craze for martial arts of east Asia that continues on today with UFC league. 

But the most iconic figure of exercise of the 1970 was and still is Jane Fonda. 

Jane Fonda was an actress who turned to ballet for fitness and exercise. It was around that time, when she came into fame, that prompted the idea that “women weren’t supposed to sweat or have muscles” but somehow still keep a size four for various roles. Healing from a broken ankle and dealing with an eating disorder (bulimia), Fonda wanted to find another way to keep her mind off food and still keep fit, so she took a class at the “Gilda Marx Studio” in Century City with an instructor named Leni Cazden who taught a class of low impact exercises to different music styles. That’s where she got the idea to lend herself as a teacher to raise funds for her husbands foundation Campaign for Economic Diversity (CED) by teaching the class to upper middle class white women. Unbeknownst to her, the class was a massive success and would stratosphere her to fame in the exercise world. Having been approached by Stuart Karl a business man who convide her to film her class and sell it on VCR, building the brand we know of as of today. The VCR went to become one of the most successful home videos of all times, leading the way to a modern craze for gyms and home workouts. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. 

My rating:

This book in 3 key points

  1. Exercise has been a concept that humans have practiced and worship since human inception.
  2. Exercise as a means to keep fit is a relative new concept, only dating back to 1500.
  3. Mercuriale is the father studying exercise, but it’s modern founder is Jeremy Morris.

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