What I tend to do when it comes to the business of being fit is not bother. I eat lots, and then I sit in a chair.This typical piece of tongue-in-cheek wit by Jeremy Clarkson is the type of comment for which the curly-haired, slightly irascible journalist ("the tallest man on British television") is known. To most people he is the presenter of the perpetually popular show Top Gear, but to others his books and columns in The Sunday Times are much anticipated for their humour and calculated formulations to poke fun and push all the right (or wrong) buttons. He rails against a variety of influences he considers baneful -- bureaucrats and boffins, environmentalists, journalists, health and safety personnel, and the like. He is, in short, a contrarian. So it is of little surprise that the Idle Historian, though not always agreeing with him, quite likes the idea of Clarkson types being around the planet.
~ Jeremy Clarkson
Consequently, on this subject of exercising, it should not be much of a surprise that the Idle Historian takes somewhat of a contrary-wise approach. This is not really ideological, or with the specific intent to be contrarian. It is more circumstantial; it is the way things have evolved. One is much too often figuratively locked in an air raid shelter with documents and books from 1930s Britain, working on history. While I have partaken of various activities at the appropriate times -- gardening, hiking, cycling, skiing, swimming, and whatnot (though not running, which I detest) -- for many years there has been no compulsion to regularly do so within the soul of the Idle Historian. I will say that I do try; actual results may vary.
I was recently contemplating this whole question of exercise and how our society defines, values, and structures this concept. Speaking from an Edwardian perspective, the idea of "exercise" would have been rather foreign. Self-consciously taking part in calisthenics, as they would have then been called, was an activity for a fringe minority. In Europe, from the late 19th through to the twentieth century, many health fads proliferated, though most adherents were ridiculed as being associated with any number of questionable practices -- vegetarianism, sandal-wearing, unrestricted clothing (the "rational dress society"), free thinking, free love, and nudism. In the U.S., Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of Corn Flakes fame founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium (made famous in a not terribly exciting film, The Road to Wellville) which included physical exercise and a strict health and spa regime including bland low-protein and low-fat food, no alcohol or tobacco, fresh air, and "clean living."
But life at this time, for all but a tiny minority, was of essence extremely active. Even simple household chores required a great deal of stamina, and people of course walked a great deal. They would not have considered any of this "exercise." For them, constant movement was simply a part of daily life.
Physical fitness became increasingly valued in the twentieth century for purposes of the military and state. Following the Boer War (South African War, 1899-1902), the British military leadership were shocked by the fact that so many potential recruits had proved physically unfit for military service. Lord Baden-Powell instituted the Scouting movement, and the importance of sport and games for youth was emphasized (even though large swathes of the population remained woefully undernourished to sustain such activity). Mass exercising, of course, also became a tool of totalitarian regimes in countries such as Nazi Germany which emphasized the fitness of the individual body as a reflection of the fitness of the national polity (researching this history unearthed many Nazi images). Authoritarian countries of various stripes have put great stock in athletic performance competitions, such as the Olympics, as a means of bolstering national pride -- most notably the Soviet Union.
In the contemporary era the idea of exercise conjures up a variety of images, and is bound up with status and achievement. In the 1980s it was Jane Fonda-esque aerobics ("no pain, no gain"). In our more sensitive, apparently sophisticated era, practices such as Pilates and yoga have become popular -- the latter even better for demonstrating one's faux cultural sensitivity and ability to sonorously utter the word "namaste." The personal trainer is certainly a mark of status as is the stock image of the executive arising at 5 am, hitting the gym before ensconcing themselves in the corner office at 7. Such a person, we are told, epitomizes discipline and achievement. Their lithe frames, without an ounce of spare fat and swathed in trim designer clothes, are supposed to almost denote superior judgment. They perpetually strive to turn back the clock (though over-exercise is a proven way to age oneself by making oneself gaunt, but that is another subject entirely), and to compete with their fellow, less driven, human beings.
Of course none of these activities are wrong in themselves: exercising early in the morning, going to gym, even yoga -- as long as one doesn't do so merely for the mat-toting, bourgeois, ethnically-sensitive yummy-mummy cachet. The problem is that too many people have absorbed ideas about exercise that are not authentically their own. They often take up the prescriptions for exercise devised by others, resulting in New Year's Resolutions, and gym memberships taken out in January that fail by February. Their heart is not in it. If you take to exercise, let it be something that brings you joy, and that enforces your enjoyment of life, rather than fleeing a negative image driving you out of guilt or shame or, worse, another person's idea of what you should be or do. Exercising does not make you a superior person, more lovable, or more valuable to our wonderfully interesting and diverse society. But more activity might just bring you back to the habits of our ancestors as opposed to our desk-bound existence -- and what could, really, be more Edwardian?
NB * The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) has recently revised exercise guidelines for weekly activity. The new idea is less actual time, but more intense activity during this time. Spurts of something or the other to get the heart rate up and break a sweat. The Idle Historian might just be able to handle this once in a while.
Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils