All you joggers out there dodging garbage trucks at dawn, listen to this: “I am fully convinced that exercise is bosh. … Find ways to exert yourself and you find ways to harm yourself. … Do not stand when you can sit; or sit when you can lie down; or just lie down when you can nap. Do not run if you can walk. … To have a strong heart it is essential to give up all unnecessary exercise.”

In a day when sixty-year-olds train for marathons, middle-aged cyclists rack up the miles on their ten-speeds, and tennis players of all shapes and sizes crowd the courts, the advice sounds strange. But it was written little more than a generation ago by Dr. Peter Steincrohn, a reputable physician. His view was shared widely at the time. For anyone beyond the flush of youth, strenuous exercise was thought to carry the risk of heart strain. Now most physicians hold the precise opposite to be true: failure to engage regularly in vigorous exercise is believed to increase the risk of heart disease.

This about-face is only one of the periodic changes in direction that have occurred since Americans in large numbers began to concern themselves with exercise for the sake of health. That doesn’t seem to have happened until sometime toward the end of the nineteenth century. There had always been a few, of course, who kept playing games—cricket, rounders, and, later, baseball—after school days were over. The well-to-do took up golf and tennis in the last decades of the century. Young Theodore Roosevelt, an awkward but enthusiastic tennis player, battled through ninety-one games one day in 1882.

Cycling had its devotees beginning with the introduction of the high-wheeler in the 1870’s, and there were also some early advocates of rigorous physical training routines. German immigrants of the mid-1800’s transplanted the Turners, athletic societies devoted to gymnastics on rings, bars, and vaulting horses. In the 1870’s some colleges started formal physical education classes where students tossed medicine balls and performed drills designed to improve posture. Even in the years just before his death at the age of eighty-three in 1878, William Cullen Bryant rose early to heft dumbbells for an hour and then strode the three miles from his house in lower Manhattan to the New York Evening Post . There, scorning the newfangled elevator, he ran up ten flights of stairs to his office, where he sometimes stopped at the door to seize the lintel and raise and lower himself by his arms several times.

But for most people of that era the physical demands of ordinary life were quite enough, and the notion that they should seek out extra work for their muscles would have seemed bizarre. That was particularly true for the great majority of Americans who still lived in rural areas—almost 75 per cent in 1870—and for whom heavy farm labor from dawn to dusk was often the rule. But it also held true for many city dwellers. They drew water, chopped wood, walked to work and church. Understandably, technological advances that saved human effort—elevators, streetcars, telephones, running water—were seen as undiluted blessings.

Attitudes toward exercise were changing as 1890 approached, however. Urbanization was steadily reducing the proportion of Americans who had to spend their days wrestling plows and pitching hay. “Americans went indoors to serve machines, stand behind counters, or sit at desks,” observes one historian. When a handful of self-proclaimed “experts” on physical fitness began spreading the message that the “nineteenth-century method of living” was making the nation soft, they found a receptive audience, and their numbers proliferated. “Professors” of physical culture opened gymnasiums where businessmen paid to swing Indian clubs and “in-hale! … ex-hale!” to the cadence of instructors. Doctors, who were often scornful of the physical culturists muscling into what they considered their purview, offered their own regimens. Books and magazine articles poured forth promoting one new system of exercise after another and exhorting readers to shape up in tones so stirring that it is almost impossible to dip into their musty pages today without instinctively squaring the shoulders and taking a deep breath.

If a man feels he is getting soft, the most obvious solution is to acquire a handsome pair of biceps, and the early exercise manuals stressed straightforward muscle building. One was entitled How to Get Strong . Another demanded: “Why be weakly?” The goal was more modest than the exaggerated musculature of today’s body-building cultists; one set of arm exercises was designed to produce arms “which look well either in rowing or exercising costume, that is, with nothing on them, or which set off a well-cut coat to great advantage.” But the authors themselves were nevertheless pretty impressive specimens who were not at all reticent about their own physical accomplishments—one, for example, invited two-hundred-pounders to don heavy boots and take a running jump onto his abdomen—and the clear implication was that readers could achieve similar physiques if only they would pay attention.