Millions of our people pass their lives in cities and towns, and at work which keeps them nearly all day in-doors. Many hours are devoted for days and years, under careful teachers, and many millions of dollars are spent annually, in educating the mind and the moral nature. But the body is allowed to grow up all uneducated; indeed, often such a weak, shaky affair that it gets easily out of order, especially in middle and later life, and its owner is wholly unequal to tasks which would have proved easy to him, had he give it even a tithe of the education bestowed so generously in other directions. Not a few, to be sure, have the advantage in youth of years of active out-door life on a farm, and so lay up a store of vigor which stands them in good stead throughout a lifetime.

But many, and especially those born and reared in towns and cities, have had no such training, or any equivalent, and so never have the developed lungs and muscles, the strong heart and vigorous digestion-in short, the improved tone and strength in all their vital organs—which any sensible plan of body-culture, followed up daily, would have secured. It does not matter so much whether we get vigor on the farm, the deck, the tow-path, or in the gymnasium, if we only get it. Fortunately, if not gotten in youth, when we are plastic and easily shaped, it may still be had, even far on in middle life, by judicious and systematic exercise, aimed first to bring up the weak and unused parts, and then by general work daily which shall maintain the equal development of the whole.

The aim here has been, not to write a profound treatise on gymnastics, and point out how to eventually reach great performance in this art, but rather in a way so plain and untechnical that even any intelligent boy or girl can readily understand it, to first give the reader a nudge to take better care of his body, and so his health, and then to point out one way to do it. That there are a hundred other ways is cheerfully conceded. If anything said here should stir up some to vigorously take hold of, and faithfully follow up, either the plan here indicated or any other of these others, it cannot fail to bring them marked benefit and so to gratify.

Do we Inherit Shapely Bodies? (Chapter I)

Probably more men walk past the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, in New York City, in the course of one year, than any other point in America — men of all nations and ages, heights and weights. Look at them carefully as they pass, and you will see that scarcely one in ten is either erect or thoroughly well-built. Some slouch their shoulders and double in at the waist; some overstep; others cant to one side; this one has one shoulder higher than the other, and that one both too high ; some have heavy bodies and light legs, others the reverse; and so on, each with his own peculiarities. A thoroughly erect, well-proportioned man, easy and graceful in his movements, is far from a frequent sight. Any one accustomed to athletic work, and knowing what it can do for the body, must at times have wondered why most men allowed themselves to go along for years, perhaps through life, so carrying themselves as not only to lack the outward grace and ease they might possess, and which they occasionally see in others, but so as to directly cramp and impede one or more of the vital organs.

Nor is it always the man’s fault that he is ill proportioned. In most cases it comes down from his progenitors. The father’s walk and physical peculiarities appear in the son, often so plainly that the former’s calling might almost be told from a look at the latter.

A very great majority of Americans are the sons either of farmers or merchants, mechanics or labourers. The work of each class soon develops peculiar characteristics. No one of the four classes has ordinarily had any training at all aimed to make him equally strong all over. Broad as is the variety of the farmer’s work, far the greater, and certainly the heavier, part of it tends to make him stoop forward and become inerect. No man stands up straight and mows. When he shovels, he bends more yet; and every ounce of spade or load pulls him over, till, after much of this sort of work, it requires an effort to stand upright. Ploughing is better for the upper body, but it does not last long.

While it keeps one walking over uneven ground, it soon brings on an awkward, clumsy step, raising, as it does, the foot unnaturally high. Chopping is excellent for the upper man, but does little for his legs. In hand-raking and hoeing the man may remain erect; but in pitching and building the load, in early every sort of lifting, and especially the heavier sorts, as in handling heavy stone or timber, his back is always bent over. It is so much easier to slouch over when sitting on horse-rake, mower, or harvester, that most persons do it.

Scarcely any work on a farm makes one quick of foot. All the long day, while some of the muscles do the work, which tends to develop them, the rest are untaxed, and remain actually weak. A farmer is seldom a good walker, usually hitching up if he has an errand to go, though it be scarce a mile away; and he is rarely a good runner. He is a hearty, well-fed man, not only because wholesome food is plenty, but because his appetite is sharp, and he eats with relish and zest. Naturally a man thinks that, when he eats and sleeps well, he is pretty healthy, and so he usually is ; but when he is contented with this condition of things, he overlooks the fact that he is developing some parts of his body, and leaving others weak ; that the warp he is encouraging in that body, by twice as much work for the muscles of his back as for those of the front of his chest, while it enlarges the former, often so as to even render it muscle-bound, actually contracts the latter, and hence gives less room for heart, lungs, stomach, and all the vital organs, than a well-built man would have. If a man should tie up one arm, and with the other steadily swing a smith’s hammer all day, there is little doubt that he would soon have an excellent appetite and the sweet sleep of the labouring man. But in what shape would it leave him in a few years, or even in a few months? The work of the farmer, ill-distributed as to the whole man, leaves him as really one-sided as the former. It is in a lesser degree, of course, but still so evident that he who looks even casually may see it.

While the farmer’s work makes a man hearty and well, though lumbering, it takes the spring out of him. The merchant is, physically, however, in a worse position. Getting to his work in boyhood, sticking to it as long as the busiest man in the establishment, his body often utterly unfit and unready for even half the strain it bears, he struggles on through the boy’s duties, the clerk’s, and the salesman’s, till he becomes a partner; or perhaps he starts as entry-clerk, rises to be book-keeper, and then stays there. In many kinds of work he has been obliged to stand nearly all day, till his sides and waist could scarcely bear it longer, and he often breaks down under the ceaseless pressure. If his work calls him out much, he finds that the constant walking, with his mind on the stretch, and more or less worried, does not bring him that vigor he naturally looks for from so much exercise, and at night he is jaded and used up, instead of being fresh and hearty. When exceptional tension comes, and business losses or reverses make him anxious and haggard, there is little in his daily work which tends to draw him out of a situation that he could have readily and easily fitted himself to face, and weather too, had he only known how. To be sure, when he gets well on and better to do, he rides out in the late afternoon, and domestic and social recreation in the evening may tend to freshen him, and fit him for the next day’s round; but, especially if he has been a strong young man, he finds that he is changed, and cannot work on as he used to do. His bodily strength and endurance are gone. The reason why is plain enough: when he was at his best, he was doing most work, and of the sort to keep him in good condition. Now there is nothing between rising and bedtime to build up any such strength, and he is fortunate if he retains even half of what he had. To be sure, he does not need the strength of a stalwart young farmer; but, could he have retained it, he would have been surprised, if he had taken sufficient daily exercise to regulate himself, how valuable it would have been in toning him up for the severer work and trial of the day. If, instead of the taxed and worn-out nerves, he could have had the feeling of the man of sturdy physique, who keeps himself in condition, who does not know what it is to be nervous, what a priceless boon it would have been for him!

Who does not know among his friends business men whose faces show that they are nearly all the time overworked; who get thin, and stay so; who look tired, and are so ; who go on dragging along through their duties — for they are men made of the stuff which does the duty as it comes up, whether hard or easy ? The noon meal is rushed through, perhaps when the brain is at white-heat. More is eaten, both then and in the evening, than will digest; and good as is the after or the before dinner ride, as far as it goes, it does not go far enough to make the digestion sure. Then comes broken sleep. The man waking from it is not rested, is not rebuilt and strong, and ready for the new day.

With many men of this kind — and all city men know they are well-nigh innumerable— what wonder is it that nervous exhaustion is so frequent among them, and that physicians who make this disorder a specialty often have all that they can do? One of the most noted of them, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, of Philadelphia, in his valuable little book, “Wear and Tear; or, Hints for the Overworked,” page 46, says:

All classes of men who use the brain severely, and who have also — and this is important — seasons of excessive anxiety or grave responsibility, are subject to the same form of disease; and this is why, I presume, that I, as well as others who are accustomed to encounter nervous disorders, have met with numerous instances of nervous exhaustion among merchants and manufacturers.

My notebooks seem to show that manufacturers and certain classes of railway officials are the most liable to suffer from neural exhaustion. Next to these come merchants in general, brokers, etc.; then, less frequently, clergymen; still less often, lawyers; and, more rarely, doctors; while distressing cases are apt to occur among the over-schooled young of both sexes.

And while the more active among business men run into this sort of danger, those less exposed to it still do little or nothing to give themselves sound, vigorous bodies, so as to gain consequent energy and health, and so they go through life far less efficient and useful men than they might have been. Hence their sons have to suffer. The boy certainly cannot inherit from the father more vigor and stamina than the latter has, however favoured the mother may have been; so, unless the boy has some sort of training which builds him up, his father’s weaknesses or physical defects are very likely to show in the son.

Nor do most classes of mechanics fare much better. Take the heavier kinds of skilled labour. The blacksmith rarely uses one of his hands as much as the other, especially in heavy work, and often has poor legs. Indeed, if he has good legs, he does not get them from his calling. The stone-mason is equally one-handed — one hand merely guiding a light tool, the other swinging a heavy mallet. Nine -tenths of all machinists are right-handed.

And so on, through the long list of the various trades where severe muscular exertion is requisite, there is a similar uneven distribution of the work to the various parts of the body, the right arm generally getting the lion’s share, the left but little, the back more than the chest — or, rather, than the front chest — and the legs having but passive sort of work at best. Puddlers and boiler – makers, plumbers and carpenters, coopers and smiths, shipwrights, carriage-makers, tinners, and all who follow trades calling for vigorous muscular action, not only constantly work one side more than the other, but many of their tools are made, purposely, right-handed, so that they could hardly use them with the left hand if they wanted to. As to those whose work is more delicate, saddlers and shoemakers, mill-hands and compositors, wood-turners, tailors, jewellers and engravers, and nearly all the lighter craftsmen, learn their trade with one hand, and would never venture to trust any of its liner work to the other. In short, take the mechanic where you will, in the vast majority of instances his right arm and side are larger and stronger than his left, and quite as often his vocation does little or nothing to strengthen and develop his legs.

The fact that most of these men have active work for some of the muscles, with enough of it to insure a good appetite, combined with inherited vigor, makes them often hearty men, but it leaves them unequally developed. When they get into the gymnasium, they are usually lacking in that symmetry, ease, and erectness which they might all along have had, had they but used the means. The result, then, of overworking one part of the body at the expense of the other, especially in heavier mechanical labors, and of too little vigorous action in the lighter, tends to make the average workman more prone to disease. Were there uniform development, and that daily vigorous exercise which would stimulate the dormant parts of the man’s body, it would add to his life and usefulness.

But how is it with the sturdy laborer? He can hardly be liable to the same defects. His work certainly must call into play every muscle of his body.

Well, watch him awhile and see. Try the coal heaver. His surely is heavy, hard work, and must make him exert himself all over. But does it? While it keeps his knees steadily bent, his back is all the while over his work. The tons of coal he lifts daily with his shovel gradually, but with positive certainty, insures his back remaining somewhat bent when his work for the time is done. When a year is spent at such labor, the back must take a lasting curve. While his back broadens, growing thick and powerful, his chest does not get so much to do; hence he is soon a round-shouldered man.

As he does not hold his chest out, nor his neck and head erect, he contracts his lung-room, as well, indeed, as his general vital-room. Scarce any man grows earlier muscle-bound, for few backs do so much hard work. Now, standing erect, let him try and slap the backs of his hands together behind his shoulders, keeping his arms horizontal and straight at the elbow. Now he will understand what is meant by being muscle-bound. It will be odd if he can get his hands within a foot of each other.

The navvy is no better. The gardener’s helper has to do much stooping. So do track-hands, stone breakers, truckmen, porters, longshoremen, and all the rest. Especially are ordinary day-labourers, whose tools are spade, pick, and bar, who are careless about their skin, who are exposed to dust and dirt, who are coarsely shod, most prone to have bad feet. They, too, have the hearty appetite and the sound sleep. Seldom do they give their bodily improvement a thought, and so often, like their own teeth, they decay before their time, and materially shorten their usefulness and their days.

Here, then, we see that the vast majority of men in this country — three out of four at least — are born of fathers but partially developed, and uniformly of inerect carriage.

And how is it with their mothers? Naturally they come, to a large extent, from the same classes. They inherit many of the characteristics of their fathers — size, color, temperament, and so on, and generally the same tendency to be stronger on one side than on the other. In the poorer classes their life is one of work, frequently of overwork and drudgery, and in ill -lighted, ill -ventilated apartments. Among those better off, they do not work enough, and often, though of vigorous parents, are not themselves strong.

Thoroughly healthy, hearty women are not common among us. Ask the family physician, and he will endorse this statement to an extent most men would not have supposed. American women are not good walkers. Look how they are astonished when they hear of some lady who walks from five to ten miles a day, and thinks nothing of it. One such effort would be positively dangerous to very many, indeed probably to the majority of our women, while nearly all of them would not get over its effects for several days. Yet many English and Canadian ladies take that much exercise daily from choice, and, finding the exhilaration, strength, and health it brings, and the general feeling of efficiency which it produces, would not give it up. No regular exercise is common among the great majority of the women of this country which makes them use both their hands alike, and is yet vigorous enough to add to the size and strength of their shoulders, chests, and arms. Ordinary housework brings the hands of those who indulge in it a good deal to do, even though the washing and ironing are left to hired help. The care of children adds materially to the exertion called for in a day. But far too often both the house-work and the looking after the children are sources of great exertion. Were the woman strong and full of vigor, she would turn each off lightly, and still be fresh and hearty at the end of the day.

With the father, as with the mother, the conclusion arrived at seems to be as follows: now that the day ‘3 work is done, no matter whether it brings with it strength or weakness, let us be perfectly contented with things as they are. If it makes us one-handed, so be it. If it stoops the back over, so be it. If it does little or nothing for the lower limbs or cramps the chest, or never half fills the lungs, or aids digestion not a whit, so be it. If it keeps some persons thin and tired-looking, and does not prevent others from growing too fleshy, it never occurs to most of them that a very small amount of knowledge and effort in the right direction would work wonders, and in a way which would be not only valuable but attractive.

Most of us get, then, from our parents a one sided and partial development, and are contented with it. Unless we ourselves take steps to better our condition, unless we single out the weak spots, prescribe the work and the amount of it, and then do that work, we shall not remedy the evil.

More than this, if we do not cure these defects, we will not only go through life with limited and cramped physical resources with their accompanying disorders and ailments, but we will cruelly entail on our children defects and tendencies which might have readily been spared them, and for which they can fairly blame us. A little attention to the subject will show that the remedy is quite within our reach; and so plain is this, that a generation later, if the interest now awakening in this direction becomes, as it promises to, very general among us, our descendants will understand far better than we do that the body can be educated, as well as the mind or the moral nature; that, instead of interfering with the workings of these, the body will, when properly trained, directly and materially aid them; and, further, that there is no stand-point from which the matter can be viewed which will not show that such training will pay, and most handsomely at that.

source: How to Get Strong and How to Stay So, by William Blaikie, 1879
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