Walt Whitman wrote a fitness book!

I actually knew this already, having seen an article about the work, originally serialized in the weekly journal the New York Atlas under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, when it was collected and republished as a PDF (Manly Health and Training) in 2016. But I hadn’t read through the whole thing until this month.

I’ve read a lot of fitness books over the years, and one thing I find interesting is how much they are all the same—including Walt Whitman’s. Of course, every fitness book has its own peculiarities—more or less focus on functional fitness, flexibility, muscle size, body fat, strength, quickness, power, control, aerobic capacity, aesthetics, etc. But the levers available to affect these things don’t really change: sleep, diet, resistance exercise, endurance training, and stretching just about cover the gamut. Aside from the details of the diet, it’s primarily a matter of selection, focus, and combining of exercises.

Walt Whitman from about the time his training book was being written and serialized. Photo by J. W. Black of Black and Batchelder / Public domain

Walt Whitman’s fitness manual offers a nice little selection of exercises, none of which would seem out-of-place in any modern fitness book:

  • Rowing: “a noble and manly exercise; it developes the whole of the body.”
  • Toe-touches: “The ordinary exercise of bending forward and touching the toes with the tips of the fingers, keeping the knees straight meanwhile, is a very good one, and may be kept on with, in moderation at a time, for years and years.”
  • Lunges: “The simple exercise of standing on one foot and lowering so as to touch the bent knee of the other leg to the ground, and then rising again on the first foot, is also a good one.”
  • Dancing: “The art of the dancing-master may also be called in play, for the development of the legs, and their graceful and supple movement.”
  • Swimming: “being relieved of all the clothes, and supported in the water, allows of bringing nearly all the muscles of the body into easy and pleasant action.”
  • Walking: “A pretty long walk may also be taken, commencing at an ordinary pace, and increasing the rapidity of the step till it takes the power of locomotion pretty well, and then keeping it up at that gait, as it can be well endured—not to the extent of fatigue, however.”

Walt Whitman wants his readers to be exemplars of manly beauty. In fact, based on how he talks about it, you have to assume that increasing the amount of manly beauty around is really the most important thing he hopes to achieve with his book—but that’s a fair thing to do, because:

As regards human beings, in an important sense, Beauty is simply health and a sound physique. We can hardly conceive of a man, at any age of life, who is in perfect health, and keeps his person clean and neatly attired, who has not some claims to this much-prized attribute.

Related to this, he is clearly keen to normalize men caring about aesthetics:

Nor is there anything to be ashamed of in the ambition of a man to have a handsome physique, a fine body, clear complexion, nimble movements, and be full of manly vigor. Ashamed of! Why, we think it ought to be one of the first lessons taught to the boy, when he begins to be taught at all. It is of quite as much importance as any grammar, geography, or arithmetic— indeed, we should say it was of unrivalled importance.

Of course, some things are desirable for more than just their aesthetic benefits:

The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, &c., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.

An aside, because it touches on both dancing and aesthetics: A few years ago I read a fitness book titled something like How to Have a Dancer’s Body, which I read hoping to get some suggestions for improving strength and flexibility, only to be sadly disappointed. Its advice in those areas, after a brief treatment of stretching and posture, was that the student should find a good dance class and workout under a teacher. (Most of the book seemed to be about normalizing having an eating disorder—which, admittedly, is probably essential if you want to have the body of a prima ballerina.)

Dance’s attractiveness comes, I think, from the way it both provides actual (often astonishing) physical capability along with an aesthetic that I and many other people find attractive. Walt agreed on both counts, although seemed to take issue with the dance fashions of the times:

As originally intended, dancing was meant to give harmonious movements to the whole body, from the legs, by keeping time to music. In that sense, it was a beautiful art, and one of the noblest of gymnastic exercises. Modern arrangements have made it something quite different.

We would be glad to see some manly genius arise among the dancing teachers, who, out of such hints as we have hastily written, would assist the objects of the trainer and gymnast.

As I said, all fitness books are pretty much the same, so I am not really surprised to find things here that read exactly like something I might find in some entirely modern source of fitness advice.

For example, his rant on shoes and feet sounds exactly like what you might expect if Walt Whitman wrote some copy for Katy Bowman’s Nutritious Movement shoe page or Steven Sashen’s Xero Shoes.

Probably, in civilized life, half the men have more or less deformed feet, from the tight and wretchedly made boots generally worn.

In one of the feet there are thirty-six bones, and the same number of joints, continually playing in locomotion, and needing always a free and loose action. Yet they are always squeezed into boots not modeled from them, nor allowing the play and ease they require. For the modern boot is formed on a dandified idea of beauty, as it is understood at Paris and London, and not as it is exemplified by nature.

If you want to see the feet in their natural and beautiful proportions, you must get a view of the casts of the remains of ancient sculpture, representing the human form, doubtless from the best specimens afforded by the public games and training exercises of the Greek and Roman arenas. They exhibit what the foot is when allowed to grow up, with its free, uncramped, undeformed action. There have been no artificial coverings or compressions; and we know that the gait therefrom must have been firm and elastic. We can understand how the Macedonian phalanx, or the Roman legion, performed its long day’s march. We can see the ten thousand Greeks pursuing their daily wearying course through the destroying climate of Asia, marching firmly, manfully, across the arid sand, the mountain pass, or the flinty plain. It is a truthful lesson we may learn, not for the soldier only, but for the civilian.

Probably there is no way to have good and easy boots or shoes, except to have lasts modeled exactly to the shape of the feet. This is well worth doing. Hundreds of times the cost of it are yearly spent in idle gratifications—while this, rightly looked upon, is indispensable to comfort and health.

Simlarly, his principle workout plan sounds exactly like a MovNat combo:

In truth, however, a man who is disposed to attend to the matter of strengthening and developing his muscular power, will be continually finding some means to further that object, and will do so in the simplest manner, as well as any. To toss a stone in the air from one hand and catch it in the other as you walk along, for half an hour or an hour at a stretch—to push and roll over, a similar length of time, some small rock with the foot, thus developing the strength of the knees and the ankles and muscles of the calf—to throw forward the arms, with vigorous motion, and then extend them or lift them upward—to pummel some imaginary foe, with stroke after stroke from the doubled fists, given with a will—to place the body in position occasionally, for a moment, with all the sinews of the arms and legs strained to their utmost tension—to take very long strides rapidly forward, and then, more slowly and carefully, backward—to clap the palms of the hands on the hips and simply jump straight up, two or three minutes at a time—to stand on a hill or shore and throw stones, sometimes horizontally, sometimes perpendicularly— to spring over a fence, and then back again, and then again and again—to climb trees in the woods, or gripe the low branches with your hands and swing backward and forward—to run, or rapidly walk, or skip or leap along—these, and dozens more of simple contrivances, are at hand for every one—all good, all conducive to manly health, dexterity, and development, and, for many, preferable to the organized gymnasium, because they are not restricted to place or time. Nor let the reader be afraid of these because they are simple, but form the daily habit of some of them, without making himself uneasy “how it will look” to outsiders, or what they will say.

The book especially addresses people who are in school, telling them to be “also a student of the body,” but wants to be sure that the reader knows that not only students are the intended audience:

To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice. Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit! Out in the morning! Give our advice a thorough trial—not for a few days or weeks, but for months. Early rising, early to bed, exercise, plain food, thorough and persevering continuance in gently-commenced training, the cultivation with resolute will of a cheerful temper, the society of friends and a certain number of hours spent every day in regular employment.

I am pleased to find myself so particularly represented! I’m really not a clerk, but I will claim to be a literary man, and will own up to being also a sedentary person, an idler, and arguably even a man of fortune.

There are many reasons to read a good fitness book, but very few reasons to read another after that. Walt Whitman’s fitness book isn’t really an exception. Still, if you are, like me, a connoisseur of fitness books, it’s worth including this one—for his unique prose style, for his place in American literary history, and for his perspective on manly beauty.

Getting stronger

A year ago I could do 3 pushups. (Except that when I tried there was a pretty good chance I’d hurt my shoulders or my wrists.)

Last summer, focusing mostly on running rather than lifting, I made no progress on strength gains at all. (Admittedly, my data isn’t directly comparable: To reduce injuries, I switched to bench pushups.)

I did various amounts of bench pushups all summer and fall. When I manged to put together a week or two of consistent lifting I could briefly work up to 3×8 bench pushups. (That is, 3 sets of 8 bench pushups.) I did that a couple of times.

By the time the stay-at-home order went into effect, and I lost access to our little fitness room, I’d finally gotten pretty consistent with my workouts, and had just recently graduated to real pushups, doing as many as 4×5.

Yesterday, probably for the first time in my life, I did 4×10 pushups. (And they were good pushups too: no sagging hips, no thrusting my hips up, no chicken-winging my arms out.)

I don’t think I’ve ever done that many before, not when I was taking a self-defense class in college and we worked up to 10 pushups, nor when I was in elementary school and we pretty often did 1×10 pushups in PhysEd class, and I may well have done as mush as 1×20 as part of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.

I’ve made some progress with my squats and my rows as well, but not to the same extent.

The squats are hard because I don’t have an appropriately heavy weight. I’m doing goblet squats with my 15 lb kettlebell, because it’s the only kettlebell I’ve got, but even 4×15 isn’t really enough to see much gains. Maybe 4×20? Hopefully I’ll be able to get a heavier kettlebell one of these days.

I was doing okay with the rows while I could put my rings up at the basketball court (I could do 3×6 or thereabouts), but since the kids were refusing to respect social distancing rules, Winfield Village closed the basketball courts. Without the rings I’m reduced to doing bent rows with that same 15 lb kettlebell, and even 4×20 isn’t really enough to challenge my back muscles. Maybe 4×25?

It sounds like we’re on track to significantly reduce the lockdown restrictions as early as two weeks from now. Maybe I’ll be able to get my rings back up, and maybe it will someday be possible to buy a kettlebell!

In any case, I can’t really complain: I did 40 pushups yesterday!

A month-ish of distancing

It’s a little hard for me to settle on a start date for my personal social distancing. The formal stay-at-home order from the governor didn’t go into effect until March 21st, but the last thing I did that was really inconstant with proper distancing was on March 12th when I attended an aikido class (you really can’t remain distant and practice aikido). So, I’m calling it a month-ish of distancing.

I think of myself as semi-retired (because I am still writing and was still teaching my taiji class), but as a practical matter, I’m really actually retired. I’ve been drawing my pension for something like 5 years now, and Jackie has started drawing her social security.

So our financial circumstances as far as income goes are pretty much just as they were. (It may be that I won’t get paid for the last session of teaching taiji, since I only taught two of the planned eight weeks, but the actual dollar amount in question is pretty small.)

I assume my stock investments got crushed in the early reaction to the pandemic and have since recovered some, but to be honest I’ve not paid much attention. I had lightened up on stocks a couple of times in the past couple of years, and am pretty comfortable with my asset allocation. (I actually checked with Wise Bread to see if they wanted me to pitch them an article on “Investing in Plague Time,” but they said they’d completely shut down commissioning articles due to how the pandemic was hitting their income. I’ll recast the article as a blog post and put it up here pretty soon.)

As far as spending goes, we’re spending quite a bit less. We’re still trying to support local businesses—we’ve been buying groceries during geezer hour at Schnucks, and we restocked our liquor cabinet at Friar Tuck’s, taking advantage of their curb-side pickup scheme—but I’ve stuck to my new policy of only buying prepared food or drinks from businesses that provide paid sick time to everyone who might come into contact with my food, and so far I haven’t heard of any local restaurants or bars that do that. (If you know of any, let me know!) The upshot is that 100% of the food we’ve eaten this month has been prepared by Jackie or by me, which means it’s been both delicious and healthy.

I don’t have many pictures of the great dishes that Jackie has cooked—most recently khema made with grass-fed beef and served with chapatis—and it seems that I failed to get a picture of the lingcod seasoned after the fashion of Kerala roadside chicken (garlic, ginger, fennel, garam masala, turmeric) that I fried in coconut oil in my big cast iron skillet. However, here’s a few recent dishes:

Besides all the great food, we’re also enjoying (perhaps a little too much) our daily cocktail hour—often on-line with my brother and our mom. The folks I meet for coffee on Tuesday morning have been keeping things going by doing that on-line as well.

I’ve been very pleased with my success at maintaining my workout regimen, despite the closure of the fitness room. I’ve been making use of my kettlebell and my jump rope. I’ve been getting my runs in. I’ve been using my new gymnastic rings:

I do my workouts outdoors to the greatest extent possible—runs around the neighborhood, setting the rings up in Winfield Village’s basketball court, jumping rope and swinging the kettlebell in our little patio. Our neighbors all seem to be pretty good about respecting proper distancing practices, so it’s working okay so far.

While I’m on the subject of exercise, I wanted to mention in passing this hilarious tweet:

Just to say that, although getting ripped is perhaps not in the cards, I’m having a great time making the attempt.

Finally, I’m meaning to get back to getting some writing done, and to that end I spent all morning tidying up my desk:

At this moment (a couple of hours later), it is still just about that tidy, and I’ve used it to write this blog post. This afternoon I’ll use it to write a letter to my congressman and senators, urging them to support the post office. And then, I’ll see if I can’t get to work on some fiction.

Missing the fitness room

Losing access to the fitness room is particularly annoying to me because I’ve just recently—starting about seven weeks ago—gotten my act together about lifting.

Like everyplace else, Winfield Village has closed down all the “non-essential” places people might congregate, including our fitness room.

“Notice: Closed until further notice”

Losing access to the fitness room is particularly annoying to me because I’ve just recently—starting about seven weeks ago—gotten my act together about lifting, and been getting to the fitness room at least three times a week.

Determined not to lose this momentum, I’m trying to cobble together an adequate workout routine that I can do with just equipment I own.

Great collection of dumbbells, no longer accessible because they’re in the fitness room

I had already been including quite a bit of bodyweight exercise, but since the dumbbells were right there, I’d often use them (for dumbbell rows and for goblet squats, in particular). I also used the 45 lb kettlebell in the fitness room all the time for my HIIT workouts.

The other thing that I’m really missing is the pull-up bar. To replace that, I’ve ordered a pair of gymnastic rings that should arrive Tuesday.

About all I’ve got that I own to replace the dumbbells and the kettlebell is a 15 lb kettlebell that I purchased so Jackie could join me in my workouts if she wanted.

My 15 lb kettlebell with its big brother

With the kettlebell (even in advance of the arrival of the rings) after about a week of social distancing, I’ve started to put together a routine that feels like I’m getting in a good workout.

For the core of the routine I’m doing hindu squats, hindu pushups, and goblet squats with the kettlebell. I’ve heard claims that just hindu squats and hindup pushups combine to form a pretty good, almost full-body workout. I’m adding in the goblet squats because the hindu squats seemed very focused on the anterior part of the legs, and I don’t want to lose the gains I’ve been making on the posterior parts.

My opportunities for “pulling” exercises are kind of limited until I get my gymnastic rings. I’m making do with the kettlebell to replace the dumbbells for rows. At 15 lbs, the kettlebell is kind of light for that, but on a temporary basis I can just do more of them. (The same logic applies to the hindu squats and the goblet squats: What I’m not getting in intensity I can largely replace with quantity.)

Once the rings get here I should be able to do hangs and inverted rows, and attempt to do pullups. That’ll cover my “pulling” exercises very well. I’ll also be able to attempt to do dips, which is another exercise that I haven’t found a good equipment-free bodyweight solution for.

One other piece of exercise equipment I have is a jump rope. I got it five years ago, after reading about how jumping rope is great training for running because it develops the springiness in your ankles and calves.

I haven’t made much use of my jump rope though. One year back in junior high or high school the phys ed class did one of its very few units that wasn’t focused around some team sport, and jumping rope was one included activity. I very much enjoyed the non-team aspect of it, put in the practice, and got quite good at jumping rope. Sadly, it turns out that you can’t let something like that go for 45 years and expect to just pick it back up again.

However, I figure this is a perfect circumstance for regaining my ability to jump rope. The weather is kinda crappy for running, but not so terrible that I can’t go outside at all. Yesterday I spent six minutes jumping rope, which was about as long as I wanted to spend outdoors in the cold, but also a good amount of practice for recovering the skill. I figure if I do the same every other day, by the time we start getting some nice weather I’ll be as good at jumping rope as I ever was.

I’ll use the jump rope for a HIIT workout. My HIIT workouts with the 45 lb kettlebell are off the table, and with just the 15 lb kettlebell I won’t be able to achieve the level of intensity I’m used to for my two-handed kettlebell swings. Besides the jump rope, I’m thinking I’ll do one-handed kettlebell swings with the 15 lb kettlebell. Less intensity, but the asymmetrical nature of the exercise will add a nice core workout aspect to the whole thing.

It’s come together pretty well, except that I’m not quite there with the hindu pushups yet. I need to develop both my strength and my flexibility, if I’m going to make those a key part of my workout routine. I’m close though. We’ll see.

Consistency

I’ve been lifting weights for decades. I was pretty consistent about it for a long time. For years while I was working at a regular job, Jackie and I would go to the Fitness Center and lift before I went to the office at least two, often three times a week, using whatever machines they had (three or four different brands/styles of machines over the years). I saw pretty good gains the first six weeks or so that I was doing this, but they leveled off. I kept at it for years after that, with very little to show for it.

All that time I imagined that the issue was intensity—to make more gains, I needed to lift more and harder. I now think that was wrong. I think the problem was just that machines are a crappy way to build strength or muscle.

Four and a half years ago we moved to Winfield Village, which has a pretty good set of free weights. I’ve been using them—once again without much to show for it. In this case, the issue is not a matter of using the wrong equipment or a lack of intensity—it’s that my consistency has fallen off. I get on a schedule of lifting two or three times a week, but only keep it up for a week or two and then miss a few workouts.

Happily, this month I’m doing pretty well. In 21 days I’ve gotten in 9 lifting sessions, which is just about exactly my target. (I aim for every other day, so when I miss an occasional day it still comes in at 3 times a week.)

I’m seeing some nice strength gains (although after just three weeks I can’t be sure I’m not back in the situation of “anything will build strength for six weeks”). I’m also putting on some weight—probably just because I’ve been eating too many carbs, which I’ll fix here shortly, but in the meantime I’m choosing to imagine that I’m adding some muscle as well.

Understanding that consistency is the key, maybe I’ll be able to keep it up. (Watching my older relatives become frail due to sarcopenia, I’m determined to avoid that fate.)

I’m pretty sure I’ll manage okay until the weather turns and I have to start balancing the lifting with the running and hiking. (I’ve only gotten in one run this month, because of ice and cold.) We’ll have to see after that. But as I say, I’m determined.

Stable weight

Some years back, after I’d finally made some real progress at losing weight and getting in shape, I was thinking of writing a post about it, when an on-line acquaintance posted a stern note to the effect that she didn’t want to see any “weight-loss success stories” from anyone who hadn’t kept the weight off for five years.

It’s a reasonable perspective. Almost any weight loss program will work for six months. Almost nobody who undertakes such a program manages to get down to a normal weight and maintain that weight for five years.

Despite the aforementioned reasonableness, I was somewhat put off by her attitude. Who was she to tell me when and how I could tell my own story? (To be fair, she wasn’t telling me I couldn’t tell my story, just that she didn’t want to see it.)

That feeling of being just a tiny bit stifled made the whole thing stick in my mind, such that I’ve kept track: February 14th, 2015 was when my BMI dropped from 25 (overweight) to 24.9 (normal weight). It has now been in the “normal weight” range for five years.

I didn’t stop there. I continued losing weight for almost two more years, until in December 2016 I decided that I didn’t want to get any smaller. At that point I started targeting a stable weight (145 lbs, which gives me a BMI right at the midpoint of the “normal weight” range). I’ve achieved my target pretty well, keeping my weight to within plus-or-minus about 3 pounds of my target.

My weight going back to January 2000. The faint gray shows my actual measured weight. The bolder red line is a logarithmic moving average “trend weight.” The big gap is from when I lost access to the good doctor’s scale at the Motorola office in mid-2007 until I bought a good digital scale in mid-2011.

I wish I had something useful to say about how to lose weight, but I really don’t.

I lost the first fifty pounds the long, slow, hard way—eating less (portion control) and moving more. Because it was hard—I was hungry all the time—I knew that even a slight misstep could easily see me gaining back back all that weight. At that point I did an experiment with low-carb eating, to see if it would address some health issues unrelated to my weight, and quickly peeled off another 15 pounds.

Since then I’ve been eating what I call a “carb-aware whole-foods diet,” meaning that my main focus is on eating food (and refraining from eating industrially produced food-like substances), but purposefully keeping my carbs down in the 100–125 grams per day range, and taking my carbs down lower if my weight gets up above where I want it.

Because eating low-carb worked well for me, I’m modestly inclined to be a booster of the diet, but only modestly. Who am I to say that just because it worked for me it would work for anyone else?

Besides eating actual food and watching my carbs, anybody who reads my blog knows that I spend a lot of time moving. Just click on the “exercise” tag or the Fitness category to see post after post talking about my efforts to get enough exercise (in the old days), and see how they gradually changed into my efforts to keep moving throughout the day. It’s common knowledge that you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet, but I think it’s also true that moving throughout the day is critical to achieving and maintaining good health.