The Gymnasium

"Education among the Greeks was peculiarly calculated for the development of the mind and the body in common. It is from this point of view that we wish to show the nature and preeminence of gymnastics in their times as compared with our own."

The ambitious reformer of the gymnasium did not pause here; but, pursuing a still bolder course, undertook "to make gymnastics not only a branch of education for healthy persons, but to demonstrate them to be a remedy for disease." The new science was called Kinesipathy, or the "motor-cure." The curative movements were first practised in 1813, while Ling remained at Stockholm. A motor-hospital was established in connection with the gymnastics; and to accommodate the invalid and the feeble, new exercises, called "passive movements," were devised. These were executed by an external agent upon the patient,--that agent being usually the hand of the physician. The sick man, too weak for violent, voluntary effort, was stretched and champooed, the muscles of his trunk and limbs alternately flexed and extended by another person, until he gradually acquired strength to use active movements. As he gained power, he increased the voluntary resistance which he made to the operator, and thus, at the same time, the amount of his own muscular exertion. It is claimed that volition is thus called forth to neglected parts, and their innervation and vascularity increased; and that so at length the normal fulness of life and function is restored. This system confines itself mostly to chronic diseases. In the paralysis of the young, in defective volition from hysteria, in impaired local nutrition, in local deformities dependent on muscular contraction, and in lateral curvature of the spine, it unquestionably often produce the best results. Its advocates claim for it much more. On its further benefits we are unable to decide. Like all things else, it is susceptible of abuse.

Russia and Prussia have adopted, to a limited extent, the Ling system of corporeal training and the "motor-cure." In London there exists an institution of this kind, and more recently one has been established by the Doctors Taylor in New York. In a still less degree the Swedish gymnastics are used in some education institutions here.

Ling died in 1839, in his seventy-third year. Even on his death-bed he spoke till the last hour, and gave instructions in his favorite science. His  HYPERLINK http://life.is life is a remarkable instance of purity, energy, and devotion to a single. end.

Meanwhile, what have modern nations done to atone for the neglect of the ancient gymnasium? Germany, to some extent, has supplied its place with the Turnverein. Turnkunst, or the gymnastic art, is cultivated by a limited number of youth. As we see the public exhibitions of the Turners in this country, they are as noted for their libations to Bacchus, and their sacrifices to the god of tobacco,--a deity still wanting in the Pantheon,--as for their culture and superiority in athletic sports. Still they exert a wide, and, for the most part, a good influence. Other continental nations of Europe furnish a large portion of their young men with the gymnastic element in the shape of military discipline and drill. As affording the best examples of martial training, Prussia and France are to be signalized,--the former for the universality, the latter for the kind of its instructions.

All young Prussians are liable to a call to actual service in the army for three years. After this, if they do not continue members of the regular standing army, they remain until a certain age in that portion of the active force which is mustered and drilled every year. Past the age referred to, they fall into the corps of reserve, a sort of National Guard of veterans, summoned to the field only in emergencies. Young men who have the means to purchase an immunity can obtain one for only two years. One year they must serve, parade, drill, march, and mount guard, though they are not required to live in the barracks. Occasional cases of hardship or injustice occur. We know of a poor, but promising pianist whose studies were cut short and his fingers stiffened by the three-years' service. Leaving out of view exceptional facts, the system works well. All the youth of the country acquire health, strength, an upright carriage, and habits of punctuality and cleanliness. The clumsy rustic is soon licked into shape, and leaves his barrack, to return to the fields, a soldier and a more self-reliant man. Prussia, too, secures the services of an army, in time of need commensurate in numbers with the adult male population.

The French conscript, if he draws the unlucky number, can buy a substitute. All are not enrolled as recruits; and all those so enrolled are not obliged to serve. The only sons of widows, and some other persons, are always exempt. Once in "the line," however, the young man is engaged for five or seven years, and receives a training in matters gymnastic and military which turns out the best soldiers in Europe.

Little would one imagine, as he passes the groups of dainty and scrupulously neat French officers upon the boulevards, looking the laziest persons in the world, that these seeming carpet-knights are out upon the Chomp de Mars at three o'clock in the morning, and often drill until nine or ten in the forenoon,--or that the little toulourou, as he is nicknamed, or private of the ligne, in his brick-colored trowsers and clean gaiters, whose voice is the gayest and whose legs are the nimblest in the barrier-ball, has done a day's work of parade and gymnastics which equals the toil of an ouvrier. Running, swimming, climbing, and fencing with the bayonet, are often but the preludes of long marches on duty, or equally long walks to reach the parade-ground, or to fetch the daily rations for the "mess." Then, too, during several months of summer, camp-life is led on a grand scale. Vast encampments, which for size, regularity, and order vie with the old Roman castra, are formed at convenient spots. And here-all the details of actual service are imitated; cavalry and infantry are disciplined in equally arduous labors; nor does time artillery escape the fatigue of mock-sieges, sham-fights, and reviews.

The Chasseurs de Vincennes, or rifle-corps, are the pride of the army. Their training is still more severe. They are all athletic men, taught to march almost upon the run, and to go through evolutions with the rapidity of bush-fighters. There are few more stirring sights than a French regiment upon the march. Advancing in loose order, and with a long, swinging gait, their guns at an angle of forty-five degrees, lightly carried upon the shoulder, they impart an idea of alertness and efficiency which no other soldiers present to the same degree.

Gymnasia are somewhat patronized by the civilians. The art of fencing is a national accomplishment, and few gentlemen complete their education without the instructions of the maitre d'escrime. The savate is a rude exercise in vogue among rowdies, and consists in kicking with the peasant's wooden shoe. The French are a tough, but not a large or powerful race. The same amount of training dispensed among as large a proportion of the youth of this country would show much greater results.

The British soldier has long been considered by his own nation as a model of manliness. He owes his long limbs and round chest to his ancestors and his mode of life before enlisting. While on the home-service, he does not yet exercise enough to harden him or to ward off disease. Recent returns show a higher comparative rate of mortality in the British army from consumption than among other Englishmen. His close barracks, varying diet, and listless life explain it all. His countrymen and countrywomen, however, who have the time and means, largely cultivate athletic sports. The English lady is noted for her long walks in the open air, and for the preservation of her youthful bloom,--the English gentleman for his red face, broad shoulders, and happy digestion.

How do we compare with them in vigor and attention to gymnastics and health-giving exercises? Better than we did ten years ago, but still not very favorably.

The Western Border-States are noted for the production of a large and hardy race. New Hampshire and Vermont contribute a good share of the tall and well-developed men who yearly recruit the population of our Eastern cities. Let a generation pass, however, and we find the offspring of such sires with equally capacious frames, but far less muscular power. The skeleton is laid of a man mighty in strength, but the filling-in is wanting. Broad-jointed bones swing listlessly in their sockets, the head projects, and the shoulders bend, under the influence of a sedentary life. The laboring and mechanical classes bring certain groups of muscles to perfection in development and dexterity, but present few instances of an harmonious organization. Commercial and professional men do not accomplish even a limited muscular development. For the other sex, Nature seems to have provided a certain immunity from the necessity of active exercise for the rounding and completion of their bodies. The lack of fresh air, however, soon tells, with them a fatal story of fading complexions and departing bloom. That ethereal beauty which peculiarly marks the American woman is also the earliest to decay. As they are the prettiest, so are they the soonest passes of any Northern nation. Could they but realize that exercise in the open air is Nature's great and only cosmetic, the reproach of early old age would cease. Nothing will give that peach-bloom to the cheek and that peculiar sweetness to the eye which a long walk through the fields, of a clear October bestows unbought.

One evil breeds another. The brain fed only with thin blood gives rise to morbid thoughts. Activity, sharpness,
and quickness of perception are but poor compensations for the want of the milder and more generous attributes of the mind. Dyspepsia spawns a moody literature. Broad, manly views and hopeful thoughts of life exist less here, we think, than in England. The cities are supplied year by year with people from the country; yet the latter, the source of all this supply, does not produce so healthy mothers as the city; and were it not for the increasing study of psychology and its vital, truths, we fear that we should awaken too late to a knowledge of our physical degeneration.

Now what means are in use among us to furnish the needed stimulant of exercise? It is paradoxical to say that the average of people take more exercise in the city than in the country; yet we believe it to be true. That exercise is only of one form, to be sure, namely, walking. The common calls of business, and the mere daily locomotion from point to point of an extended city, necessitate a large amount of this simplest exercise. Other sources of health, as sunlight and the vivifying influence of trees and grass upon the air, exist more in the real country. Yet as many girls attain a vigorous development in town as out of it; for in our smaller New England villages indoor cares and labors confine the females excessively and prevent their using much exercise in the open air.

Our militia system, including the exercises of volunteer companies, supplies but to a very limited extent the want of real gymnastics. The common militia meet too infrequently and drill too little to gain much sanative benefit. The old-fashioned "training-day" was always a day of drunkenness and subsequent sickness. The "going into camp" now adopted is even worse; for here youths taken from the sheltered counting-room and furnace-heated house are exposed to the inclemencies of the weather not long enough to harden them, but long enough to lay the foundation of disease. Volunteer companies parade and are reviewed oftener, and drill more constantly; but the good effects of the manual exercise are rendered nugatory by its being conducted in confined armories and a bad atmosphere.

The frequency of conflagrations and the emulation of rival volunteer corps render the fire-companies an active school of exercise. But the benefits of this are neutralized by the violence and irregularity of their exertions. Quitting the workshop half-clad, and running long distances, the fireman arrives panting at the fire, to breathe in, with lungs congested by the unusual effort, the rarefied and smoky atmosphere of the burning buildings. We should naturally suppose this a fertile source of pulmonary complaints. Besides, were it the most healthy of exercises, it is followed only by the mechanic and the laborer, who use their muscles enough without it.

The "prize-ring" and the professed athlete still exist among us. Unfortunately, their habits brutalize the mind. A limited knowledge of sparring, and a full vocabulary of the slang of the pugilist, are fashionable among many youths. Few young men, however, can cultivate the one, or frequent the society of the other, without the risk of becoming rowdies or bullies, if nothing worse.

The revival of the Old-Country games of cricket and base-ball affords some of the best examples of a growing desire for athletic sports. They have many things to recommend them, and, as we conceive, no objectionable features.

The suicidal war waged against trees and birds alike by the early settlers has left but little inducement to follow in this country the field-sports so fashionable in England. Riding on horseback, however, is now more popular than it has been since our carriage-roads were first laid out. This exercise is peculiarly beneficial to the feeble in body. Accelerated inspiration of pure air and a gentle succussion of all the internal organs, are blended with that consciousness of power and that self-dependence which the good horseman always feels in the saddle. Hardly less do we value the intimate acquaintance into which it brings us with the noble animal who bears us, establishing a sympathy which no amount of driving can awaken to its full extent.

Our rivers, lakes, and bays spread around us a vast and inviting field for the cultivation of summer or winter sports. Boating and sailing are adapted, from their gentleness of motion, even to the most delicate organizations. Rowing is equally suited to the young and strong. Boat-clubs are quite popular in our colleges, and we hope they will ere long become so in our academies and minor schools. Few exercises bring more muscles into play than the steady stroke of the oar. Few are more exhilarating and pleasant to those who have tried them. Give us the strong pull through an open bay before all boating on placid lakes or rivers. The long, well-timed stroke becomes a mere mechanical effort, leaving the mind at liberty to enjoy the sense of freedom, the tonic salt-breeze, and the enlivening scenes of the sea.

When the boats are beached, and the wharf-logs grow, with successive layers congealed from every tide, into huge spindles of ice, the same clement offers its glassy surface to the skater. That skating has actually become fashionable among the gentler sex we regard as the strongest indication of an awakening national taste for exercise. But there is need of caution. Most persons skate with too heavy clothes. The quick movements of the limbs in the changing evolutions of this pastime--though the practised skater is unconscious of much muscular effort--quicken the circulation enough to increase palpably the animal heat and produce a very sensible perspiration. In this exposed condition, the quiet walk home is taken without additional covering, and is the origin of many colds.

Returning to "first principles," we find one useful exercise more or less within reach of all, without preparation or expense. We mean walking. The flexors and extensors of the legs, the broad muscles of the back and abdomen, and the slender and intricate bundles of fibres which support and steady the spine, are all gently exercised in locomotion. The respiration and circulation are moderately increased and the blood aerated with fresh air. And all this can be had by simply stepping out of doors and setting in motion the muscular machinery, which moves so automatically that we soon become unconscious of its exertions. This, like all other exercise, should be taken at seasonable hours. We enter our protest against long walks before breakfast. To any but the robust they are positively injurious. The early riser and walker, unless long habituated and naturally vigorous, returns from his exercise draggled, faint, and exhausted, to begin the digestive labors of the day, and take his food with hunger rather than appetite. Abstinence has blunted the nicer perceptions of taste, and the jaded organs lose the power not only of discriminating flavors, but of knowing when to cry, "Enough!" "Brushing away the morning dew," like "love in a cottage," is very pretty in a book, but needs a solid basis in the stomach or in the larder.

Running is a very healthy and an equally neglected exercise. Few vocations call upon us to fully expand the chest once a month. Running improves the wind, it is said. We give the name of long-winded to those who have a reserve of breathing capacity which they do not use in ordinary exertions, but which lies ready to carry them through extraordinary efforts without distress or exhaustion. Such persons breathe quietly and deeply. Running forms part of the training of the prize-fighter. It should be begun and ended at a moderate pace, as a knowing jockey drives a fast horse; otherwise, panting, and even dangerous congestion, may arise from the too sudden afflux of blood to lungs.

Nothing so pleasantly combines mental occupation with bodily labor as a pursuit of some one of the natural sciences, particularly zoology or botany. If our means allow a microscope to be added to our natural resources, the field of exercise and pleasure is boundlessly enlarged. To the labor of collecting specimens is joined the exhilaration of discovery; and he who has once opened the outer gate of the sanctuary of Nature finds in the study of her arcana a pastime which will be a joy forever.

Our larger towns and cities still support gymnasia of greater or less size and perfectness. But the modern gymnasium has two great deficiencies: the lack of open air, and of the emulation arising from publicity. The first is a very grave objection. Not a tithe of the benefits of exercise can be obtained within-doors. The sallow mechanic and the ruddy farmer are the two points of comparison. The one may work as hard and be as strong as the other, and yet we cannot call him as healthy. Nothing short of Nature's own sweet air will supply the highest physical needs of the human frame. As our gymnasia are usually private, and only moderately frequented, the gymnast is not stimulated to those exertions which society and competition would arouse. Ennui often mars his enjoyment. We have seen men methodically pursuing, day after, day, the exercises, with all the listless drudgery of a hack-horse. Geniality and generous emulation are among the great benefits of the true gymnasium.

"But how shall I find time to follow out even one of these exercises?" objects the victim of American social life. It is true, he cannot. We live so fast that we have no time to live. Nevertheless, gymnastics have one advantage adapted to our hurried habits. They afford the most exercise in the shortest time. In no other way, so easily accessible, can as much powerful motion be used in so brief a space.

The tired clerk or merchant comes home late, with feverish brain and weary legs. His chest and arms have had no exercise proportional to the rest of his system. What shall he do to restore the balance? If he can, let him erect in some upper room, away from furnace-heat, instead of a billiard-table, a private shrine to Apollo or Mercury. He will need but little apparatus. A set of weights and pulleys, a pair of parallel bars, two suspended rings, and a leaping-pole are all the necessary permanent fixtures. Other articles, as the dumb-bells, the Indian club, boxing gloves, foils, or single-sticks, take up no room, and can be added as his growing taste for their use demands. We would single out the parallel bars and the weights as the most generally useful. The former develop particularly the chest, stretch the pectoral muscles, and lengthen the collar-bones. The latter increase the volume and power of the extensors of the shoulder, arm, and forearm, and are to be sedulously practiced, because we have fewer common and daily movements of these muscles than of their antagonists, the flexors, and they are consequently weaker in most persons. The windows should be widely opened, and the room warmed by the sun alone.

Though, after the first few trials, the whole body will ache, and the astonished muscles tremble with soreness, a week's perseverance will overcome these earlier drawbacks. The gymnast will be surprised at the new feeling of vigor in the back and shoulders, and to find the upright, military posture as natural as it was before difficult to maintain. Temper and digestion undergo a parallel improvement, and it will require much to make him forego the luxury of exercise which he at first thought so painful.

Many persons become discouraged by beginning too violently. Alarmed at the fatigue and suffering at first induced, they shrink from further efforts. Gymnastics are, to be sure, an injudicious mode of exercise for some. Children get a good many sprains, and sometimes permanent deformity, from their use. The growing period requires care to avoid injuring the articulations; yet it is the most favorable time to spread the shoulders and deepen the chest. The young grow most in height and can best gain an harmonious development by frequenting the GYMNASIUM.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Ghost Trains of America

Can a band of locomotive experts save vintage railcars from ruin?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In