St John’s College reveals 1834 exercise manual for an alternative ‘new year new you’

PUBLISHED: 10:21 03 January 2017 | UPDATED: 10:28 03 January 2017

‘The Heave’ An illustration from ‘British Manly Exercises’ depicts early 19th-century gentlemen exercising their “manliness” with a good old-fashioned wrestle.

‘The Heave’ An illustration from ‘British Manly Exercises’ depicts early 19th-century gentlemen exercising their “manliness” with a good old-fashioned wrestle.

ILIFFE

The University of Cambridge college discovery gives a fascinating insight into 19th-century attitudes to exercise.

Donald Walker’s 1834 volume, British Manly Exercises, held in the special collections at St John’s College, Cambridge, claims to be the first to describe the procedures of rowing and sailing as exercise and gives instructions on a range of physical activities deemed suitable for young gentlemen, from leaping and vaulting to skating and wrestling.

Although it may not be quite the 2017 resolution that you expect, with recommendations surprisingly close to the festive glutton that drives people to the gym at this time of year.

In order to get into the “highest condition” a gentleman must gradually increase his level of exercise to 20 – 24 miles of walking and running a day, his diet should consist of lean meat, stale bread and biscuits – no other vegetable matter is permitted and “everything inducing flatulency must be carefully avoided”, and there’s no need to cut back on the booze as cold beer and cider are to be consumed exclusively, while avoiding all other liquids apart from half a pint of red wine after dinner.

While the working classes spent most of their even shorter lives engaged in backbreaking manual labour in either field or factory, many members of the middle and upper classes led sedentary lifestyles. A combination of fatty food and free time meant that many gentlemen (and ladies) suffered from conditions such as obesity and gout.

In British Manly Exercises Walker aims to persuade the reader that regular training has the power to combat and prevent such aliments; “nay, it supersedes medicine by banishing disease”.

Walker makes the very modern-sounding statement that in order to improve the state of the nation’s health “education must be divided into two parts – physical and mental”.

As well as conferring “beauty of form”, Walker was aware that exercise in the fresh air could improve “the mental faculties” and boost the metabolism with a “clearness of the stomach and better digestion”.

While the Victorians will never be remembered for their concern with health and safety, the manual stresses the importance of gentle and consistent training to avoid injury. Walker recommends that “No exertion should be carried to excess, as that only exhausts and enfeebles the body. Therefore, whenever the gymnast feels tired, or falls behind his usual mark, he should resume his clothes and walk home.”

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