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.

2020-04-12 08:53

Happily, except for playgrounds, outdoor public spaces are still open where I live.

The outdoors and sunshine are such strong factors in fighting viral infections that a 2009 study of the extraordinary success of outdoor hospitals during the 1918 influenza epidemic suggested that during the next pandemic (I guess this one!) we should encourage “the public to spend as much time outdoors as possible,” as a public-health measure.

Source: Closing the Parks Is Ineffective Pandemic Theater – The Atlantic

2020-04-10 11:43

Always true, just now laid bare by the pandemic:

In transit conversations we often talk about meeting the needs of people who depend on transit. This makes transit sound like something we’re doing for them. But in fact, those people are providing services that we all depend on, so by serving those lower income riders, we’re all serving ourselves.

Source: In a Pandemic, We’re All ‘Transit Dependent’

2020-03-07 09:30

Probably just another instance of “people who drink moderately have other healthy behaviors as well,” but very much in keeping with my preconceptions:

Compared with abstainers, those who drank one to 13 standard drinks a week had a 66 percent lower rate of beta amyloid deposits in their brains.

Source: Moderate Drinking Tied to Lower Levels of Alzheimer’s Brain Protein – The New York Times

Spending time in nature in the winter

I find it super easy to spend time outdoors in the summer. Anytime the weather is nice, I’ll almost automatically get out for at least a couple of hours per day. I’m a lot less motivated to do so when it’s cold or wet. This post is largely here to help me remember how nice it is to get outside, even when the weather isn’t so pleasant.

How nice is it? Really, really nice. And yet, I forget, so I end up having to manipulate myself into getting outside in the winter.

I find it easy to manipulate myself with perceived health benefits, such as the well-documented benefits of spending time in nature. I’d find the self-manipulation thing even easier if we knew a bit more about what the “active ingredients” are with regard to time in nature.

Maybe it’s visual. Does the appearance of leaves and trees have some effect on the brain? (I have my own theory that dappled shade has soothing effects on the brain due to our evolution as forest-edge animals.)

Maybe it’s chemical. Trees release all sorts of chemicals into the air, as do bacteria and fungi that live in the soil. I imagine that these are reduced during the winter when the trees are dormant and the soil is covered with snow, but I don’t know of any relevant data.

Besides health benefits, the main ways I motivate myself is either by finding a way to perceive the activity as enjoyable (as being outside on a nice summer day) or else to find a way to smugly perceive the activity as so unpleasant that lesser beings could not bestir themselves to get out in such wretched weather. (One of my mottos: If the weather can’t be good, it should at least be bad enough to be interesting.)

One practical idea I used today: In winter the sunrise is late enough to not have to get up early to get see it. Take advantage of that. See the dawn. Watch the sun rise. Then go back inside where it’s warm.

About 12 minutes before sunrise

A little vitamin W

Since reading a couple of weeks ago about the importance of blue places for both physical and mental health, I’ve been trying to spend a little more time near water, and to pay attention when I’m there.

Today Jackie and I took a short walk along the little creek that runs just south of Winfield Village. It’s really a spectacular amenity that I don’t appreciate nearly as much as I should. (I spend a lot of time admiring our little prairie and our little woods, but I mostly just cross the creek itself with scant notice—nowhere near what it deserves.)

Perhaps you can help me catch up on appreciating our creek. Is it not admirable?

It got me some vitamin W for the water and some vitamin N for the nature, but sadly no vitamin D. The vitamin D window has closed, and won’t open again for 57 days.

Exercise mimetics, fasting mimetics

I have spent a lot of time following the latest research on all sorts of interventions to increase lifespan and healthspan. I am now ready to say that virtually all this time has been wasted.

I guess it hasn’t technically been wasted, in that I’ve come to understand the latest research, and that’s of some value. But when it comes to choosing interventions that might help me, it turns out there’s nothing new beyond the obvious healthy lifestyle recommendations of 20 or even 30 years ago.

There are a bunch of chemical interventions that are interesting—they have definitely been shown to increase healthspan and lifespan in animal models, and have had some very promising results in humans as well. However, it is becoming clear that virtually all of them are either exercise mimetics or fasting mimetics—drugs that activate (some of) the metabolic pathways activated by exercise or fasting.

From a public health perspective, perhaps this is of some interest. Given a population of sedentary people with poor diets it’s easy to foresee a mix of these drugs delaying mortality and morbidity—people will live longer, and during their extended lifespan they’ll have less disability, less illness, and require less medical care.

From my perspective though, it’s completely uninteresting. I would much rather just exercise than take a drug that provides a subset of the benefits of exercise. Similarly, I’d much rather just eat good food than take a drug that simulates some of the effects of doing so.

Do you want to live a long, healthy life? Here’s an plan for you:

  1. Eat a whole-food diet that’s low in sugar and refined carbs. Try to include a couple servings of salmon (or other fatty fish) per week.
  2. Finish supper at least 3 hours before bedtime, and make sure there’s at least 12 (preferably 13 or 14) hours between the end of supper and the start of breakfast.
  3. Get at least 2 resistance workouts a week where you exercise your big muscles (glutes, quads, hamstrings, pecs, traps, lats) until they are briefly very tired.
  4. Get at least 2 endurance workouts a week where you spend an hour or so exercising at a pace that’s a little more intense than a brisk walk.
  5. Get 1 workout a week where you raise your heart rate to 80% of its maximum for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, and then repeat for a total of 10 rounds.
  6. Spend some time outdoors at least several times a week.
  7. Sleep until you wake up naturally almost every night.

That’s it. Unless you are sick with a diagnosed condition for which there is treatment, I very much doubt there is anything modern medicine—or even bleeding-edge longevity research—can do for you that you won’t get from this plan.

I’m sure my brother is very amused that it has taken me this long to come to this conclusion.