Physiotherapists are very interested in fitness, leisure and sport, but they rarely discuss the history of these ideas, or the place of physical therapies (massage, manipulations and mobilisations, remedial exercise, electrotherapy, hydrotherapy etc.) in the promotion of the health of the population. There are a number of reasons why I think we should pay more attention to this specific history. Firstly, it’s one of the few areas where physical therapies have made a genuine contribution to the health of the population. I don’t mean the health of individual patients that, taken together, amounts to the health of the population, but rather an approach applied to the population as a whole – as one organic entity. Secondly, I believe that if physiotherapists had a better appreciation for the history of the ideas that underpin their practice, they might be less prone to believe that the latest push to get people exercising is anything new. Thirdly, we might be less inclined to believe that people today face unique and unprecedented challenges. The truth is, as far back as Greco-Roman times, people have always been concerned about the fitness of the population, and people have always turned to the physical therapies for an answer.
Any physiotherapist wanting to know more about this history of the practices that are the cornerstone of the profession often has to go outside physiotherapy to find information. Most research today focuses on the efficacy of specific technique rather than the etymology of the ideas, so coming across a recent book by Charlotte Macdonald (Strong, Beautiful, and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935-1960, 2011, British Columbia: UBC Press, ISBN 9780774825406) made good reading (you can find some additional two book reviews here and here, and a section of the book as a taster here.)
The book covers five main themes:
- National fitness in England and Scotland – with a very physiotherapy-relevant chapter title: ‘Movement is Life’
- Physical welfare as the people’s entitlement in New Zealand
- National fitness in New South Wales and across Australia
- National fitness in Canada
- and Healthy bodies, states and modernity
The book addresses a time immediately preceding World War II and the immediate post-war period. This is an interesting time in the history of the fitness movement, because most research traditionally concentrates on the role of fitness in the eugenics movement which came to prominence in the early years of the 20th century. Eugenics was inspired by a Darwinian belief in the survival of the fittest (and was pioneered by Darwin’s cousin – Francis Galton, 1822-1911 – a polymath, who, amongst other things, invented the statistical concept of correlation), and exercise was seen as an important vehicle to ensure the vital strength of the population.
Most countries that embraced eugenics nurtured beliefs about the impending loss of racial purity, and fitness advocates argued that the whole population’s health was at risk from becoming sedentary and soft. Out of this vat of bile emerged some quite extraordinary characters. No less so than Eugene Sandow (1867-1925) – the subject of a brilliant book by Caroline Daly (Leisure and Pleasure: Reshaping and Revealing the New Zealand Body 1900-1960, 2013, Auckland, Auckland University Press, ISBN 1869405048.)
Sandow is probably responsible for New Zealand’s beach culture. He was a performance artist and bodybuilder who would demonstrate astonishing feats of strength to enraptured audiences. But it was his almost naked appearance and toned body that caused so much interest to people who had, until then, been very Victorian.¹
Early twentieth-century New Zealanders moved around a lot, traveling the length and breadth of the country in search of work and better opportunities. But where’ve the went, they could probably join a gym or a physical culture class. All over New Zealand men who had trained under Sandow in London, or who had ‘graduated’ from one of his mail-order courses, were setting themselves up as directors of Sandow schools. Some women climbed onto the bandwagon, offering classes in dancing and deportment alongside Sandow exercise programmes. A major leisure revolution was taking place (Daley, 2013, pp.42-3).
I’ve written elsewhere about the role that physical culture played in New Zealand’s early physiotherapy history (see here), but Macdonald’s excellent book reminded that there is always so much more to learn about our present practices from lessons of the past.
¹ Sandow’s show of physical form would become a major influence on the way anatomy books were presented from the 1930s onwards. With homoerotic irony, authors turned away from the simple line drawings of earlier editions, preferring instead the high resolution, images of muscular men to display a visual map of the muscles of the body.