Why Men Should Exercise Daily (William Blaikie, 1879)

On January 8, 2013 by Physical Culturist

The advantages to men of a well-built body, kept in thorough repair, are very great. Those of every class, whose occupation is sedentary, soon come to appreciate this. Some part of the machinery gets out of order. It may be the head, or eyes, or throat; it may be the lungs or stomach, liver or kidneys. Something does not go right. There is a clogging, a lack of complete action, and often positive pain. This physical clogging tells at once on the mental work, either making its accomplishment uncomfortable and an effort, or becoming so bad as to actually prevent work at all. It may make the man ill. There is very little doubt but that a large majority of ailments would be removed, or, rather, would never have come at all, had the lungs and also the muscles of the man had vigorous daily action to the extent that frequent trial had shown best suited to that man’s wants. One of the quickest known ways of dispelling a headache is to give some of the muscles, those of the legs, for instance, a little hard, sharp work to do. The reason is obvious. Dr. Mitchell puts it well when he says that muscular exercise flushes the parts engaged in it, and so depletes the brain.

But fortunately that same exercise also helps make better blood, gets the entire lungs into action, quickens the activity of the other vital organs, and so tones up the whole man, that, if the exercise is taken daily and is kept up, disorder, unless very deep-seated, disappears.

It is well known that when the system, from any cause, gets run down, disease is more likely to enter, and slower at being shaken off. Thousands and hundreds of thousands of men and women have hard work, mental strain, fret and anxiety, daily, and for years together — indeed, scarcely do anything to lighten the tension in this direction. They tell you they are subject to headache or dyspepsia, or other disorder, as if it was out of the question to think of preventing it. But had the work been so arranged, as it nearly always could be — far oftener than most persons think — to secure daily an hour for vigorous muscular exercise for all the parts, this running down would, in most instances, never come. The sharp, hot work, till the muscles are healthily tired, insures the good digestion, the cleared brain, the sound sleep, the buoyant spirits.

The president of one of the largest banks in this country told the writer that, disappointed one summer in not getting a run to Europe, reflection told him that one marked benefit such jaunts had brought him was from the increased sleep he was enabled to get, that thereupon he determined on longer sleeps at home. He got them, and found, as he well put it, that he could “fight better.” Beset all day long with men wanting heavy loans, that fighting tone, that ability to say “no” at the right time and in a way which showed he meant it, must have not only added to his own well-being, but to the bank’s protection as well.

Again, many men are liable to occasionally have sudden and very protracted spells of head-work, where sleep and almost everything else must give way, so that the business in hand may be gotten through with. “Tom Brown” told the writer that, when in Parliament, he could work through a whole week together on but four hours of sleep a night, and be none the worse for it, provided he could have all he wanted the next week, and that since he was twenty -five he had hardly known a sick day.

A father, tired from his day of busy toil, may have a sick child, who for much of the night will not let him sleep. Such taxes as this, coming to one already run down and weak, cannot be braved frequently with impunity. Unless the five or six miles a day of Tom Brown and his fellow-English-men’s “constitutional”, or some equivalent, is resorted to, and the man kept well-toned-up, one of these sudden calls may prove too severe, and do serious if not fatal injury. This toning-up is not all. If the bodily exercise is such as to get all the muscles strong, and keep them so, the very work that would otherwise overdo and exhaust now has no such effect, but is gone through with spirit and ease. There is that consciousness of strength which is equal to all such trifles.

The very nervousness and worry which used to be so wearing, at the sudden and ceaseless calls of the day, have gone, and for the reason that strong nerves and strong muscles are very liable to go together, and not to mind these things. What does the athlete at the top of his condition know about nervousness? He is blithe as a lark all the day long.

Dr. Mitchell says:

The man who lives an outdoor life — who sleeps with the stars visible above him, who wins his bodily subsistence at first-hand from the earth and waters — is a being who defies rain and sun, has a strange sense of elastic strength, may drink if he likes, and may smoke all day long, and feel none the worse for it. Some such return to the earth for the means of life is what gives vigor and developing power to the colonists of an older race cast on a land like ours. A few generations of men living in such fashion store up a capital of vitality which accounts largely for the prodigal activity displayed by their descendants, and made possible only by the sturdy contest with nature which their ancestors have waged. That such a life is still led by multitudes of our countrymen is what alone serves to keep up our pristine force and energy.

Now, while this extreme hardiness and tone cannot be had by a person who has twelve hours of busy brain-work daily in-doors, and only one of bodily exercise, still, much can be done, quite enough to calm and tranquillize, and to carry easily over those passes which used to be dreaded.

If the man who habitually works too long without a rest would every hour or so turn lightly from his work, for even sixty seconds, to some vigorous exercise right in his office, or even in the next room or hallway, until the blood got out of his brain a little, and the muscles tingled with a hearty glow, he would go back so refreshed as to quickly make up, both in the quantity and quality of his work, for the time lost. When his hour for exercise came, instead of having no heart for it, he would spring to it with alacrity, like the school-boy does to his play.

Even if the strong man does occasionally become jaded, he knows, as Hughes did, how to get back his strength and snap, and that a tired man is many removes from a tired-out one. There is a great deal in knowing whether your work is overdoing you or simply tiring you. One of the strongest and best oarsmen Harvard ever had, used, at first, to think he ought to stop rowing when he began to perspire, and was quite astounded when an older man told him that that was only the beginning of the real work. There is no end of comfort to a tired man, either mentally or physically, in the thought that sure relief is near.

Again, this relief by physical exercise will encourage the man to hope that, if war or accident do not cut him down, he may look for a long life, no matter how great may be the occasional strain. Few men, for instance, familiar with the life of the Duke of Wellington will claim that they are better workers than he was, or that they get through more in a day or year, or that, heavy as their responsibilities may be, they surpass or even equal those which were his for years together. Yet all the terrible mental strain this illustrious man underwent, battling with one of the greatest captains this world ever saw, all the exposure and forced marching, privation and toil, which come to the faithful soldier, and to him who holds the lives of multitudes in his hands, this man knew, and yet so controlled his work, exacting as it all was, as to manage to keep his body superior to all it was called on to do, and his mind in constant working order, and this not merely up to threescore and ten, but to fourscore good years, and three more besides. Did not the vigorous body at the start, and the daily attention to it, pay him?

Will it be claimed that the president of one of the best-known corporations on this continent did any more work than Wellington? That president was at it all day, and far into the night, and when away in Europe, nominally on a play-spell, as well. Naturally, he was a strong, energetic man; but he had so worked, and so neglected his body, that he died at fifty-two. Which of the two men showed the better sense?

What does cutting one’s self down at fifty-two mean? Five minutes’ reflection should tell any reasonable person that the man was overworking himself, and going at a pace no man could hold and live. Does not this show a lack of sense, and especially when much of that work could certainly have been done by subordinates? Was not one of Daniel Webster’s best points his skill in getting work done by others, and saving for himself the parts he liked best?

When, after long years of toil and perseverance, one has worked himself up to position and wide influence, is it sensible to do what his humblest employee could rightly tell him is overcrowding, and so forcing the pace that he certainly cannot hold it? Instead of taking that position and that influence and wielding them for greater ends, and improving them very markedly, must there not be a keen pang to their owner when, tantalized with what seems surely within his grasp, that grasp itself weakens, and the machine goes all to pieces?

These later years are especially the precious ones to the wealthy man. They are his best days. Then his savings, and his earnings too, accumulate as they did not when he was younger. Look at the work done by Vanderbilt, for example, accomplished almost thirty years after he was fifty-two! Did not the active out-door life on the little periauger of his youth, and the daily constitutionals which, notwithstanding his infirmities, all New Yorkers saw him taking in later life, pay him? And are they less precious in any other line of life?

Look for a moment at the value health is to a man in any of the learned professions — of having a sound and vigorous body, with each branch of his vital system working regularly, naturally, and in harmony with the rest. Do these things make no difference to the divine? Had the sturdy, prize- fighter make of Martin Luther nothing to do with his contempt for the dangers awaiting his appearance before Charles V. and his Diet of Worms, and which caused him to say he would go there though the devils were as thick as the tiles on the houses; and with the grand stand he made for the religious light which now shines so freely upon the whole Christian world?

James Guthrie, first tying one hand behind him, with the other could whip any man in Oxford who would also fight one-handed. Who doubts that the vigor so evinced had much to do with the faithful, arduous life’s work he did, and did so well that all Scotland is today justly proud of him?

Have the magnificent breadth and depth of Spurgeon’s chest, and his splendid outfit of vital organs, no connection with his great power and influence as a preacher of world-wide renown? Have the splendid physique and abounding vitality of Henry Ward Beecher — greater almost than that of any man in a hundred thousand — nothing to do with his ability to attend to his duties as pastor, author, lecturer, and editor — work enough to kill half a dozen ordinary men — and with the tireless industry which must precede his marked success in them all ? Are not the towering form, the ruddy health, and grand, manly vigor of Dr. John Hall weighty elements, first in putting together, and then in driving home, the honest, earnest, fearless words which all remember who ever heard him speak? Have not the great bodies of those two young giants of the American pulpit, Phillips Brooks and Joseph Cook, proved most valuable accessories to their great brains?

Is there anything feeble about any of these? Put the tape-measure around them anywhere you like, and see how generous nature has been with them. Is it all a mere chance that they happen to have splendid bodies? Why is it that we never hear of such as these having “ministers’ sore throat,” and “blue Mondays,” and having to be sent by their congregations, every now and then, away to a foreign land to recruit their health and keep them up to their work? Do sound and sturdy bodies, and due attention daily to keeping them in good repair, have nothing to do with their ability to cope at all times with the duty lying next to them — and with their attention to it, too, in such a way as to make them so much more effective than other men in their great life’s work ?

That the physician himself needs sound health and plentiful strength, few will question; and yet, does he, from his calling alone, do anything to in- sure it? Dragged from his bed at all hours of the night, thrown daily, almost hourly, in contact with deadly disease — often so contagious that others shrink from going where he goes, like the brave man he must be to face such dangers— would not that general toned-up condition of the thoroughly sound and healthy man prove a most valuable boon to him — indeed, often save his life? And yet, does his daily occupation insure him that boon, even though it does enable him to get out-of-doors far more than most men who earn their living by mental labor? Witness one of their own number, Dr. Mitchell, on this point; for he says,

The doctor, who is supposed to get a large share of exercise, in reality gets very little after he grows too busy to walk, and has then only the incidental exposure to outdoor air.

Would not a sensible course of physical exercise daily pay him — especially when pretty much all the muscular work he gets of any account is for his forearms and a little of his back, and then only when he drives a hard-bitted horse?

And does not a lawyer need a good body, and one kept in good order? After the first few years, when his practice is once well established, he finds that, unlike men in most other callings, his evenings are not his own, and that, if he is going to read any law, and to attempt to keep up with the new decisions every year, even in his own State, what between court work, the preparation of his cases, drawing papers, consultation, correspondence, and the other matters which fill up the daily round of the lawyer in active practice, that reading will have to be done out of office-hours often, or not done at all. Even in his evenings his business is too pressing to allow any time for reading. Here, then, is a man who is in serious danger of being cut off from that rest and recreation which most other men can have. The long, steady strain, day and evening, often breaks him down, where an hour’s active exercise daily on the road or on the water, with his business for the time scrupulously forgotten, together with from a quarter to half an hour, on rising and retiring, in strengthening his arms and chest, would have kept him as tough and fresh as they did Bryant, not simply up to sixty, or even seventy, but clear up to his eighty-fourth year. Every lawyer who has been in active practice in any of our large cities for a dozen years can point to members of his Bar who have either broken clean down, and gone to a premature grave from neglecting their bodily health, or who are now far on the road in that same direction. This happens notwithstanding the fact that in many places the courts do not sit once during the whole summer, and lawyers can hence get longer vacations and go farther from home than most men.

Let anyone read the life of Kuf us Choate, and say whether there was any need of his dying an old man at fifty-five. He started not with a weak body, but one decidedly strong. So little care did he take of it that, as he himself well put it,

latterly he hadn’t much of any constitution, but simply lived under the by-laws.

Did it hinder his distinguished compeer, Daniel Webster, from magnificent success at the bar because he took many a good play-spell with a fishing-rod in his hand? because he not only knew but regarded the advantage and wisdom of keeping his body toned-up and hearty, and so regarded it that he died, not at fifty-five, but at the end of the full threescore years and ten? And did grand physical presence, the most impressive which ever graced American forum or senate-chamber — so striking, in fact, that, as he walked the streets of Liverpool, the laboring men stopped work and backed their admiring gaze by concluding that he must be a king — did these qualities not contribute to that same magnificent success? Daniel O’Connell was a man of sturdier body even than Webster, of whom Wendell Phillips says:

He was the greatest orator that ever spoke English. A little O’Connell would have been no O’Connell. Every attitude was beauty, every gesture grace. There was a magnetism that melted every will into his.

Had not this wonderful man much to thank these same qualities for? Had they not something to do with the stretching of his vigorous life, not merely up to fifty-five, or even to seventy, but clear up to seventy-three? How many men has the world ever seen who filled, and well filled, more high offices than Henry Brougham, and who, no matter where he was, was always a tireless worker? One biographer says that, as a boy, he was the fleetest runner in the neighborhood, and this man, “as an orator, second in his time only to Canning;” this man, who once spoke in Parliament for seven days consecutively, who, even when upward of seventy, showed his zeal for reform by urging the introduction into England of the New York Code of Procedure — this one of England’s most famous Lord Chancellors took such care of his body that he never ceased from his labors until he was eighty-nine.

Let us look at but one more instance of the way a powerful mind and an uncommonly strong body blend and aid their possessor to his purposes. A recent writer in “Blackwood” says of Bismarck:

He is a powerful man. That is what strikes at once everyone who sees him for the first time. He is very tall and of enormous weight, but not ungainly. Every part of his gigantic frame is well-proportioned — the large round head, the massive neck, the broad shoulders, and the vigorous limbs. He is now more than sixty-three, and the burden he has had to bear has been usually heavy; but though his step has become slow and ponderous, he carries his head high — looking down, even, on those who are as tall as himself — and his figure is still erect.

During these latter years he has suffered frequent and severe bodily pain, but no one could look upon him as an old man, or as one to be pitied. On the contrary, everybody who sees him feels that Prince Bismarck is still in possession of immense physical power.

And what holds good as to professional men in this respect of course will apply with equal force to busy brain-workers in any other line as well.

It is nowhere claimed here that there have not been in many callings great men whose bodies were indifferent affairs, but endeavour has been made to show, not only that a great mind and a vigorous body can go together, but that the latter is, not to the man of unusual mental power alone, but to every man, a most valuable acquisition, and one that he should, if he does not possess it already, take prompt steps to secure, and then, once acquiring it, should use the means, as Bryant did, to retain it.

In the 1877-78 annual report of Harvard College, President Eliot, who has been exceptionally well-placed to observe several thousand young men, and to know what helps and what hinders their intellectual progress, adds his valuable testimony to the importance of vigorous health and regular physical exercise to all who have, or expect to have, steady and severe mental work to do. Busy professional men may well heed his words. Speaking of the value of scholarships to poor but deserving young men, he says:

If sound health were one of the requisitions for the enjoyment of scholarships, parents who expected to need aid in educating their boys would have their attention directed in an effective way to the wise regimen of health; while young men who had their own education to get would see that it was only prudent for them to secure a wholesome diet, plenty of fresh air, and regular exercise.

A singular notion prevails, especially in the country, that it is the feeble, sickly children who should be sent to school and college, since they are apparently unfit for hard work. The fact that, in the history of literature, a few cases can be pointed out in which genius was lodged in a weak or diseased body, is sometimes adduced in support of the strange proposition that physical vigor is not necessary for professional men. But all experience contradicts these notions.

To attain success and length of service in any of the learned professions’, including that of teaching, a vigorous body is well-nigh essential. A busy lawyer, editor, minister, physician, or teacher has need of greater physical endurance than a farmer, trader, manufacturer, or mechanic. All professional biography teaches that to win lasting distinction in sedentary, indoor occupations, which task the brain and the nervous system, extraordinary toughness of body must accompany extraordinary mental powers.

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