Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/May 1883/Gymnastics

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THE very name carries our thoughts back to the ancient Greeks, who provided for their children the most complete physical training that the world has ever known. Men and women alike took pains and pride in the development of perfect bodies, and their success, recorded in inimitable statues, affords models of human beauty and strength. In examining their system we discover much that is foreign to our civilization. We can not find the time for daily anointing with oil, powdering with dust, and long exercising in the sunshine—hardly time, indeed, for even an abridgment of their luxurious bathing; and yet, till after we do devote time and care to the development of our physical natures, need we hope for anything like the splendid equipoise of the faculties that characterizes the Greek excellence of manhood. Passing now to Rome, we find early in her history the vigor always characteristic of a new race. It matters not how impoverished their ancestry, colonists cut off from the sloth of old centers of population, forced to battle with the earth itself for their support, soon retake the vigorous manhood their fathers gradually lost. And the Romans, in their turn, driven under the yoke by a sturdier race, proved no exception to the general rule that, as ease of living rises above a certain line, people deteriorate physically. That there is no underlying law of nature necessitating this result is proved by the Grecian training which raised the body to a far higher than any barbarian standard. In the age of chivalry we can find something of a similar physical excellence, and again its plain dependence upon a high estimate of the value of a perfect body and upon great pains taken for its procurement. As this age gave way before gunpowder and the Church, as men discovered the uselessness of heavy armor, battle-axe, cross-bow, and lance, and as they were taught the doctrine of the necessity of body-mortification in order to perfection of soul, there prevailed a total disregard of the physical conditions necessary to our well-being. Even bathing was held to be a vanity of worldly savor, and gymnastics would doubtless have been considered worse than folly. This state of darkness lasted in Europe till the beginning of the present century, when Ling, of Sweden, after most persistent effort, succeeded in introducing his "movement-cure." For every one of the five hundred muscles, and for every imaginable disease, this system provided some kind of exercise. Its distinctive feature was its adaptability to diseased conditions, and there can be no doubt of its usefulness. As a means of cure it is still somewhat in use, and would probably be still more used were it not in the hands of those who make for it altogether unreasonable claims. And still, for those in search of the proper movements for exercising any given set of muscles, Ling's system, as set forth by Dr. Roth and many other of the great gymnast's disciples, furnishes abundant and explicit instruction. Also in the early years of this century, a system of physical training was introduced in Prussia by Jahn, not for the cure of disease, but for the development of strong, serviceable bodies. Strangely as it now sounds, Jahn's system was opposed by the Government, on the ground that it made the people less manageable, and more intolerant of church and state. Could better evidence be offered both of the good effect of gymnastics and also of the fearful ignorance that then prevailed of the value to the Church and to the state of a vigorous, healthy people? In spite of royal opposition, however, gymnastics grew in German popularity. The annual meetings of the Turnvereine, like the old Olympic festivals, fostered an enthusiasm for body-training, which, in turn, so far proved its worth to the state that in 1853 it became a recognized branch of public instruction. Since then, it will be remembered, Prussia's advance has been uninterrupted. To her armies Denmark, Austria, and France have in turn succumbed. Is it not possible that her glory is due to the thorough physical training of her children?

Coming now to our own country, we find by the year 1825 gymnastics taught in a private school at Northampton, Massachusetts, by a Professor Beck, who a few years later published a translation of Jahn's system. The school seems to have attracted considerable attention, but we can easily imagine how silly such artificial exercise must have seemed to those whose backs ached from their daily work. Little prepared were our New England parents to understand that, by this kind of exercise, backs and limbs could be developed that would easily carry burdens which untrained muscles would groan under. This same popular ignorance exists to-day. The majority still believe that hard manual labor affords better exercise than can any system of artificial gymnastics; whereas, instead of the equally developed elastic body resulting from gymnasium-training, we have in the laborers a stiff-jointed, clumsy, ill-proportioned body. In the fifty years since the introduction into this country of systematic body-training, there, nevertheless, has been great gain in the popular estimation of its advantages, as is shown by the almost countless systems that have received ephemeral patronage. Witness the innumerable pieces of gymnasium apparatus that have been advertised, and widely believed, to prevent or to cure all manner of woes and ills. At one time it is the spirometer, which, if blown into daily, will prevent consumption; then it is a patent kind of lifting-machine by which a man may soon learn to lift a ton; or rubber bands which deluded purchasers would surely find it easier to stretch as the rubber grew older. This long list of nostrums it is important for us to notice as in great measure accounting for the distrust many intelligent people have of the whole subject of gymnastics. In their ignorance they have believed the quacks, and, having suffered at least in purse, they now are shy of the subject in general. The fact is plain that their distrust is because more good has been claimed, and has been temporarily believed, to result from the use of one especial kind of exercise than could reasonably be expected from all kinds together. Honest efforts have meantime been made to introduce systematic exercise. Dio Lewis twenty years ago carried on in Boston a normal school of gymnastics. Several hundred teachers were graduated, and for a time were in considerable demand. Later, Dr. Lewis had a great girls' school in Lexington, where, in Bloomer dress and broad-soled boots, girls were certainly taught to walk long distances. The new system, as he called it, contained this principal innovation: Exercise was to be by couples holding rings or wands, and with music the doctor enthusiastically believed that he had borrowed all the charm of the dance, but it was found that, unlike dancing, in his evolutions all the fun was in learning how, and now his system is quite forgotten. In bringing our history of gymnastics down to date, it is necessary to mention the gymnasia of city clubs and colleges. Till within a few years a typical gymnasium of this sort was a medley collection of apparatus under the care of a janitor, who possibly knew something of the art of boxing. It was the fashion for the would-be gymnast to work at this or that according to fancy, always taking care, however, to exercise only his best-developed muscles. If a good vaulter, he spent his hour in vaulting; if strong armed, his exhibitions were on the swings and bar. These gymnasia would have been even less patronized except for the training in them of the sporting-men, who by general opinion were obliged to work diligently at some kind of machine if the next summer they were to beat other clubs and colleges on the field and river. Of their training and violent exercise little need be said, because they were so few, except that the wide-spread fear of harmful results from excessive exertion in these sports seems in the light of recent careful investigation to have been greatly exaggerated. The poverty in the results of these gymnasia was generally so disappointing that they were fast becoming unpopular, when happily the present successful system came in to supersede them. In order thoroughly to understand this new system one must experience its sure beneficent effects, which depend not upon newly-devised apparatus, although great improvements have been made in this respect, but upon the application of scientific principles in the employment of old methods, thereby combining all the possible advantages of every other system. Its main features are: First, a thorough physical examination of the person in comparison with the normal type, proper allowances being made for race, age, sex, and temperament. Second, carefully prescribed exercise to correct deformities and deficiencies, and to induce symmetrical development. Third, special directions as to proper times for exercise, and for care of the body after exercise. It will readily be understood that such a system requires professional oversight and direction. Before discussing the opportunities for profitable introduction of this system, let us consider its theoretical advantages and its practical results.

If, as may naturally be supposed, the human body is designed to meet the physical activity of life in simplest conditions, where all the muscles find necessary employment in procuring food and protection, then, in conditions of life where such necessity does not exist, it follows either that the body has unlimited power of adaptability, or that sooner or later in the deviation from primitive conditions the body will not naturally attain its maximum of possible vigor. The latter is, of course, our only conclusion; and it needs but to be pointed out that, in our present complicated civilization, where the demands upon nervous and mental force are so disproportionally great, this deviation is excessive and increasing, in order to emphasize the need of supplying artificially the lost conditions of maximum body strength. Our subject naturally divides, according to purposes, into exercise designed for the preservation, and into exercise designed for the development, of health and strength. Of the two subjects the latter is the more important. Once given a well-developed body in fine condition, and obedience to certain definite rules will keep it so; while, on the other hand, to bring about this condition is often impossible, and always demands skill and painstaking. No time may safely be wasted: the earlier the start and the more constant the care, the better are the possible results. A month's work in correcting a child's deficiencies or deformities may be worth years of such labor later on, when the skeleton is thoroughly ossified. And yet, although the plastic stage of youth is so much the more favorable time for such work, there is still such a Milling response on Nature's part, that almost at any age our efforts in this direction are liberally rewarded.

In considering the results that may be expected from exercise directed to certain ends, let us take first the body framework. The shape of the bones most concerns us. When we remember the pliant condition of young bone and the manner of its growth at the epiphyses, how easy it is to imagine the advantage of regularly stretching the cartilage in the lines of the most serviceable shape and position of the future bone! We know how easily the thorax-walls, for instance, become misshapen from abnormal pressure within or without, even from lazy slouching; and we know too how quick and lasting is the "setting-up" of the West-Pointers. Their splendid carriage is due simply to the stretching of ligaments and cartilage, maintained till the natural equilibrium of muscular force is regained in the new position. Merely for aesthetic reasons this result is well worth the cost. Of far greater importance are the increase of chest-room and the greater resistance to fatigue thus gained.

In passing now to the theoretical advantages of regularly exercising the voluntary muscles, little consideration need be paid to the supposed advantage of increase in size. Muscles readily respond to increased demands by rapid growth in size, and, for those whose duties do not require large muscles, it is questionable if they are any better off with them. A blacksmith's arm may be considered rather as a superfluity if on a parson. For some sets of muscles the blacksmith and the parson, and in fact all people, have equal need, and, in order to be equally vigorous in their respective stations, the development that the blacksmith gains naturally must, by others leading a sedentary life, be obtained artificially. Of prime importance to all are both the voluntary and the involuntary muscles of respiration. So directly does our physical health depend upon their continued vigor, that nothing short of their highest possible development should satisfy us. Especially is this true of the abdominal muscles, which should give not only most valuable assistance in the mechanism of breathing, but also a support of exceeding value to the viscera. No other set of muscles has suffered more in the change from active to sedentary life. Corsets are proof of this. Fashion is by no means wholly responsible for their almost universal use. They do not come and go, but, in spite of all efforts at dress reform, corsets hold their sway, because their wearers feel better in them. This will continue to be the case until the muscles whose office they partially supply are developed by exercise designed to take the place of what is no longer naturally obtained.

It is not sufficient to have merely large muscles. Like raw troops, their usefulness depends upon constant discipline. This widely-recognized fact is often wrongly explained, as, for instance, by the theory that our nerves need exercising. In this age, nerves need no such stimulus. A much more probable theory is given by Maclaren, of Oxford, namely, that the potential energy of body-substance depends upon its newness, which may be explained by the facts that the potential energy of combustible material is directly proportional, and its chemical stability is inversely proportional, to its molecular complexity. There can be no doubt that this complexity, if not immediately, is then gradually, lessened in the animal economy. There are probably countless stages in the oxidation into urea of each particle of nitrogenous tissue, be it cell-wall or cell-protoplasm, and at each stage of the process the particle will have consequently less potential energy and greater chemical stability; that is, less usefulness for the exhibition of vital phenomena. It is therefore impossible to lay up a permanent stock of physical vigor. Even if we should keep motionless as statues, our stock would steadily disappear. Not in size, but in quality, would come the great depreciation. Nature's own tendency to replace lost organic material with new teaches us how this depreciation may be avoided. In the body there is at best only a sluggish tendency to replace poor with better material, but by destroying that poor stuff we can arouse the organism into active efforts for its replacement. This is the philosophy of the advantage to muscles of regular exercise.

The full development and the continued vigorous condition of the circulatory system are of far more importance to the general health than are similar states of the voluntary muscles and the skeleton, whose importance is mainly in relation to the respiratory and circulatory systems. If we desire to possess maximum vigor, we must have large lung capacity, and, most of all, a stout heart and elastic arteries. In two great ways are the latter needs procured by physical exercise: First, in response to unusual demands there is an accelerated destruction of degenerating substance in the involuntary muscles of the heart and arterial walls, which, as we have seen, is requisite to the substitution of newer and more useful substance in them. Second, by the increased blood-tension, the coronary arteries and the vasa vasorum, in the intervals of dilatation, will carry more nourishment to the heart and arterial walls. It is hardly conceivable that a person, accustomed to regular physical exercise, should ever suffer from a fatty degenerated heart. And, with regard to this increased blood-tension gained in exercise, it is probable that it is productive of many other valuable results. For instance, the blood is drained from the overcharged brain, not merely as might be effected by venesection, thereby requiring an increased production, but by diverting its course into previously only half dilated channels, whose sluggish currents now become swift streams of lively blood. And, again, in consequence of this heightened blood tension, both the secretions and the excretions are increased, thereby developing the capacity of the glandular organs, and also directly aiding the body, both in the riddance of waste material and in the production of the necessary fluids. Of especial advantage, then, would be this increased blood-tension in aiding digestion. The circulation of the blood is, of course, directly aided during physical exercise by the rhythmical pressure of the muscles upon the veins, whose valves allow the blood to be driven only in the right direction.

In considering the effect of exercise upon the respiratory system, it is well understood that, in order faster to rid the body of waste gases and to obtain the needed oxygen, the respirations are increased in amount and frequency. Merely from this increased work the lung tissue would be expected to increase; and there is still further influence to this end, from the pressure of air within the lungs, induced by forcibly holding the breath for a moment, as is naturally done at the inception of muscular exertion. This pressure must tend to dilate the alveoli to their full extent, and it also serves to aid the passage of oxygen through the membranes, and its solution by the blood.

Such, then, are some of the theoretical advantages of physical exercise. Let us now examine the results. Unfortunately, exact records of gymnasiums are as yet rare. Although indefinite reports are of comparatively little value, still it is possible to appeal to the personal experience of many to substantiate the claims made for systematic artificial exercise. And, indeed, it is only by this personal testimony that we can get at the indirect, yet perhaps the most valuable, results. No tabulations can represent the after-glow, and the consciousness of increased strength, purified blood, and cleared brain, which delightfully reward such exercise. Equally difficult would it be to describe the body alacrity so acquired, which, without stopping to discuss its origin, is a very valuable result, and never otherwise attainable. We are, however, not entirely dependent upon our own limited experience, nor upon indefinite statements of results. Though strangely few, we still have some unquestionable records of not slight deformities and deficiencies corrected. In searching for measurements that will even approximately represent the vigor of the body, we can not depend upon measurements of muscles, which can never be accurate, and, even if they were so, are no sure guide. The weight and height are also alone useless; but all these measurements taken into account, together with the muscular strength and the general character of the flesh, give a tolerably fair idea of the person's condition. If to these measurements be added the girth and expansive power of the chest, and the lung capacity, a far more accurate idea will be obtained; and the gain in these measurements, after regular terms of exercise, may fairly be assumed to represent its advantages. Taking now the most important measurements, we find reported from various gymnasiums an increase of two inches in passive girth of chest, of four inches in expansive power, and of fifty cubic inches in lung capacity. These gains have been obtained in six months' time, not only in college students, army officers, and school-boys, but also in city girls. Who can properly estimate the advantages of such increased breathing power? In enabling the fortunate gainer more easily to meet the wear and tear of daily duties, or the possible onslaught of acute disease, what invaluable assistance would be rendered by these fifty cubic inches of lung capacity!

As a preventive of disease, there can be no question of the advantageous results of exercise, and in this connection may be quoted the reports from Amherst College, which show a remarkable decrease in sickness since the introduction of compulsory gymnastics, and a decrease in the proportion of three sick in the freshman year to one sick in the senior year, as a result of four years' training. Another most excellent result mentioned in the same reports, which can not be too greatly emphasized, is the increase of the person's own regard for his body. After realizing the cost of physical strength, one is far less likely to waste it wantonly.

What has been said of the advantages of physical exercise in developing the body applies even more forcibly in regaining a vigorous condition after debilitating disease. For, while in growth we have natural tendencies toward excellent development, on the other hand in the convalescence of adults the only stimulus is that of needed strength; only by exertion can this stimulus be gained. To bring a convalescent fully up to par, more is needed than tonics and a nutritious diet. And if doctors oftener prescribed and required definite daily amounts of exercise, their patients' recoveries would be hastened, and the striking change for the better, now so often immediately following the doctors' dismissal, would then be less noticeable.

Especially applicable would such practice be in hospitals where patients are under stricter surveillance, but surrounded with less inducements to exercise themselves; comfortably cared for, with no necessity for exertion, it is often no easy job to rouse them to active recovery of strength. The added expense of a suitable gymnasium under competent supervision would, doubtless, be saved by the patient's shorter stay in the convalescent condition.

In the case of physical exercise, no exception will be found to the general rule that the efficacy depends upon the accuracy of the prescription.

Good results are not to be expected from careless following of careless advice. Those whose need is greatest are often the most loath to undertake any exercise, and hence such will be sure not to avail themselves of any indefinite instructions in this respect; while, on the other hand, some, out of over-conscientiousness or enthusiasm and in lack of explicit directions, are liable by overdoing to receive injury instead of benefit. It should be borne in mind that it is the physician's duty to teach his patients that they may so far as possible live intelligently as regards their own peculiar conditions. If in his trained observation there is on his patient's part a need for greater lung development, then every means should be taken to gain the patient's intelligent co-operation in securing this result.

If a well-appointed gymnasium is at hand, the physician should be as well able to prescribe the exact use of its different apparatus as he is to write for doses from the adjoining drug-store. Nor is it safer to depend upon the skill of the average gymnasium director, than it is upon the druggist, for particular instructions. It is as likely that one as the other would be able to recognize, for instance, the difference between functional and organic heart-murmurs, which would call for such fundamentally different treatment. If no gymnasium is at hand, the doctor should still be as well able to advise about the use of extemporized apparatus and the various forms of exercise without appatus as about the use of other domestic remedies. His prescriptions must be both intelligent and intelligible.

The opportunities for giving this advice are far greater than for giving any drug or all drugs put together. For long before and for long after there is any drug indication, there exists the plain, imperative need of physical exercise, even for those in perfect health who desire to keep that blessing. Either physicians must recognize the growing demands for professional advice as to such means of maintaining health or a new profession will arise to keep people out of the doctors' hands. Even now doctors are called upon for this advice, and it is a great mistake to suppose that the call demands little attention.

The grandest opportunity for the introduction of this new system of gymnastics is in the schools, where succeeding generations are molded. According to statistics, in only three in a thousand of the public schools of this country is any attention paid to physical training. Even a casual inspection of these schools, where entire attention is paid to mental development, reveals sufficient reasons for the abounding deficiencies and deformities which make almost conspicuous any well-formed man or woman. To say nothing of the debilitating influence of their commonly wretched hygienic surroundings, their entire lack of physical exercise as a corrective for the unnatural sedentary life that is forced upon them is cause sufficient for their poor bodily development.

It is a popular fallacy that the short recesses and the after-school play-hours can make up for the long school-sessions, during which the children must sit still and too often in a necessarily cramped position. The school-yard is generally so small and crowded that only the bolder boys dare run in it; the timid, weakly boys and the girls dawdle away the precious minutes. And even the common sports of childhood do not furnish the right sort of exercise. Like that of tramping up the long stair-flights, and of going to and from the school, the exercise is mainly of the lower limbs, which in the unnatural conditions of civilization suffer least from disuse, and therefore stand in least need of artificial development. Invaluable as the play-hours are in relief from mental strain, the exercise thus afforded needs to be supplemented by such as will give the child the best possible body. Such exercise can easily be provided in the schools, and will be provided when parents awake to the fact that children's bodies as well as minds suffer from neglect, and become serviceable according to the care taken in their development.

  1. An essay read before the Boylston Medical Society of Harvard University, December 15, 1882.