As we look at the headlines about the “obesity” crisis, the crisis with “chronic illness,” and the increasing number of kids and seniors who don’t exercise and eat right, we might be tempted to believe that this is all something new. It’s not. As far back as the mid to late 1800s, people who came into the cities to take advantage of the industrial revolution had similar problems. In his book Revolution at the Table, by Harvey Levenstein, the author looks back at the nutrition habits of urban people of the late 1800s as consisting mostly of salt pork, bread and potatoes with little or no greens*. There were also at the time, a small number of physical fitness buffs who recognized the poor physical conditions of Americans across the board.
The most notable was Bernarr Macfadden who really “popularized” the efforts toward making Americans into a more fit people. He started the best selling magazine Physical Culture in the early 1900s to alert Americans of the existing crisis in health, and to provide ways of doing something about it. Many of today’s fitness experts take their material almost directly from Macfadden’s pronouncements. For example, Paul Bragg, who I mentioned last week, was a writer for Physical Culture magazine and ultimately toured the country lecturing about health, exercise and proper nutrition. One of his lecture attendees was a young, sixteen year old Jack LaLanne, who’s mother dragged young Jack to the lecture because of Jack’s poor health as a teenager. The rest is history.
Does the name Angelo Siciliano ring a bell? He was a protege of Bernarr Macfadden and was the winner of the magazines most perfectly developed man contest. He went by the name Charles Atlas, and became most well known for his “97 pound weakling” and “sand in your face” advertisements in many popular magazines and comic books of the era.
Macfadden’s magazine was a direct influence on Rodale Publications and the well known Prevention magazine. Macfadden was a brief mentor of the late Joe Weider who created his own Health and Fitness publishing empire. Many of Weider’s magazines are still being published today. Many Hollywood stars of the day endorsed Macfadden’s viewpoint.
Macfadden disliked the medical community. He felt that doctors were mostly unnecessary and that any disease could be cured by totally natural cures such as FASTING, exercise, colon cleansing, hydrotherapy and deep breathing. He believed doctors were nothing but pill pushers.
The “pills” today still do more to relieve symptoms but they still don’t go to the source of the problem so you have to continue to return to the doctor for a “follow-up”. Old time patent medicines are gone but some supplements available today are questionable. Cod Liver Oil and “iron tonic” were in vogue when I was a kid. Today we recognize cod liver oil and other fish oils as a powerful source for Omega 3 fatty acids and for fat soluble Vitamins A and D, all considered necessary. Back then though, it was used for growth, and to stave off disease (at least that’s what my mother told me when she forced it down my throat).
In retrospect, Americans appear to be healthier today than back then, particularly in the cities, and in spite of the obesity problems and out of shape adults and kids today.
So as we look at our Obesity” epidemic and our out of shape kids as well as our out of shape selves, we can take comfort that it’s been that way for over a hundred years right here in the United States and although our food habits may have changed, they haven’t necessarily improved. Neither have our fitness habits. We are healthier as adults today than then because of massive improvement and technical advancements in medical care. But for most of us, we would eliminate a lot of the lifestyle diseases if we would only heed the same advice as good old Bernarr Macfadden gave back in the late 1800’s up until the middle of the 20th century. He may have been considered a nutcase back then, but his admonitions remain mostly true today. It’s best we put good fuel and exercise into our lifestyles if we want to live a long and healthy life.
If you are interested, here is a link where you can find many issues of Physical Culture Magazine in a collection from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Click here to view to the collection online. The differences between then and now aren’t as great as we might have expected them to be.
Thank you for reading.
* Source: Captain America, How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad and the Ultimate Starvation Diet, Mark Adams, Harper Collins, 2009.