Why is exercise more than fitness  


In this article:

Girolamo Mercuriale

Italian linguist (1530-1606)

This article first appeared outside

I’m not sure if this trend will survive the pandemic, but for some time, it was common to see NBA players throw headbands into the stands after a game, which pleased some loyal fans. Call it the Holy Grail of our secular, sports addicted era: a branded, wet Terry halo directly from the LeBron dome. Of course, our reverence for super athletes is unprecedented.

Or I thought so, until I found a fascinating historical gag in bill Hayes’s new book sweat: the history of sports, where we learned that athletes’ sweat was “considered a reward commodity in the ancient world”. Obviously, in Greek and Roman culture, men known for their physical strength “scrape off the accumulated sweat and oil and pour it into small cans.” At that time, it was believed that the substance, known as gloios, contained some of the essence of excellent exercise, although it was mainly sold in ancient gymnasiums as ointment for skin diseases such as hemorrhoids and genital warts.

Although Hayes quickly pointed out that he sells a lot of snake oil in today’s fitness industry, his project with sweet is not to slander the greatest fitness charlatan in history, but to be more ambitious. In essence, this is a very personal book about the universal theme of human beings trying to solve the meaning of their own body. The fact that we have a body doesn’t necessarily tell us how to use it.

Despite the subtitles, sweet doesn’t read like a “sports history”, but more like a learned memoir about a lifelong fitness enthusiast seeking to get involved in weightlifting, swimming, boxing and yoga in the context of historical traditions. This is a very suitable premise for interesting historical narration, and Hayes makes full use of this advantage. Kafka has never made me think he is a model of fitness. Obviously, he likes wrestling with his neighbors.

“How did we get here?” Hayes asks in the introduction to the book, while investigating the gym floor of his fellow exercisers from the stair master. His exploration led him to one of the earliest books on the benefits of exercise written by Italian doctor Girolamo mercuriale, de arte gym (1573). Mercure’s idea of the Renaissance was not his own. As Hayes pointed out, the concept of beneficial exercise was a somewhat radical proposition in 16th century Italy. After all, one of the core tenets of Christianity is that the human body is far from the source of virtue, but hopelessly immersed in sin.

Therefore, no wonder in de Arte gymnastica, mercuriale warned those who “pay too much attention to strengthening their body”. It seems that devout people do not abandon themselves He insists that the purpose of exercise is to maximize health and prevent disease, rather than indulge one’s narcissism. However, in 1585, mercuriale seemed to contradict this suggestion, because he published an obscure book with the English title of the book on body beauty, which recommended exercise as a means of weight loss. This shows that the two most obvious sports motives today – health and vanity – existed centuries ago.

These dual incentives also ended Hayes’s personal relationship with the exercise recorded in sweat. When he was in his seventies, he became obsessed with weightlifting, hoping to imitate the physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the iron age. Decades later, in his fifties, Hayes will return to the game after being diagnosed with high blood pressure after a long period of inactivity. “The choice I used to make was no longer. In that sport, what I freely wanted to do – look good and feel good – became what I really should do to stay healthy.”

But what does “health” ultimately mean? Optimize our vital signs and become super torn, or revel in hedonism, because sooner or later we will all end in the same place? Of course, this question is unanswerable. However, when it comes to exercise, it is certain that if its benefits are limited to helping us stay away from hospitals or adhere to certain heat standards, its attraction will weaken. In some of the most memorable chapters of Hayes’s book, movement is not so much a means to achieve an end as a means to pursue the original feeling. This is no coincidence: the violence sneaking into the icy lake in October, “the chaos of water”; The original pleasure of sprinting naked in the driveway of a secluded country villa.

However, it is wrong to reduce exercise to just physical exercise. In the most poignant chapter of this book, Hayes tells the feeling of living as a gay man in San Francisco in the middle and late 1980s when the AIDS pandemic was raging. “What I feared most was not disease or HIV infection, but the disappearance of men I didn’t know,” Hayes wrote. This is a strange and disturbing concept – the sudden disappearance of people on the edge of our lives may be more terrible than the prospect of ourselves becoming victims. For Hayes, one of the main social venues where this phenomenon occurred was a gym called muscle system, “the gay gym in San Francisco at that time.” Every time a frequent visitor stops appearing, everyone assumes the worst. But the ghost of AIDS has also brought a new sense of urgency to exercise. “Exercise puts us in a difficult position in direct competition, not just for our age but for AIDS,” Hayes wrote. For an infected person, “strengthening muscles shows measurable control over his body when he may feel helpless about the slow destruction of the virus.”

In this case, exercise has become an affirmation of life in the most direct and direct sense. When death is everywhere, sweating will remind you that you are still here.

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