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Most people paid scant attention to deliberate strenuous exercise before the 1880’s. Since then the pendulum has swung from pro to con and back again.
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
The recommended exercise was demanding, often calling for the use of weights and other strengthening equipment. In the nineties many bedrooms were graced by A. G. Spalding & Bros. Victor No. 5 Machine, a contraption of pulleys and weights that attached to the wall. In the same decade, J. R. Judd, a professor of physical culture with a luxuriant handlebar mustache, published Always Strong and Happy , a course that required a whole array of equipment manufactured by Judd, including dumbbells weighing up to forty pounds, a racklike affair called the Extensor, and his Columbia Parlor General Exercising and Rowing Machine. After punishing himself with this paraphernalia, the victim was instructed to plunge into a cold bath, which was the standard conclusion for most of the exercise programs.
The best known of the early body builders was Bernarr Macfadden. In 1898, when he was a sleek-muscled, narcissistic thirty-year-old, Macfadden published a five-cent pamphlet called Physical Culture . It evolved into a monthly magazine with a circulation of half a million and helped make Macfadden a cult figure among health faddists. Macfadden, who in time built a publishing enterprise that also included such magazines as True Story and True Romance and a sleazy newspaper known formally as the New York Evening Graphic but informally as the Pornographic , presented a body-building scheme, using a contrivance of pulleys and cords, in a book in 1900. Sprinkled among nude or near-nude photographs of Macfadden posing on a pedestal or on a leopard skin were stern admonitions: “Clear your system of accumulated corruption from inactivity, and live!… If you are weak, there is absolutely no excuse for your continuing so.”
Macfadden’s methods worked for him. He lived to the age of eighty-seven, and he celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday by standing on his head during an interview and his eighty-third by making a parachute jump into the Hudson River. But in the eyes of many, muscle building had a couple of serious disadvantages. One was that it entailed considerable effort. The other was that no matter how hard they heaved and strained, when most men stood before a mirror—Macfadden recommended exercising there—they were never going to see a Greek god.
So another crop of experts came to the rescue with the good news that large muscles were out of date. They were contemptuous of the muscle builders. “The ordinary gymnasium ‘professor’ knows no more about the principles of bodily development than he does about ancient Coptic,” scoffed a physician named Latson in 1910. Another doctor, writing in Harper’s , warned that muscle building was positively dangerous to the health. Backing came from a 1910 editorial in the New York Times deploring the emphasis on “brute strength” in physical education. “The cultivation of huge muscles belonged to the hunting, grazing, peasant, and warrior stages of civilization,” said the Times .
To replace arduous muscle building, the doctors and others proposed less taxing calisthenics. There were variations in the systems; one school held, for example, that touching the toes without bending the knees was beneficial, while a rival camp insisted that if God had intended man to do that, He would not have provided knee joints. But for the most part the movements were similar—stretch, twist, turn, bend. They were the sort of mild exercises a lot of people dutifully performed a few decades ago upon arising, sometimes under the guidance of an instructor on the radio or on a record—and, indeed, that some people still do. Such calisthenics can ease muscular kinks, but more fundamental benefits seem to have been ruled out by competition among the originators of the systems to see who could come up with the easiest program. The ideal appeared to be exercise that required no effort, and some of the systems came close.
Dr. Latson, the critic of the physical culture professors, asserted that a great advantage of his own gentle twists and turns was that “they require practically no effort of body or mind.” In 1907 Sanford Bennett, an elderly eccentric from San Francisco, published Exercising in Bed . The book is exactly what the title indicates, a manual of exercises that can be done in bed, alone, without even throwing off the covers. “I believe that muscles develop … more rapidly under these comfortable conditions than in the cold, bracing air usually advocated for physical exercise,” explained Bennett.
The experts also vied to see who could devise the shortest exercise routines. Bernarr Macfadden had advocated working out as much as an hour a day, but in 1905 J. P. Müller, a Dane, began promoting My System —“15 Minutes’ Work a Day for Health’s Sake”—in America. Within a,few years, however, competitors offered systems even less time-consuming, and so in 1924 Müller issued a revised version of his book called The Daily Five Minutes . Then somebody undercut this with a sure-fire four-minute program.