What's the silliest claim you've ever heard someone make about exercise? That weightlifting makes you bulky? That sweating a ton proves that you're burning more calories than everyone else? Then consider yourself lucky (even though both of those exercise myths are untrue, of course). Because there have been some spectacular myths about exercise and the body throughout history, from the apparent belief that walking could cure tuberculosis to the idea that football turned everybody into raging lunatics.
The notion that exercise is actually good for us was, for a lot of human history, more controversial than you might think. We've all seen images of exercise from history — pictures of Spartan warriors, Minoan bull-jumping and Roman gladiatorial fights — but in these eras, physical effort was often tied to religious or military situations, rather than just health. The belief that diseases and weakness were caused by holy forces, rather than anything you yourself could combat through exercise or diet, was popular in societies from ancient Egypt to medieval Europe. Add in the "theory of the humours" (the idea that human bodies had a balance of four humors: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm), which was an established medicinal tradition from ancient Greece onwards, and you're left with serious arguments among medical professionals about whether humor imbalances explained every illness, and whether exercise had anything to contribute at all to the health and wellness of human beings.
In the history of exercise and health, though, there are certain beliefs that stand out as particularly remarkable, either because they're kind of funny or because they're ridiculous. Or both! So read on, and discover five of the strangest exercise myths from history. Did you know that one point, people believed that wombs stopped lady-people from doing any proper exercise? I'd love to see someone tell Ronda Rousey about that one.
1. Doing Any Strenuous Exercise Will Probably Kill You
This was actually a belief held by one of the first known advocates of exercise for health: the physician Susruta, an ancient Indian medicinal expert who lived around 600 BC and published a treatise on medicine in Sanskrit. In it, he advocates for exercise as a matter of continuing health for the body. But he also cautions against doing too much or going too hard — lest you have to deal with potentially fatal consequences.
Charles M. Tipton, in his study of ancient exercise and health, reports that Susruta had a very set idea about proper exercise: "It should be taken every day... [but] only to half extent of his capacity." If you exceeded that limit? "It could prove fatal," because it would over-stress the body, lead to diseases and eventually end in the grave. Susruta's pro-exercise perspective was pretty groundbreaking, but it's likely that if he saw today's endurance athletes and Crossfit people (or, hey, one event at an Olympic Games), he'd be in a fit of anxiety for the participants.
2. A Brisk Stroll Can Cure Consumption And Vertigo
Hippocrates is the one ancient physician you've likely heard of (yep, the Hippocratic Oath is named after him). And, like a lot of Greek physicians, he had a lot to say about physical effort and why it was important; the ancient Greeks loved exercise (as befits a society that invented the Olympics) and thought dudes should study both academia and flexin' in order to achieve the height of sophistication. But Hippocrates actually, for the first time, came up with specific prescriptions to treat illnesses that included exercise. And some of them are a bit, er, ambitious.
If you had consumption (known these days as tuberculosis, the bacterial infection that attacks the lungs) Hippocrates proposed a stroll. Well, not exactly a stroll — it was more like a gradually increasing daily marathon. On the first day of a treatment, a patient with consumption was supposed to walk 20 stades (3.7km); every day after that, he or she had to increase the distance walked by 5 stades (0.9 km) until 100 stades (18.5km) was being walked. For 30 days. The whole cure was meant to last a year. Considering tuberculosis can only be cured by a serious dose of antibiotics lasting months, this wasn't likely to help much. (One potential side effect of tuberculosis, though, is jaundice, and a bit of sunlight exposure can improve that a little in newborns.)
Hippocrates wasn't alone in this belief; the ancient physician Galen prescribed walking and gymnastic ventures like wrestling and boxing for people recovering from vertigo, dropsy, arthritis and gout.
3. Football Causes People To Be "Lewd And Disorderly"
Next time you watch somebody play a soccer or rugby game, bear in mind that the game evolved from something called "mob football" in medieval England, where huge hordes of working-class men would basically have a small riot apparently organized around the throwing of a ball. Consequently, the game was banned in England, not once but multiple times over the centuries.
From the 1300s onwards, many laws were added to the books in England trying to ban the sport, on the basis that it caused property damage and rioting in public places (there weren't playing fields at the time, so the game was often played in public streets), as well as the belief that it wasn't a very "gentlemanly" sport like hawking or fencing. A 1608 ordinance against it in Manchester called the players "lewd and disordered persons." It was hilariously dismissed by a man called Sir Thomas Elyot in his 1531 book about gentlemanly pursuits, The Governor, as "nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence."
4. Walking Helps Digestion (But Might End Pregnancies)
Blame Pliny The Elder for these ones: the Roman naturalist and author had some very intriguing ideas about medicine in general, but walking, for him, seemed to be an exceptionally paradoxical activity. On the one hand, he promoted it as an aid for digestion (but only if done at night). On the other, he struck fear into the hearts of every pregnant woman by noting, "The mode of walking, and indeed everything that can be mentioned, is of consequence in the case of women who are pregnant." Incredibly unhelpfully, he doesn't mention what mode of walking is meant to be so bloody dangerous, but he adds in the very next sentence that women who ate too much salted beef would give birth to babies with no fingernails, so we can safely assume his opinion was perhaps a bit odd.
Pliny also often recommended getting out of the house for a stroll immediately after taking one of his "natural" cures, possibly to remove oneself from the smell. For instance, he recommended grinding up a fruit with fermented honey and flour for sores, but insisted that users take a walk immediately after taking their dosage so it won't "mark the face."
5. Women Can't Engage In Both Reproduction And Exercise
Prepare to foam at the mouth over this one: the Victorian doctor Herbert Spencer formulated a wildly popular theory about women and exercise that held sway for decades, and is unfortunately one of the most ridiculously sexist bits of theory you'll come across today. It's so hilariously awful that it made my poor women's eyes cross.
Basically, according to Spencer, women were simply not as strong as men; this was because they developed faster and used up their energy more quickly. But the bigger problem was that menstruation and fertility were energy-sapping activities; Spencer claimed that every adult woman had to devote a certain amount of her energy reserve to it, otherwise she'd end up damaged, weird or a bad mother. That meant that women had no time for education or exercise. D. Margaret Costa explains in Women And Sport: Interdisciplinary Perspectives that "because [Spencer's woman] was required to spend her energy on the needs of reproduction, any extra effort used in intellectual endeavour or in vigorous physical activity resulted in weakness, disease, infertility, or damage to future generations."
"Nature is a strict accountant," Spencer said in his Essays on Education to all those ladies who dared to want to do more than sit in a corner, speak quietly and be fecund. "If you demand of her in one direction more than she is prepared to lay out, she balances the accounts by making a deduction elsewhere."
So congratulations if you went for a run today! You've mysteriously escaped the apparent womb-hurting qualities of exercise. I kind of want to create a marathon team called Up Yours, Spencer. Want to join?