The Science of Working Out the Body and the Soul: How the Art of Exercise Was Born, Lost, and Rediscovered


“A history of exercise is not really — or certainly not only — a history of the body. It is, equally, perhaps even primarily, a history of the mind.”


The Science of Working Out the Body and the Soul: How the Art of Exercise Was Born, Lost, and Rediscovered

“And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” wondered Whitman two years before he wrote a manual on “manly health and training” and two decades before he recovered from his paralytic stroke with a rigorous exercise regimen in the gymnasium of the wilderness.

But this natural equivalence, as obvious as it was to Whitman and as evident as the neurophysiology of consciousness is making it in our own epoch — was opaque, even obscene, for much of human history.

The world’s first known book on exercise was written almost exactly two millennia ago, sometime in the 220s, by the Greek philosopher and teacher Flavius Philostratus, then in his fifties. The In On Gymnastics, he argued that athletic training is an art and “a form of wisdom,” on par with the other arts, no less beautiful or substantive than poetry or music. Partly, his treatise was a resistance to the oppression of the Roman regime and to Christianity’s emergence, which began to erase the old Greek culture of the Olympic Games, casual athletics, and public bathhouses.

According to Christian doctrine, the human body could not be used as a platform for public celebrations or private homilies. The cerebral solemnity of the cathedral replaced the joyful physicality of the gymnasium, where crowds had once gathered as much to tone their bodies as to hone their minds on Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy lectures. (The one place where Christianity and ancient Greek culture converged was that women were not permitted to compete in the Olympic Games or enter the gymnasium — even though the athletic Plato, outlining the laws of civilization in his last and longest dialogue, decreed that “women, both young and old, should exercise… together with the men” — and, to this day, women are not permitted to sing in the Vatican choir or hold major leadership positions in the Catholic Church.)

Apparatus for GroupAlice Austen (1893).

It was so that exercise became a myth for over a thousand years. The word itself did not enter the English language until the fourteenth century, when it was originally used in the context of animal farming and husbandry, meaning “to remove restraint.” Like the etymological evolution of “to lose,” “to exercise” came to encompass other contexts beyond the literal and the physical: one could exercise restraint, or altruism, or caution. But not one’s body — not yet.

The sixteenth century saw an Italian doctor named “Dr. Medici” while exploring the remains of Roman and Greek gymnasia. Girolamo Mercuriale (September 30, 1530–November 8, 1606) took it upon himself “to restore to the light the art of exercise, once so highly esteemed, and now plunged into deepest obscurity and utterly perished.” Far ahead of his time on both the scale of a lifetime and the scale of civilization, Mercuriale was only twenty-two when, writing a treatise on parenting, he made a passionate case against the prevalent use of wet nurses, insisting instead that breastfeeding by mothers made for healthier and happier children. His work inspired the world’s first formal proposal for physical education in school curricula, made by the English educator on whom Shakespeare modeled the schoolmaster in Love’s Labor Lost.

Girolamo Mercuriale. (Copperplate engraving by Johann Theodore de Bry (1650).)

But Mercuriale’s most lasting legacy was the 1573 book De Arte GymnasticaYou can also call it: Exercise and the Art of It. (Incidentally, in my native Bulgarian, the academic term for gym class translates verbatim to “physical art.”) On its pages — writing in an elaborate form of medieval Latin that only a handful of scholars can translate today — Mercuriale resolved:

I have taken as my province to restore to the light the art of exercise, once so highly esteemed, and now plunged into deepest obscurity and utterly perished… Why no one else has taken this on, I dare not say. This is an enormous task that I can only comprehend.

If there is one person in the modern world who can reinvigorate Mercuriale’s enormous unfinished labor and bridge the physical, the philosophical, and the poetic — bridge Whitman and Warhol, Plato and Peloton, Kafka and Curie, Tennessee Williams and Serena Williams; bridge the “immediate bodily Now” of exercise with “the wisdom of the past that had faded from living memory” — it is Bill Hayes. And so he does, in Sweat: A History of Exercise (public library) — an expedition, both existential and historical, spanning two thousand years and three continents, exploring “how the arts of exercise were invented, lost, and rediscovered,” raising questions about what distinguishes exercise from practice, labor, or sports; about whether, like art forms and literary genres and languages, there are “certain forms of exercise that are similarly endangered or have already gone extinct — unrecorded, undescribed”; questions like:

Is it up to you or the exercise itself?

At the heart of Mercuriale’s work, written in a world of pre-scientific almost-medicine, was his exultant fascination with “how utterly mysterious — and therefore miraculous — the human body could be,” as Hayes puts it four and a half centuries later, animated by the same exultant fascination as he undertakes his biography of an idea: this ancient yet perennially strange idea that our lives unfold inside bodies in motion across space and time, dragging mind and spirit along for the ride. What emerges is a lovely fusion of the scholarly and the sensual, the personal and the universal, the playful and the poignant, radiant with Hayes’s delight in the elegant machinery of our bodies and the minds they carry — that transcendent place where physiology and psychology converge to produce something best described as spiritual.

Antiquated tomb painting by divers, Tarquinia (Italy).

He wrote:

A history of exercise is not really — or certainly not only — a history of the body. A history of exercise is also, or perhaps most importantly, a history about the body. Mind — of will, desire, self-discipline — for one cannot get exercise without an intentional wish, a motivation, a reason, to do so.

Hayes, just as neuroscience has revealed how somatic sensation might have given birth to complex consciousness, follows evolutionary theory to its pleasant unsettling intimation of an athletic use of body that may have fostered the development brain size and cognitive capability in early humans.

It is necessary to confront our limited standard of intelligence and reveal how the evolution and cultural history are intertwined. Plato believed the body and mind must be cultivated and harmonized with equal dedication. He wrote:

As one can see most obviously in gifted athletes and performers, the body itself can be a source of knowledge — coordination, grace, agility, stamina, skill — both intuitive and learned. Indeed, there are a rare few who might be called Einsteins of the body — geniuses at inventing, expressing, and employing movement. Mark Morris might be one of these choreographers. Serena Williams, perhaps?

An ancient fresco depicting young boxers from Akrotiri in Greece.

Woven into the cultural history is Hayes’s personal history — growing up with five sisters and a hyperathletic father who had once been captain of the West Point swim team; learning boxing at a gym that had once been a used bookstore he frequented with his partner until his sudden death of a heart attack, young and strong, in the middle of the night in their bed in San Francisco; starting his life over in New York, where he becomes one of the city’s foremost street photographers and falls in love again — with the irreplaceable Oliver Sacks, whom Hayes memorialized in his splendid previous book and whose loving memory haunts this one, particularly the chapters on swimming. But even Hayes’s bereavement — which occasioned his break with exercise after a lifetime of devotion, which in turn occasioned his interest in the history of how the body and the soul entwine in the act of exercise — is radiant with love:

The whole thing, the breakup I experienced, began shortly after Oliver died in August 2015 at age eighty-two. We used to swim together two or three times a week — usually a mile-long swim at a nearby pool—sharing a lane and often splitting a weekly session with a swim coach. We swam wherever we could — in cold mountain lakes, in salty seas, and in New York’s overchlorinated public pools. The elegant hotels we visited in London, Iceland and Jerusalem as well as San Francisco were our swimming spots. We went scuba diving in Curaçao and St. Croix. One of the funniest memories I have is of swimming with Oliver in the huge public pool in Central Park on a steamy hot summer night — so hot that the pool was jammed with swimmers, kids, families, New Yorkers. There were only a few lifeguards who tried desperately to maintain order and keep the boys from diving-bombing or cannonballing. Their whistles could be heard above all of it. The effort was futile, much like swimming in Times Square. Oliver was half-blind, but determined, and tried to swim laps while I, his exhausted bodyguard, swam alongside him.

Cave painting with swimmers in Egypt’s Western desert.

Hayes takes his fitness history in the same way as it is hers. Hayes spends as much time looking into books as going into mountains, as well as following rare book librarians. Along the way, he encounters a cast of wondrous characters, dead and alive: an elderly retired schoolteacher in Kansas City with one good eye and the excellent name Miss Irene Blasé, who spent years translating Mercuriale’s works into English for the first time, four hundred years after they were written, and died at ninety a year before her labor was published; an archivist at the Academy of Medicine in East Harlem, part “twenty-first century Minerva” and part dandelion with her tall slight frame “crowned by a nimbus of pewter gray,” who shepherds Hayes’s first encounter with Mercuriale’s original work in a rare surviving volume “the weight of a small dumbbell or a large human brain”; a very English elderly historian of medicine and former Cambridge don “with the aspect of a majestic bird” and the excellent name Dr. Vivian Nutton, who rings six-hundred-pound church bells for exercise; a very French elderly scholar of Mercuriale’s work, obsessed with American pop comics and the question of what it means to have a body, who had been raised Catholic, then traveled to India to study yoga and meditation with the masters and to America for encounter groups and primal scream therapy; legendary chef Alice Waters, who tells him during a chance encounter in Rome that she wakes up at 7 each morning and goes for a 45-minute walk no matter where she is and no matter the weather — her miniature act of resistance to humanity’s lost association between “exercise and manual work, exercise and nature”; Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, in her eighties, staggers him with the matter-of-fact report that she does twenty push-ups every day; an enormously tall man with long hair and a bushy beard, who looks like a time-traveler from the Middle Ages and who hand-delivers to him, at the majestic redwood reading table of a French library, the three-foot rare book he had voyaged there to see.

Wrestlers De Arte GymnasticaGirolamo, Mercuriale (1573).

He perseveres over the militant boredom that bureaucrats, who often keep the keys to the Reliquary of Culture, are more like wardens of scholarship than stewards, continue to frustrate him. An apathetic French public library looks down at his research query and points out the boredom. Why?Before giving him directions to another office. (There is hardly a burn more painful to your research passions than a librarian’s imperious dismissal of your query — I say this with the scorched surety of both a frequent archive dweller and the daughter of a defected librarian.)

Walking the seemingly infinite empty corridors of the Parisian public library and getting nowhere, Hayes thinks about Aristotle’s reckoning with the physically fatiguing effects of infinity, then distracts himself from “the vaguely existential meaninglessness” of his project by making the act of walking itself part of the investigation. (This might be what separates great minds from lesser minds, or perhaps just artists from non-artists — what occasions boredom or frustration in some occasions curiosity and a quickening of creativity in others.)

An epoch after Nietzsche contemplated the relationship between walking and creativity and a generation after Thomas Bernhard observed that “there is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking,” Hayes details the embodied poetics of our most primal propulsion:

You might think that walking is the most simple of all exercises. This is not true, and someone who needs to regain their ability to walk will know. Some two dozen major muscles of the lower body are involved in every cycle of walking — a cycle being the split — second from the contact of one foot on the ground to the next contact of the same foot. There is more to walking than forward movement. A physical therapist once put it to me this way: “Think of walking as a series of aborted falls.” The muscles of the hips, legs, and feet are just as involved in keeping one from collapsing as they are in keeping one moving. The hamstrings — the long powerful muscles behind the legs — are chiefly responsible here. They reach their peak of activity as they “arrest movement” at the hip joint at the moment the heel strikes the ground. The quadriceps femoris — the bundle of four muscles otherwise known as the thigh — then begin to contract to control the load being imposed on the knee joint by the body.

Queen Hatshepsut performs the ritual run for the Egyptian Jubilee Celebration, which is intended to confirm the divine power of any ruling pharaoh male or female.

However, walking amplified has been a powerful poetry of motion. “Running is supreme,” Mercuriale had declaimed in his treatise, and so Hayes picks up the declamation as both spiritual incantation and scientific inquiry:

This is my motto:

Running is the best sportAs I watch for the light to turn green, it is a good thought.

Running is the best sportAs I avoid cars, dogs on leads and bicyclists along the sidewalk.

Running is the best sportWhen I get to the Hudson, I continue down the West Side Manhattan’s smooth-paved route.

What made running supreme in Mercuriale’s mind was not only that it met the definition for exercise he carefully laid out in his book, but that it is “granted to all.” Anyone is capable of doing it — man, woman, child. One doesn’t need a gymnasium. One doesn’t need equipment or an opponent. (Not even shoes are necessary, some today say, following the longtime practice of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, although ultimately one’s feet may disagree.) You only need healthy lungs, strong legs and good posture. My dogs run and I notice how it feels. However, I find it enjoyable to allow them to do the things I want. I turn right, then run towards the end of the pier. My running style is reverse, foreward and forward. I then turn back towards where I came from. I never look down. For every mile that I travel, my feet touch the ground at least a thousand times. However, my body weighs three times as much.

The evolution of automation has given us the gift of exquisite automation. It is hard work and a long process. While many animals are bipedal and can move, few other species can do so. And almost no one can even run more than a short walk. Women are the main reason the human body can run. It evolved from a upright spine to help with pregnancy weight distribution and wider hips to ensure safer childbirth for mother and baby. The birth canal was an increasing large, dense cranium that houses a more powerful brain.

Fourth-century mosaic floor for a Roman Villa

In a passage evocative of Alison Bechdel’s kindred-spirited masterpiece of personal and cultural history, Hayes details the science behind the elaborate symphony of aliveness that plays itself through us when we partake of this deceptively simple activity:

Time passes faster when one runs. I can get from here to there quickly — quickness is embodied, experienced — and I can keep going. I will run until I feel tired, until I’ve had enough, and then I will go just a little farther, at which point a wave of well-being-ness washes over me. It isn’t accidental. My brain is rewarding me for doing something grueling that is beneficial to my overall health — and providing an incentive to do it again. The release of neurochemicals called endorphins from sustained activity can have a soothing effect. In addition, there is a body deposit of human growth factors, which are proteins that repair muscle tissue and that may be involved in the creation or connections between neurons, called synapses.

Then there is the evolutionary glory of sweat — a development so miraculous that Hayes takes it for the title of his book; a development enveloped in a cautionary cultural history of how religious dogma has repeatedly stood in the way of science, which is the way of knowledge and wonder. The true mechanisms of sweat production remained unsolved due to the prohibition on cadaver dissection in major religions. Instead, there were ample theories — all spectacular, all wrong — by some of humanity’s most curious and visionary minds: Plato and Galen, Hippocrates and Avicenna, and Mercuriale himself, who . It was only after the discovery of sweat glands — the structure of which Hayes poetically likens to “the stem of a tiny hydroponic flower turned upside down,” and which form by the millions in utero — that sweat was revealed to be the great thermostatic regulator of our precarious homeostasis.

Marilyn Monroe working out. (Photograph taken by Philippe Halsman in 1952.

Radiating from his chronicle of the history and science behind the varieties of physical activity we now call exercise is a reminder that every form of movement is tethered to the corpus of culture by an invisible chainlink of values and assumptions, permissions and prohibitions; that every exercise — from the commonest to the most esoteric — reflects the body politic and emanates an ethic of thought.

There is dueling, once condemned by the church and punished with excommunication, which evolved into an art — the art of fencing, now both an Olympic sport and an intellectual exercise celebrated as “physical chess.”

The ancient Indian practice of yoga is the basis of a system of group exercise that was developed by a Swede in the nineteenth century. It was adopted later by Britain’s Army under colonial Indian occupation.

There is bicycling, which vitalized women’s political and personal emancipation.

Cover art from Maria Ward’s 1896 manifesto Bicycling for Ladies. Available as both a printed copy and stationery cards.

Sweat brings these hidden histories and all the scientific phenomena and invisible cultural forces behind how we exercise our bodies to life. It combines personal memoir with the biographical details of scientific ideas, but also possesses the humanistic enchantment Hayes used in his book on sleeping. Complement it with a pictorial history of athletic women and the great Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein’s guide to mastering the ancient bodymind art of walking meditation, then revisit the uncategorizable kindred wonder that is The Secret to Superhuman Strength.


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