Sweat: A History of Exercise(Book Review)

By Next Big Idea Club

Bill Hayes is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in The New YorkerVanity Fair, and the New York Review of Books. He’s also the author of seven books, and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction.

Below, Bill shares 5 key insights from his new book, Sweat: A History of Exercise

1. Exercise is not a modern phenomenon.

The very idea that exercise is good for you—that it improves your overall health and well-being—has been a presumption, even a truism, going back to ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and China. More than two millennia ago, the Indian physician known as Suśruta advocated exercise to maintain “equilibrium” in the body. In the Western world, an Athenian wrestler-turned-physician named Herodicus prescribed exercise to his patients. But it was one of his students, Hippocrates—now commonly known as the father of medicine—who fully articulated the tenets of exercise in the 5th century BCE. “Eating alone will not keep a man well; he must also take exercise,” Hippocrates stated, “for food and exercise, while possessing opposite qualities, yet work together to produce health.” Hippocrates is credited with writing two treatises on healthful living, covering diet, exercise, rest, and other matters. He emphasized that one must pay careful attention “to proportion exercise to bulk of food, to the constitution of the patient, to the age of the individual,” and so on. In other words, an exercise regimen must be customized to the person and, by definition, incorporated into daily life.

It is no stretch to say that our modern notion of a workout plan derived from these ancient sources.

2. Gyms and naked exercising were common in antiquity.

In ancient Greece and in the early Roman Empire, there was at least one gym in every town. The gym was as much a part of culture and society as the theater and marketplace, albeit a place where only upper-class men and boys were welcome. Women were not permitted into gyms, even just to watch.

“The word ‘gymnastics’ comes from the Greek term for ‘exercising in the nude,’ the standard practice in ancient Greece for hundreds of years.”

While it’s true that Plato (who, by the way, was a competitive wrestler) says in his treatise The Laws that “women, both young and old, should exercise together with the men,” it wasn’t until the 19th century when a whole confluence of events—the impact of the Industrial Revolution, for example, and the burgeoning women’s rights movement—made it possible, at long last, for women and girls to sweat, too.

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