The very notion that exercise is good for you — for improving overall health and well-being — has been a presumption, even a truism, going back to ancient Greece and Rome, to the writings of Hippocrates, Plato, and Galen, as well as to ancient Egypt, China, and other cultures. The revered Indian physician known as Suśruta of India (ca. 800–600 B.C.) advocated exercise to maintain “equilibrium” in the body — and hence good health — and warned against excessive exercise. Not bad advice. And yet an ancient philosopher’s or physician’s thoughts on the topic, no matter how prescient, aren’t really anything more than that: thoughts. Surprisingly enough, indisputable scientific evidence for the benefits of exercise was established only relatively recently.
It was not until the early 1950s that a handful of scientists began investigating whether exercise actually contributes to lower morbidity and mortality rates in human beings.
One of the leading pioneers in this area was an unassuming British epidemiologist named Jeremy (or Jerry) Morris, a man who, after his death at age 99½ in 2009, was called by some obituary writers “the man who invented exercise.” That would be something of an exaggeration. A more accurate title for Dr. Morris might be “the man who invented the field of exercise science,” although the truth is, he hadn’t set out initially to study exercise at all.
Note Dr. Morris’s profession: Although trained as a medical doctor, he had become a clinical epidemiologist, one who had a particular interest in the social factors underlying public health issues. After World War II, one issue that emerged as an especially serious concern was a dramatic rise in coronary heart disease, which reached epidemic proportions in the U.K. As with lung cancer and peptic ulcer, the exact cause of coronary heart disease was unknown at the time. But Morris and his colleagues in the Social Medicine Research Unit — a British equivalent to a national public health agency — had a hunch that a person’s occupation might somehow be a factor.
Morris determined to study a cohort in a single field, one where different jobs were performed in distinctly different ways and, as importantly, where medical data on full-time employees would be readily available for study. In what now seems like an ingenious idea, Morris decided to focus on transportation workers — specifically, the drivers and the conductors of double-decker buses, trams, and trolleys. From 1949 through 1950, he studied about 31,000 men (and as far as I can determine, it was exclusively men), ages 35 to 64.
Although the men worked in pairs in the same vehicle, their jobs were completely different: Drivers simply sat and drove all day, whereas conductors hopped off and back on the bus or trolley constantly and, in the case of double-decker buses, up and down the stairs countless times over their shifts. For these men, work itself was a workout.
Morris and his team scrutinized all available data: employees’ absences of any duration due to illness; medical diagnoses obtained from general practitioners and hospital certificates; details of all deaths, obtained via death certificates; and of retirements due to ill health. As for types of heart disease, the team obsessed specifically for cases of angina (severe pain in the chest, caused by inadequate blood supply to the heart and signaling further potential problems) and of coronary thrombosis (partial or total obstruction of an artery due to a blood clot), leading either to a nonfatal heart attack or to immediate death from a heart attack. The results were unambiguous. In Morris’s paper on the study, first published in The Lancet on November 21, 1953, he concluded that the conductors — the men much more physically active on the job — had far less coronary heart disease than the sedentary drivers, and it appeared in them at a later age. Bus conductors did still have incidents of heart disease — however, primarily angina, a more benign symptom, and they had a far lower early mortality rate than the drivers they worked with. Among the 31,000 transportation workers studied, immediate mortality from a heart attack was over twice as high in the drivers.
Morris’s findings did not lead to an immediate link between exercise per se — voluntary exercise as we know it today — and better health and lower mortality rates. Confining his conclusions to the transportation study alone, Morris felt that it was “the greater physical activity of ‘conducting’” that helped explain why these men remained healthier than their counterparts behind the wheel.
Physical activity was the key determinant, and this helped establish a solid foundation for subsequent scientific research into exercise and heart disease and other ailments. However, Morris didn’t stop there. His next cohort: thousands of British postal workers and civil servants. As with the bus conductors and drivers, Morris found that postal workers who delivered mail by foot, walking miles a day and carrying loads of mail, had a far lower incidence of heart disease than their civil service counterparts who worked in administrative roles, mostly sitting all day doing office work, paperwork, answering telephones, and so on.
Coincidentally, in 1953, the same year that Morris’s initial report appeared in The Lancet, two New York-based experts in physical rehabilitation, Hans Kraus, M.D., and Ruth P. Hirschland, published an academic paper on exercise that focused on an entirely different cohort: children ages 6 to 19. About 7,000 children in the United States and abroad were studied, and Kraus and Hirschland found that American children fared less well — shockingly less well — than European children when given simple tests to measure their physical fitness, such as sit-ups, leg lifts, and toe touches. A more sedentary culture in America — dependent on cars and inclined toward sitting on the couch watching television — was blamed. The report didn’t get much notice when it was first published. But when it reappeared the following year in the New York State Journal of Medicine, it came to the attention of John Kelly, a prominent Philadelphia financier and former national sculling champion (as well as the father of Grace Kelly). He was horrified by the findings that 56 percent of American children failed the simple fitness test, as compared with only 8 percent of the European children tested. He passed the report on to Pennsylvania senator James Duff, who convened a White House luncheon on the topic hosted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Hirschland — by now divorced and going by Bonnie Prudden, an adopted nickname plus her maiden name — was invited to attend the luncheon along with a number of physical education experts and more than 30 leading professional athletes, such as Willie Mays and Bill Russell, thereby guaranteeing a significant amount of press coverage. Apparently, the vivacious and eloquent Prudden in particular made such a powerful impression on Eisenhower during the discussion that he directed Vice President Richard Nixon to convene a major conference and come up with a plan of action to improve the fitness of America’s kids. This he did, and Nixon’s conference led to the establishment in July 1956 of a new federal agency, the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, which Eisenhower signed off on with Executive Order 10673.
Beyond the conferences held and high-profile influencers involved, there was one more factor — a highly personal one — that must have spurred President Eisenhower on to some extent: The year before, in 1955, he suffered a mild heart attack while in office. This came as something of a shock to the American public. Eisenhower, a fit-looking 65 and just two years into his eight-year term, was a five-star general and known to be a regular golfer. But he was also a smoker. And the cardiologist who oversaw his care, Dr. Paul Dudley White, warned the president to give up cigarettes and to exercise more regularly and vigorously. As Shelly McKenzie points out in her book on the rise of fitness culture in America, Getting Physical, “White’s prescription for exercise flew in the face of traditional recovery plans [for a heart attack] that called for the patient’s near immobilization for weeks after the incident and a long recovery at home.” White’s warning about cigarettes was ahead of its time, too. The first surgeon general’s report on smoking and health, explicitly linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease, did not appear until 1964.
While Eisenhower certainly deserves credit for establishing the Council on Youth Fitness, the truth is it failed to generate much publicity or interest during his administration. Eisenhower didn’t go out of his way to promote it. That changed completely with the election of his much younger successor, 44-year-old John F. Kennedy, who expanded the council’s aims to include adults as well as children and made promoting physical fitness a signature issue of his administration virtually from the start. Kennedy renamed it the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (PCPF) and spoke frequently on the topic, both to the media and in public. In a speech given in 1961, the year I was born, Kennedy cut right to the chase: “We are under-exercised as a nation; we look instead of play; we read instead of walk.”
But it wasn’t just talk. The new PCPF mounted a massive national advertising campaign to promote physical fitness and published a booklet, titled Adult Physical Fitness, with a series of simple routines for men and women — developed with input from dozens of experts — distributed free of charge to 200,000 households and sold for 50 cents or less to many thousands more. We had a copy in my house when I grew up; I remember it clearly, its patriotic red-white-and-blue coloring and the black-and-white photos of models demonstrating leg raises and step-ups.
Looking through a copy now, I am amazed by how thorough and eminently sensible its prescribed exercise regimens for men and women are. The program begins with a warm-up; continues with “conditioning exercises,” such as toe touches, push-ups, sit-ups, and leg raises; and concludes with a few minutes of “circulatory” activity, such as jogging, jumping rope, or running in place. With the exception of jogging, all exercises in the program can be performed at home without any equipment beyond a chair and your own body.
In retrospect, the ancients hadn’t been too far off in their thoughts on exercise. As Plato put it more than two thousand years ago: “It is not the number of exercises but their moderate nature that brings about a good human constitution.”
Excerpted from Sweat: A History of Exercise by Bill Hayes. Copyright William Hayes, 2022. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.
This article appears in the January/February 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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