Exercise is everywhere today. It seems that most people have a gym membership, go for a daily run, or do some bodyweight exercises around the house. There are VR apps, video games, and at-home on-demand video courses to help people sweat at home and stay active. That’s the role exercise plays in the present — but what was it like in the past?
Bill Hayes is the author of seven books, with his most recent title being Sweat: A History of Exercise, the result of a Guggenheim fellowship in nonfiction writing he won. Bill also writes for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, and The Guardian, and is a published professional street photographer.
What led Bill to look into the history of exercise? It all began at the gym. Bill looked around at everyone else there and thought to himself: How did we all end up here? He was inspired to trace a line backward in time to the history of gyms, exercise, and where it all began. From there, he immediately went to the library to look for a book on the history of exercise. When he didn’t find that book, he decided to write it himself.
The history of exercise spans over two millennia – from the beginnings of exercise in ancient Greece and Rome up through the pandemic. The research took Bill on a globetrotting adventure – including his discovery of a Latin text believed to be the first in-depth book on exercise from the Renaissance called D’Arte Gymnastica. First published in 1569, it is "one of the earliest books to discuss the therapeutic value of gymnastics and sports generally for the cure of disease and disability, and an important study of gymnastics in the ancient world" Inspired by his findings, the book SWEAT is also interlaced with Bill’s personal journey as he tries nearly every form of exercise he discovers.
With a title like Sweat, it’s relevant to note that most people get the role of sweat wrong. While many think that sweat works to detox the body by pushing out unwanted components, the primary role of sweat is thermal regulation. Without it, we would not be able to survive.
One frustration that came up in Bill’s research was the gatekeeping against women and girls where they were not allowed or encouraged to exercise—One notable exception being ancient Sparta, which trained its women in the art of warfare. It wasn’t until the suffragette movement, coinciding with the popularity of the bicycle, that women were both allowed and encouraged to exercise. In fact, Susan B. Anthony once said “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel—the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
The Global Wellness Institute predicted Toxic Masculinity as a recent global trend in wellness. However, information from Bill’s studies shows signs that this is not a recent phenomenon. In the ancient Greek athletic games, there was a large amount of idealization of the male form. It was taken to such an extreme that sweat from athletes was gathered and considered a valuable commodity.
And for the wellness-curious out there who believe they hate to exercise, Bill offers this tip to help you get started: Replace the word “exercise” with “movement.” Whether it’s walking up and down the stairs of your apartment, walking around the park, or playing with your kids, it all counts. Exercise should be joyful. If you think you hate exercise, you just haven’t found the right kind of exercise. And while exercise has long-term benefits for your body and overall health, it’s important to exercise for how it makes you feel now.