Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/February 1885/Physical Training of Girls

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AN eminent French writer has said, "When you educate a boy, you perhaps educate a man; but, when you educate a girl, you are laying the foundation for the education of a family." He might have added that to this end the physical training was of equal importance with the mental.

In these days the subject of the physical training of young men is occupying much attention, and the discussions are broad and full of interest. The fault is, that the needs of both sexes in this respect are not equally considered.

An erect figure, an organism in which the processes of life may go on without the ceaseless discord of functions at war with each other because of abnormal relations—in short, the added advantages which a fine physical adjustment gives to its possessor—are as necessary to one sex as to the other, and for the same reasons.

If physical education and consequent improvement are things to be desired, it is not that a number of individuals as a result of this training shall be able to perform certain feats of strength or agility, but in its broadest sense it is for the improvement of the race, and the race can not materially advance physically, intellectually, or morally unless the two factors which constitute the race share equally in whatever tends to its greater perfection. Therefore, if in consequence of proper physical training men can do more work, live longer, and transmit to their offspring a share of this improved condition, women also should be so trained that they can do more work, live longer, and contribute to the higher possibilities of their offspring by supplementing instead of thwarting the promise which has been presupposed in the higher development of the male parent.

The question of the varieties and degree of exercise adapted to young women, and the many theories unsupported by observation which have been advanced, have done much to discourage the efforts and hinder the progress of those who have been honestly endeavoring to establish a reform from which definite results might be determined. The growing recognition of the necessity for thorough work in this direction is the lever which must in time remove all obstacles that have thus far stood in our way.

Professor D. A. Sargent, M. D., of Harvard College, a gentleman who has much practical experience in these matters, writes with regard to his observations in many of our female colleges and seminaries, "They all feel the demand for improvement in this direction, but for the most part their efforts are lame and impotent." He does not attribute this to lack of ability to come up to the required standards, but says that a need of encouragement and of suitable equipments exists.

Although I have been refused any statistical information, upon the plea that it was too early to make a summary of results, I know that in a few of the colleges for women the work of the drill-room is done with precision, and, what is better, enthusiasm. The late physician of one of these writes: "I am inclined to regard properly-conducted gymnastic exercises as decidedly beneficial to female students. There has been in some instances less headache, in others marked improvement where various disturbances to health had existed. I look for benefit to all students who practice regularly and faithfully. It strengthens more sets of muscles than walking or rowing; the latter takes them into the open air. They need both, in order to do the best work."

A lady, lately connected with a famous English college, writes that gymnastic exercises were employed, but were not so popular as walking, horseback-riding, and tennis. She adds, "Walks of fifteen or twenty miles were not so unusual as to excite remark," and mentions two friends who "did" thirty miles in a day without fatigue. "Indeed, one of them spent the entire evening afterward in dancing."

These facts certainly indicate that women are not by nature lacking in physical resources. The question, then, arises, What are the best methods of developing these resources?

It is a well-known fact that in women the vital grasp, tenacity of life, if we may so term it, is stronger than it is in man. This is perhaps a necessary provision, because of the added fact that through the physiological processes of her being she is exposed to greater perils than are her stronger brothers. The existence of these conditions also renders her more liable to injury from any sudden and severe muscular strain, against which the system has not been fortified by previous training.

Some one has said that, in order to improve the health of the present generation, it would be necessary to correct the hygiene of our grandmothers! It is to be regretted that we can not begin thus early; but we can improve the grandmothers of the future by beginning with the young girls of to-day, and, through a sustained and systematic course of culture, help them to reach maturity with a physical endowment which will enable them more successfully to take their part in the battle of life. I would therefore say, begin the training early; where this is not possible, begin carefully.

Regulated gymnastic exercise is only one means of physical culture: modes of dress, out-of-door exercise, bathing, sleeping, the plays of young children, all are of equal importance.

If the little girl is to be reared with a view to perfect physical development, she should be dressed in as substantial clothing as her brother, and all trimmings and accessories necessitating extra care and stimulating a tendency to self-consciousness and the impression of sex should be avoided. If the boy is provided with a bicycle, the girl should be given a tricyle, and so with all the inducements by which he is stimulated to seek recreation in the open air. She should share them.

If, from the exuberance of health and vitality which this course engenders, the girl should chance to make as much noise as a boy, she should not be checked and repressed, while he is sent out-of-doors to have his frolic out. Above all, should the following of that routine custom in the education of girls, piano-practice, be avoided. The piano is the family vampire, which has sapped the vitality of thousands of young girls by keeping them from the healthful recreation and exercise which they so much need. It should be a rule of every educator that no girl should be allowed to take a course of music-lessons while she is pursuing the regular routine of her school-work.

As the girl approaches womanhood, let it be remembered that the need of healthful mental work is never greater than now. Muscle and nerve and intellect do not develop and grow strong upon sensational literature and fancy-work, and this is why girls at this age often grow morbid, sentimental, and self-conscious. Those instincts which should be kept in abeyance are stimulated into activity, and nervous, hysterical, or chlorotic conditions result.

Where the mind has been healthily directed, the system fortified by unstinted out-of-door recreation, and the muscles trained to endure prolonged effort without fatigue, the above conditions will be looked for in vain.

Walking, running, horseback-riding, tricycle-riding, lawn tennis, swimming, rowing, skating, bowling, hand-ball, and general gymnastics, are the exercises best adapted to girls, and, for that matter, to any persons who wish a healthful and well-balanced rather than an abnormal physical development.

(The harmful and disfiguring accidents which often result from the rougher games practiced by young men, as well as the graver injuries which are the direct result of heavy lifting or a sudden severe strain upon certain sets of muscles, are matters to be deprecated, not emulated, and perfect physical training does not require such sacrifices.)

Where the girl has been allowed to grow to early womanhood neglectful of the requirements for proper physical culture, the question of what she may then undertake is a more serious one. If she be in college, the college physician should ascertain if there are any organic defects, and, if any exist, regulate her exercise in accordance with the requirements of the case. In nearly all cases, if the work is begun carefully, increased gradually, and sustained systematically, the best results will follow.

Let the girl be properly reared, and it will be found that Nature has imposed no obstacles against the attainment of the most healthful and highest physical standards which are commensurate with the normal development of the system.