Skip to main content


July 2024
14min read

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.

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.

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.

The most popular exercises in the 1920’s were Walter Camp’s Daily Dozen. Camp, a robust former Yale football star and the inventor of the All-American team, said he got the inspiration for his system by watching lions stretch at the Bronx Zoo. He gave the movements in his ten-minute routine alliterative names—hands, hips, head; grind, grate, grasp; crawl, curl, crouch; wave, weave, wing. “The essential thing is to go slowly,” he advised. A casual test shows that the Daily Dozen will not raise a drop of sweat on a desk-bound forty-seven-year-old writer. The exercises approximate what a moderately serious jogger might do to loosen up before starting real exercise.

Considering the modest investment of effort, the benefits claimed for such exercises were truly remarkable. Constipation and dyspepsia, which seem to have afflicted people back then more than they do now, would vanish. So would sluggish livers, following a few repetitions of the “liver squeezer,” a widely prescribed exercise that involved lying on the back and drawing the knees up to the chin. This was said to wring out the liver like a sponge. Preoccupation with fat was frowned on. “A prejudice against fat amounting to an abhorrence ought to be condemned,” wrote a Boston physician, Samuel Delano, in 1918. But if you did want to lose weight, it was no problem provided you conscientiously practiced the deep breathing that was part of most systems. “Deep, purposeful breathing in the open air prevents the accumulation of fat, as it acts like a pair of active bellows on a furnace fire,” said William J. Cromie, an instructor of physical education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Now and then a voice from the past expresses ideas about exercise not too far removed from present theories. As far back as 1890, a physical culturist named Edwin Checkley came out in favor of running, although he added sadly: “When I run for a few streets on a city thoroughfare, the populace look after me as if I were a ‘freak,’ or as if I were making off with something not belonging to me. …” Perhaps that explains why another pioneer jogger, Theodore Roosevelt, sometimes did his running at night while President, going out from the White House and trotting around the Washington Monument. Among medical men, Dudley A. Sargent, who directed physical education at Harvard from 1879 to 1919, sounded much like physicians today. Sustained, vigorous exertion that stimulates the heart and lungs strengthens the vital systems, he preached.

But where those of middle age or older were concerned, Sargent and the other exercise specialists who agreed with him generally cautioned against really strenuous workouts of the sort their theories seemed to require, such as long runs. Some of the authorities said that “gentle” running was safe, but they really meant “gentle.” C. Ward Crampton of New York, one of the first physicians to sound the alarm over the mounting number of heart attacks among Americans, insisted that the focus of exercise should be to strengthen the heart and that running was well suited for this purpose. But, he said in 1924, sixty-four steps “is sufficient for anyone.” That’s a couple of laps around the living room.

At the time, even that would have been considered overdoing it in some circles. It was commonly believed that everyone was endowed with a fixed, limited supply of “vitality” and that strenuous exercise could lead to premature exhaustion of the supply, followed by invalidism or early death. A 1931 article on exercise in Hygeia , a health magazine published for laymen by the American Medical Association, commented: “It seems that the more prodigiously we give of our vitality the sooner we exhaust it.”

To buttress their case, exponents of this theory seized on every instance of an athlete dying young. Such deaths were not rare in those days; athletes, like nonathletes, could be struck down in their prime by infectious diseases since conquered by antibiotics. But the foes of strenuous exercise claimed in such cases that the athletes had squandered their vitality, weakening their hearts and their defenses against disease. Arthur A. McGovern, the proprietor of a gym in New York, kept a scrapbook of obituaries of athletes who had died by the age of forty, presumably to show clients who might be tempted to push themselves too hard.

McGovern and most of his fellow experts just about ruled out vigorous exercise of any type for anyone over forty. It went without saying that running was foolhardy, and the list of potentially perilous activities usually included bicycling, rowing, squash, handball, and tennis—even doubles. Warning of the dire fate in store for “those disciples of strenuosity,” Dr. Delano of Boston offered fairly typical advice. “The heart and breathing are not to be unduly juggled,” he asserted. Beware of the bicycle, which has produced “many a damaged heart and circulation.” Tennis is risky because “in the volleying much qui vive and much holding of breath is necessary. It does the heart up easily—especially in the case of the nervous temperament.” The only sport Delano wholeheartedly approved was golf. As for calisthenics, the doctor propounded his own thirty-four-movement system in How Shall I Take Exercise and Set-Up? Judging from the illustrations, for which the rather modestly muscled doctor himself posed somewhat sheepishly (“Let not the eye fall at once on the quantity of muscle. … For muscle by itself we have, as the reader must know, but scant respect”), the exercises consisted mainly of assorted grimaces.

If exercise was fraught with peril for men, it was even more so for women. Fielding Yost, who dispensed advice on exercise besides coaching football at the University of Michigan, said women should quit tennis at thirty-five. The idea of exercises to strengthen female muscles was absurd on its face. As Dr. Delano put it: “Femininity was plainly created not to have much muscle.” The permissible exercises for the ladies in their middy tops and bloomers were mild in the extreme, with a trim waist and a “graceful carriage” the primary goals. An article by a woman doctor in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1907 reflected the tone that prevailed for decades. It recommended the exercise of touching the toes (“Austrian officers, who are noted for their tapering waists, make a special point of its use”). It also said that “healthy girls”—but apparently not adult women—could hazard stationary running in the bathroom, provided they started with no more than twenty-five steps and lay down for at least five minutes immediately after.

Clearly, even healthy girls couldn’t tolerate much strain. Arthur McGovern, the gym proprietor, frowned on all strenuous competitive games for girls “as the element of excitement very easily leads to exertion injurious to the feminine physique.” In a 1915 issue of the Delineator , Dr. B. Wallace Hamilton told the harrowing tale of fifteen-year-old Emily. She went off to boarding school, where she became nervous and jumpy from playing too much basketball. Hamilton prescribed a transfer to a school where the staff appreciated the frailty of young women, and a switch to golf and croquet.

If the theory that each person has a fixed stock of vitality is accepted as valid, then the logical conclusion must be that the wisest course is no exercise at all, and that is precisely the direction in which things moved. Whereas the electric horses that became popular in the early twenties demanded at least modest effort from the user, the abdominal massage machines that came into wide use a few years later required no exertion whatever. These machines, which whipped a broad belt back and forth on the user’s stomach, supposedly stimulated the internal organs and dissolved fat, but by 1930 the American Medical Association, not always the most enlightened voice on the subject of exercise, felt compelled to state that they not only did no good but had caused some grievous injuries.

In 1925 a grim article entitled “Too Much Exercise” appeared in the Saturday Evening Post . Citing “overwhelming evidence that a great many Americans, of middle age or beyond, are exercising too much,” it warned that any man over forty “who persists in putting unnecessary strains on his heart is fixing to make the acquaintance of the undertaker.” The article ridiculed calisthenics and went on to question the safety of golf, which was just about the only sport left to doddering forty-year-olds by then. The stress and exertion of golf were vastly underrated, readers were told, and the nation’s courses were more or less littered with the corpses of players who had collapsed from the strain.

The ultimate stand against exercise was taken by Peter Steincrohn, the doctor who dismissed all such activity as “bosh.” In 1942 Steincrohn, a prolific writer on health topics, published a book that bore the alluring title You Don’t Have to Exercise and the subtitle “ Rest Begins at Forty .” It sounds like satire now, but it was dead serious. In fact, when the book came out, it was quoted approvingly by Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association .

Steincrohn’s thesis was that the heart needed rest, not exercise, to stay healthy. Therefore, on reaching middle age it was best to avoid all exertion beyond that necessary for conducting the business of life. “Don’t lift a finger unnecessarily after forty” was Steincrohn’s motto. “Bending over to tie and untie your shoes; bringing the fork to your mouth; the rubdown after a shower; laughing; talking and reading—all these furnish your daily exercise requirements.” Steincrohn, then in his forties, made clear that he had managed to shake the exercise habit completely, but for those who insisted on continuing to play a bit of golf, he advised dawdling on the course and taking a break for a smoke and a drink between nines. As for old codgers of fifty who persisted in playing tennis, he had nothing but reproach—”infantile exhibitionism.”

Steincrohn reiterated his antiexercise arguments, only slightly hedged, in a 1968 book, but by then even he conceded that the tide of medical opinion had turned against him. A major force behind that change was Paul Dudley White, the cardiologist. In the 1930’s White had become convinced that exercise to the point of pleasant fatigue—long bicycle rides were his favorite form—benefited the heart. When he came into the public eye after being summoned to treat President Dwight Eisenhower following his heart attack in 1955, White made use of his new prominence to promote the cause of exercise through speeches, articles, and interviews. Dr. White, who died in 1973 at the age of eighty-seven, was a dogged exerciser himself, pedaling his bicycle thirty miles a day even in his later years.

In the sixties and seventies White was joined in his crusade by many other physicians and medical researchers. Their central message was that the most valuable exercise for general health was activity that forced the respiratory and circulatory systems to work hard for prolonged periods. Far from draining the organism of vitality, such, exercise was said to increase the efficiency of the heart and to expand its capability. The exercise needed to achieve this effect involves considerable effort; there is no such thing as effortless exercise. A typical program might call, for example, for jogging as long as an hour several times a week, or perhaps for sustained stints of cycling or swimming. Most Americans still don’t exercise much, of course, and many are still overweight, but, as the jogging craze in particular illustrates, millions have heeded the message. And their ranks include many well along in years. “Age is not a major obstacle to fitness,” insists Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper. As the developer of the widely followed “aerobics” system, Cooper is more responsible than anyone else for starting Americans jogging.

It is conceivable that the new experts are wrong. But the assumption has to be that the march of medical science is generally onward and upward and that the exercise advocates know what they’re talking about. Moreover, they are beginning to gather some statistical evidence that backs them up. A report issued in 1977 on a study of seventeen thousand men who enrolled at Harvard between 1916 and 1950 concluded that those who habitually exercised intensively suffered markedly fewer heart attacks than those who didn’t. Similar reports are not yet available on women, and indeed one recent medical study of top women athletes such as Olympics trainees revealed the curious fact that a prolonged program of heavy exercise temporarily makes some women stop menstruating. There seems to be every reason to think, however, that the beneficial results of regular, energetic exercise are not confined to males.

Then, too, there is the subjective evidence of those who have found that they don’t have to put aside games at forty and who derive deep satisfaction from the discovery that stamina can even grow with age. We are learning that we are not as delicate as was once thought and that we do not need to coddle ourselves, slow our step, and consign the tennis racket to the back of the closet shelf just because we are no longer young. In short, we are developing a whole new attitude toward growing old. And we can only feel sorry for all those who in the past were made to feel old before their time by the misguided fitness “experts” and the sedentary doctors.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.