Harvey Green’s Fit for America is written for curious gym goers and professional historians alike. The book demonstrates that the American pursuit of health and fitness started long before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding career, or the running boom of the 1970s. Published in 1986, Green’s work was among the earliest books to address the history of physical culture. Its’ wide-ranging subject matter and coverage of over 100 years of history continue to make Fit for America one of the field’s best introductory texts.
The book stands out because of Green’s approachable writing style, engaging illustrations, and meticulous research. He addresses health reformers’ views on diet, exercise, sanitation, water therapy, and electric stimulation. Green complements these perspectives with diary entries from the Americans who followed these reformers’ teachings. The book also features countless photographs of products sold in physical culture publications.
Fit for America traces the “ideas, realities, and the solutions offered to problems of health and fitness as they changed over a century.” The book is divided into three parts. From 1830-1860, a wave of religious revival and the death of the Founding Fathers made reformers question the fate of the country. They began calling for health reform in order to purify the nation for the Second Coming of Christ. The second part addresses the 30 years after the Civil War, when growing cities brought new disease and sedentary middle class living. Physical culturalists promoted exercise, outdoor recreation, and urban sanitation as a remedy for the ailments of modern civilization. Finally, in the early 1900s, new food products and exercise programs fueled a changing standard of the ideal healthy body that was connected to national strength and stability.
Several common themes emerge across these 3 time periods that still apply to the health and fitness industry in 2020. First, “experts” rarely agreed on the best method of curing ailments or building muscle. For example, mid-nineteenth century reformers had heated disputes over vegetarianism that resemble modern debates between vegans and followers of the ketogenic diet. Second, physical culturalists promised results with minimal effort and investment, not unlike products such as “8 minute abs” or the Shake Weight.
Finally, much like today, people did not restrict themselves to a single health remedy or preventative measure. An office worker seeking better health in the early 1900s might have used an at-home pully machine for exercise, taken an ‘internal bath’ of laxatives to cleanse their system, and then Fletcherized their food by chewing each bite for several minutes to extract nutrients. Effectiveness of these methods aside, Fit for America shows readers that health has been a multifaceted issue for well over 100 years. It’s a valuable and entertaining read for anyone who’s questioned the origins of the exercises, cleanses, or diets Americans use today.
Nick Capicotto recently graduated with a Dual MA/MSc in International History from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. He is interested in the transatlantic connections between physical culture in the United States and Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nick is a former certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise and a Maryland state record holding powerlifter in the USAPL.
To learn more about the early history of PE in the United States, watch his video presentation to the International Conference on Sport and Society here