Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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How the West got fit

It took almost 6000 years for exercise to become respectable

Before Agriculture (BA) it never occurred to anyone to think about fitness at all. People were too busy foraging and hunting and celebrating their success in finding good things to eat by vigorous dances and other physical manifestations of joy. Humanity existed in a state of fitness grace.

Agriculture took a lot of work to get going. The endless removal of large stones from places one wished to plant initially kept people fit, but once the crops were in then things could go to pot quickly doing little but waiting for nutritious grasses to grow. Something else was needed to keep the race physically fit and it didn’t take long before someone came up with an idea: war. Once the concept took hold it became clear that the human body was the keenest, most crucial instrument of war we humans had -- and it was so close at hand. With a little extra physical training you could trounce your neighbours a few fields over and take whatever you wanted.

It was soon apparent to everyone that the path to victory came through exercise. Compulsory physical training to make hard men out of soft boys became the battle cry of every would-be conqueror from around 4000 BCE to the fall of the Roman Empire. Truth be told, long before the Spartans cottoned on to a good thing Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Persians learned to bulk up before they even picked up a weapon. By the time the Greeks and Romans got into the act, training regimes had become so grueling that actually going to war offered a respite from the rigours of the exercise field.

Spartan exercise

In the West, the citizens of the Greek city-state of Sparta were early adapters. They quickly learned that by getting into shape you could scare your opponents and, if necessary, beat them into submission. A brutal and relentless fitness regime made Spartan soldiers so invincible their army was feared in the Peloponnese and beyond. That Spartan reputation for toughness lingers to this day.

Training began when boys were just seven years old. Snatched from their mothers' arms, they were enrolled in a program of heavy exertion the results of which are familiar to the modern eye, thanks to the remarkably well-built naked male bodies whose splendid muscles grace so much of ancient Greek pottery and sculpture. Indeed, "gymnastics" comes from the common Greek adjective "gymnos," meaning naked. Well muscled but scantily clothed, Spartan soldiers-in-training are thought to have been responsible for the tradition of nudity at the Olympic games.

Fortunately, working yourself into stupendous condition did have a more positive aspect. The first Olympic games, believed to have taken place in 765 BCE, glorified the body in the name of peace. An Olympic truce was enacted to allow participants to travel to the games in safety, and the games themselves served to reinforce spiritual and religious beliefs and to emphasize the benefits of harmony instead of war. Behind the scenes, the games became a political tool, an opportunity for city-states to glory it over their rivals. Whether in the service of Ares, the god of war, or Irene, the goddess of peace, the Olympic competitions infused the culture with the ideal of a "sound mind in a sound body." A very good thing.

Roman sloth

Contemporary historians who liken modern decadence and laziness to that of Roman citizens in the last centuries before the fall of the empire may be onto something. Whether the decline and fall of Rome can be attributed to flabby abs or not, it's safe to say that the Dark Ages that followed them were not a golden period for the human form. Jousting and archery tournaments were an important way to climb the feudal social ladder but body building was not a medieval sport. In England for a period of time both upper and lower class men between the ages of 15 and 60 were required by law to practice archery in readiness for battle. But that didn’t mean they were up to the fight. Only farmers and soldiers, who went to the trouble to work out, were in decent shape. The flesh that lay under the amour and chain mail was more often fat than muscle. Christianity showed a marked distaste for the body and suggested the population ignore it entirely in favour of saving their souls.

After a long decline, fitness as an activity for personal gain and health bloomed once more during the Renaissance. In 1553, the Spaniard Cristobal Mendez published The Book of Exercise and Its Benefits to the Body. The work analyzed games and exercises from a medical point of view and suggested specific activities for all citizens, including women, children and the elderly. An Italian physician, Mercurialis, who wrote about the benefits of exercise and outlined physical therapy for the first time, resurrected techniques from Classical times.

The coal-spewing factories of the Industrial Revolution mark the real origin of fitness as we know it. It was clear to anyone who cared to look that being slave to a machine for all of your waking hours had a deleterious effect on one’s health.

The idea that exercise might be a good thing began to take hold in Europe, albeit slowly. The Philanthropinium, a school based on the ideas of the progressive Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau opened in 1774 in Dessau, Germany and emphasized physical exercise and games. Thirty seven years later, in 1811, Friedrich Jahn, a pioneer of physical education, opened the first open-air gymnasium which he called a "turnplatz." Jahn also invented most of the equipment still associated with elite gymnastics. Olympic watchers who thrill to the remarkable feats of 14-year-old girls have Jahn to thank for the pommel horse and parallel bars.

The first health club or "physical culture centre" was opened in Lille, France in 1885 by Edmond Desbonnet who, by-the-by, is also credited with formulating the first rules for the sport of weight lifting. Another Frenchman, Georges Herbert, strongly disapproved of the physical inactivity imposed on women of the day and wrote that by following his natural method of exercise, females could, "develop self-confidence, will-power and athletic ability just as well as their male counterparts." Herbert also actively promoted "natural" training in “non-designed” environments. His ideas gave rise to woodland rope courses and other obstacle training. Their most recent evolution is parkour, developed in France, primarily by Raymond Belle, David Belle, and Sébastien Foucan during the late 1980s. It consists in getting from point A to point B I would add “in an urban environment” here i think -- but you don’t have to any way you can including running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, jumping, rolling and crawling on all fours, tasks that work the entire body. Complex indoor courses such as Toronto’s The Monkey Vault Movement Training Centre, a 929-square-metre facility, exist in cities across the country and are especially popular with hip urban youth.

Fittest country?

Fitness historians call such developments the latest manifestation of "The Battle of the Systems" which began in Europe in the late 1890s and has led to a proliferation of ideas about exercise. Various national allegiances soon led to disagreements about which was best. German tumbling? Czech plyometrics? Swedish calisthenics? Scottish and Irish hurling? Take your pick.

At the time, this was so much Greek to most North Americans, who were, perhaps, “plumb tuckered” from all the physical labour and hardship they’d put into beating back nature on the continent. Many Canadians settled into a nonchalance about their physical capacities. In the US, Thomas Jefferson had insisted, " Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather shall be little regarded. If the body is feeble, the mind will not be strong. But that was long ago and far away.

North America's first Young Men’s Christian Association, “the Y,” opened in Montreal in 1851. Fifteen years later, the Canadian YMCA Physical Director, James Naismith, sparked a craze that has ignited indoor fitness ever since. He invented basketball by hanging two peach baskets from the railing of the gymnasium's second level while at a training school in Springfield, Massachusetts

Post-World War I, the public caught wind of a shameful secret: one third of the draftees had been unfit for combat. Governments passed legislation requiring the improvement of physical education programs in the schools. But the Great Depression and the Roaring 20s again dropped physical fitness to the bottom of most priority lists, so that by the time World War II rolled around, nearly half of draftees were rejected for service and given office jobs.

Children became the centre of attention in the 1950's, when it was discovered they were even more out of shape than their parents. The wee baby boomers were subjected to a variety of tests, measuring muscular strength and core flexibility. They failed miserably about 60% of the time compared to a failure rate of only 9% for European children.

In the 1970's Canada launched ParticipACTION and promoted the program with that now famous commercial that announced the average 60-year-old Swede was in better shape than most 30-year-old Canadians. It was a message many took to heart. Making exercise fast, fun and quantifiable has been the focus of fitness ever since. Cross-cultural fusion workouts like “Jazzercise” and others that mix and match jazz dance, resistance training, Pilates, yoga, kickboxing and Latin-style movements set to pop music have proliferated. All this emphasis on the out-of-the ordinary has lead to some bizarre fitness fads, perhaps none odder than backwards running. Proponents claim it's easier on your knees and uses 25% more energy. Not surprisingly given the current national obsession with pets, “Doga” classes devoted to getting Fido fit are now offered in most Canadian cities.

The debunkers

Massive quantities of fresh scientific data have also made this the era of debunking. What was good for you yesterday may be something to avoid today. For example, recent research papers have suggested that touching your toes is something you should never do; that belly crunches do not help you lose belly fat; and that sprinting in one minute bursts over ten minutes is more beneficial than jogging for an hour. Even the catch phrase "No Pain, No Gain" has come under negative scrutiny.

These days no true fitness buff takes a step without tracking and recording their times, distance and vital functions on a wearable device and smartphone. And the robots are coming. Joggobot is a flying disk that zips ahead of you encouraging you to keep pace. Its Australian makers call it "robotic technology as a social companion." It’s almost like going for a jog with a friend. Watch for the next techno-exercise revolution: machines that will get you fit without requiring any sweat equity at all. You can be sure someone is already hard at work on it.

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