READER'S DIGEST RECOMMENDED READ: An Olympian Read
Reader's Digest UK|February 2022
The history of exercise is a surprisingly complex one, as chronicled in this month’s recommended read
Bill Hayes

In around 400 BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates (aka “the Father of Medicine”) wrote that, “Eating alone will not keep a man well; he must also take exercise.” This was a fact well understood in Ancient Greece. Every town had at least one gymnasium—some public, some requiring gym membership— and athletes’ sweat was a muchprized commodity, selling for the equivalent of thousands of pounds and used, somewhat unglamorously, for the treatment of haemorrhoids (there were also, of course, the Olympic Games).

But then came the rise of Christianity when exercise became associated with paganism and so fell out of favour. Only with the Renaissance was it rediscovered, along with much else from the classical world. In 1569, an Italian doctor called Girolamo Mercuriale published The Art of Exercise, a book full of advice that’s still recognisable today: “We in no way dispute that exercise can sometimes be hard and, when it is being performed, unpleasant. But good health is not incompatible with some discomfort.”

Taking Mercuriale as his starting point, Bill Hayes fascinatingly traces exercise’s gradual evolution into the multibillion-pound industry it is now—by way of some genuine scientific breakthroughs and several passing crazes. He’s especially good on the growth of bodybuilding from the early 20th century to Arnold Schwarzenegger; and on how aerobics conquered the world in the 1980s when Jane Fonda did wonders for both female fitness and the sales of VCRs. He also throws in plenty of his own experiences, including as the long-time partner of the psychologist (and swimming obsessive) Oliver Sacks.

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