The history of exercise. How privilege risked our health

The history of exercise. How privilege risked our health

Exercise and fitness for fun and health is a fairly modern concept, born of increased leisure and resources. The results of eating too much and doing too little are known throughout history. Ever since there has been the opportunity to eat too much, the penalty has been paid.

Our caveman ancestors would have grunted with laughter at the idea of taking exercise. They had enough to do in the struggle to obtain sufficient calories to keep themselves alive. When they did have food, they needed all the nutrition it gave to enable them to hunt or gather the next meal. There would certainly have been nothing spare for additional exercise, and no need to worry about staying fit or putting on weight.

As humanity developed more skills and the language to communicate them, people were able to live in bigger communities and to share the load of daily existence. With childcare and food gathering done in teams, the workload was more efficiently handled and there began to be spare time. This also resulted in society developing layers, dividing into those with wealth and those who were less wealthy. The less wealthy continued to get all the exercise needed from their daily lives, while the more privileged found themselves with a new concept – that of leisure time. For many of them, this had bad effects on their health.

Jumping ahead a few centuries, one famous historical example of the effect of privilege on health is that of Henry VIII of England. His appearance is well documented, both in portraits and in surviving suits of armour. In his younger days he was a keen horseman, regularly taking part in jousting. He even had his own equivalent of the gym, in a specially-built real tennis court which can still be seen at his palace at Hampton Court in Surrey.

In his mid-thirties Henry suffered a leg injury in a jousting accident. With the lack of medical knowledge of the time, the wound never healed properly and became painful and ulcerated. As a result, Henry was unable to be as active as before. However he still maintained his gargantuan appetite – the cinematic depictions of his colossal feasts are backed by historical evidence. The inevitable result was obesity, believed to be to the point that he was unable to move without help. Only his high position and retinue of servants kept him alive to the age of fifty-five, a long life by the standards of the times. A poorer man would have died much sooner.

Overweight royalty did not stop with Henry VIII. George IV was famed for his girth during his long wait for the throne as Prince of Wales. His friendship with the dandy ‘Beau’ Brummell came to a famous end in 1811 when Brummell was heard to ask of the Prince’s companion ‘Alvanley, who is your fat friend?’ Brummell was ostracised for the rest of his life for this painfully accurate comment. George had always led an extravagant and spoiled lifestyle, and his overeating without exercise meant that he also was only kept alive by his position.

During the long reign of Queen Victoria, the concept of exercise began to be seen as something ‘manly’. Women were expected to stay indoors, not to eat a great deal and to be in charge of the sick. In an era before the understanding of hygiene, when diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera were rife, nursing sick family gave a very high chance of picking up the infection. Tuberculosis killed more women than childbirth at this time, even though there was a one in eight chance of death with each birth. Men had the chance for fresh air and exercise, but this was often denied to women.

Since Victorian times, better healthcare and advances in technology have made a huge difference to lives, especially for women. The idea of exercise for health began in the early twentieth century with genteel ‘physical jerks’, adapted from the military drills. As living standards in the west have risen, there has been more and more need for additional exercise to deal with ever-expanding waistlines. From the jive dance of the fifties to the Zumba classes of the 21st century, exercise has become ever more popular as time goes on.

We have kept the legacy of the cavemen in the way our bodies handle excess calories. We store excess nutrition as calories for lean times ahead, although for most of us in the West these lean times will never arrive. Hence the importance of an active and balanced lifestyle for most of us.

For people to be able or willing to take additional exercise outside their daily work needs two items to be in excess; time and food. Even in the 21st century, we know to our shame that there are still people who are solely occupied in the business of survival. Some of the world’s population have to struggle to get enough food, while others are suffering after taking too much. Perhaps those of us lucky enough to have sufficient should take our lessons from history.



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