Downton Abby, Physical Culture, and eBay

By Alex Cromartie, CPT

So apparently, I have been watching too much “Downton Abby”. I say this because I’ve been really interested in Victorian exercise lately! What do I mean exactly? Let me explain.

Before WWI, there was a surge of physical culture in the west in response to the prevalence of “diseases of affluence” within the wealthier Victorian social classes. You see, the human body requires physical activity to operate properly, and it traditionally gets this activity through labor.  The wealthier classes began to find that their lives of luxury came at a cost. Diseases like hypertension, cancer and heart disease that had previously been uncommon, became prevalent. Physical culture was a response to this. If you’ve never read about the physical culture movement, and the plethora of strongmen it produced such as Eugene Sandow, The Mighty Atom, and Arthur Saxon, its definitely worth a few searches on Google. It amazes me that these guys were able to accomplish what they did when no core of common knowledge yet existed for either training or nutrition. Using nothing but trial and error to train, some of them still hold their world records today.

When WWI began, physical culture was all but forgotten. Men and women had no time for these activities while their country was at war. After the war, team sports largely replaced physical culture in the west.

So jump back now to the twenty-first century, where physical culture is experiencing modern day resurgence. As a trainer, I sometimes like to incorporate unique exercises into my client’s routines, and typed “Victorian Exercise” into my search engine to see if I could find anything new. What I found instead was a rather unique EBay book listing that I uncharacteristically HAD to have!


Up for auction was an 1838 Fourth Edition Copy of “Sure Methods Of Improving Health And Invigorating Life By Regulating Diet And Regimen” by T.J.Graham, M.D. According to the seller in the U.K. (who had an excellent seller rating), it was one of the first attempts in history to create a diet and exercise method, and one of only six copies left in existence. Upon reading the description, I realized I could no longer live without the information in this book! The thought of peering back in time into the minds of health experts 175 years ago was impossible to resist. What types of things did they have right? What types of things did they have wrong? What did they overlook completely? Have ideas about health and fitness really changed all that much since then?


After receiving the book, I began reading through its chapters. The first section of the book was dedicated to diet, the second to regimen (exercise and sleep). The final section deals with miscellaneous topics such as anxiety, bad habits, living abroad, and corpulence (odd Victorian word for obesity). The section on diet is broken down into “solid foods” and “liquid foods”. By liquid foods, I mean a few pages on water, milk and tea, and a whole bunch concerning “spirits”. Interesting to see that alcoholic beverages were so entwined into the culture that no one even questions that alcohol may have negative effects on the body! Remarkably though, the author does correctly point out that red wine has considerably more health benefits than white. Probably funniest thing I found at first glance was in the “solid food” section. It was that fish is “not agreeable to the stomach, and should be avoided! Whoops. Guess we dropped the credibility ball there. Nonetheless, being able to explore the development of physical exercise at such an early stage in its existence is fascinating. I will definitely update this posting after I finish the book in its entirety. Until next time.

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