Perfect health is consciousness of full vitality, of exhilaration, keen enjoyment of life, and strength to perform any task, and it is a melancholy reflection that not one in a thousand men and women of middle-age has it. Yet the average healthy child fulfills those conditions, simply because of his unceasing activity–an activity that knows no tired from early morning till, tired out, he falls asleep at night–keeps the various organs of the body in constant exercise. No muscle has the chance of stiffening, no organ grows weak from disuse, or sluggish because of tasks set beyond its powers.

The savage knows nothing about the secret of health, but his life is spent in the manner of an irresponsible pleasure-loving child; hence the aliments of civilization are practically unknown to him in his normal state.Weakly people talk enviously of others who have had a heritage of health, and undoubtedly there is such good fortune inherited by some. But it should not be forgotten that a heritage may be built up as well as inherited, and that while we are building it up we are enjoying its accumulation ourselves, as well as laying up treasure for those that come after.

It is my firm conviction that every young man who has not yet begun life hopelessly handicapped by an inheritance of organic disease, may build up a constitution and health which will enable him to live his life as gladly as does a child; to perform, without undue pain, the part in life Nature has destined for him; and to leave to his offspring, in later years, such a heritage of health as will make them bless his memory.Of course it will be thought by the foolish that all this talk of mine is a bit of special pleading for the system of Physical Culture with which my name is associated. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

The children and savages whom I have used, by way of illustration, have no scientific system of physical exercise, and yet they represent a state of health to which two-thirds of civilized mankind are strangers. So it is clear that health may be enjoyed apart from my system. Only, it must be remembered that children and savages lead a perfectly natural life; plenty of open air and plenty of exercise, and no duties which involved unnatural postures of the body, late hours, or over-work….All good things suffer from exaggeration of their virtues.

The moment any drug is recommended as a panacea, a cure-all, it becomes degraded to quackery, and I am afraid that exercise has suffered to some extent by the vague and general manner in which it has been recommended for every ailment under the sun. No such thing exists in nature as a universal remedy, and it is unwise in the highest degree to exalt any remedial measure to such a height.

Before closing this chapter, I should like to say something about medical exercises and their field. First, discussing the question from a very general point of view, I must remind you that the exercise of any faculty is necessary to the retention and development of that faculty.

The love of play and recreation develops the physical powers. Existence itself demands the continual exercise of the mental powers, and the problems of this life are quite sufficiently many and mysterious to exercise from day to day moral faculties.

The use of any function brings improvement and perfection; its disuse brings degeneration and decay.

The tendency of the day is, of course, to make less and less exercise, partly because of want and time, partly because of facilities for rapid transit. Now, of course, this denial of bodily activity makes for physical degeneration and must be in some way replaced. Systematic exercise is exercise reduced to a science, and when we come to compare it with recreative exercise the result is as follows:

Systematic Exercise

  1. Occupies little time
  2. Is immediately invigorating and refreshing
  3. Is a distinct addition to the permanent strength

Recreative Exercise

  1. Occupies long time
  2. Is fatiguing
  3. Is not considerable addition to the permanent strength

Physiologically speaking, exercise is universally beneficial; that is to say, the health and energy are naturally improved and increased by exercise and every tissue beneficially affected. But it would not be wise to argue that because this is so therefore medical exercises form a cure for all diseases. In the first place, all acute disorders fall outside the scope of medical exercise; the field rather confines itself to sub-acute or chronic disorders.

To take deformities in the first place. Of course nearly every muscular deformity can be cured by exercise; especially is this so in the case of lateral curvature, where certain muscles become weaker and weaker, while the opposing muscles become stronger, and thus rapidly increasing the vicious habit of the curvature.

Another muscular group is that of bad development or under-development. Take, for example, the case in which the muscles of one limb have fallen behind in consequence of some congenital defect. This, of course, can easily be cured.

A third group we might take is that associated with nervous disorders, such as wry neck, writers’ cramp, paralysis, etc. In the case of paralysis the scope of exercise will be much clearer if the following point is quite understood. Where there is the possibility of exercising will-power it should be used. Some kinds of paralysis are so advanced that the sufferer has entirely lost the power of conscious movement. These cases, of course, must be treated with hand massage or electricity. But where the power of movement exists, in even a slight degree, immeasurably better results will follow if actual exercise with the employment of will-power be used along with massage. That is to say, the more severe the paralysis, the more we must fall back upon hand massage and electricity; the less severe it is, the more we must employ movement massage, resistive movements, and voluntary exercise.

Another muscular group is that associated with bone deformity. Into this group come club-foot, knock-knees, the severer kinds of curvature, many rickety deformities, etc. These require almost special treatment, in which surgery must work hand in hand with exercise.

Leaving muscular disorders, we come to organic complaints, in which the great arteries are more or less diseased. In the first place, one danger which has to be pointed out is the prescription of exercise by an incompetent man. The danger is not in anyway, however, so great as that of leaving hand massage at the discretion of an ignorant person. For this reason, then, if there is any doubt, a medical man should be consulted. It must be said, however, that many conditions exist which are generally supposed to make exercise dangerous, but which are, as a matter of fact, empowered by exercise.

Taking two of these I may mention cases of rupture and of heart disease. In the first case, provided a truss is worn whilst exercising, exercise may be taken without danger and with distinct benefit. As a preventative of rupture, exercise is infallible.

Heart affections fall into two classes: one where actual disease is not present, the other where the valves are affected. The first condition can generally be absolutely cured by exercise, the second condition can generally be considerably ameliorated. Of course it goes without saying that, in cases of heart weakness, exercise should be prescribed only by an expert.

The three great organic groups where exercise comes as a sovereign remedy are:–First, nervous disorders; second, lung disease; third, ailments which have as their cause abdominal congestion. In the first group come all kinds of nervous prostration or disorders. In the second, of course, the case resolves itself into combating that great scourge of civilization–consumption. I am convinced that exercise, combined with the taking of cod-liver oil, will be an effectual cure, except in the last stages. The third group of abdominal disorders includes congestion of the liver or sluggish liver, constipation and its attendant train of evils.

By Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength (Talk XIII Exercise versus Medicine), 1902