Vital Victorian Fitness

by Isis Quan

We hit the gym, we eat good food, and more often than we’d like to admit, we try miracle cures all in the name of fitness, but historically, we twenty-first century Americans are far from unique in our search for optimal health.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, people of the Victorian era found themselves increasingly beset with diseases and disorders that were previously rare. The Victorians attributed the majority of their ailments to two factors: poor air quality and physical laxness.Vitology Page 834

The Industrial Age moved workers out of the fields and into the factories, and as a result, Victorians lived far more sedentary lives than those of their ancestors. Health and fitness became a societal concern, and soon Victorians were fighting back against their maladies with health manuals, tonics, exercise routines, and even some of the first gym equipment. One tome in particular, Vitalogy, by E.H. Ruddock and published in 1899, helped Victorians combat the “degenerative influences of luxury.”  Much as we do today, Victorians found themselves needing exercise outside the scope of their day-to-day labor.

Vitology Page 799

“Each person needs at least 300 cubic feet of fresh air per hour to breathe. The air he breathes in supplies oxygen to burn up the refuse brought to the lungs.” Vitalogy

The Victorians were firm believers that fresh air was necessary to rid the body of toxins—hardly a surprise when Victorian indoor life was stifled by smoke from indoor gas lamps and cigarettes , fumes from industrial machines, and poor ventilation. This led to the conclusion that free time should be spent outdoors, where one could soak up sunshine and breathe good air. Many authorities on health prescribed regular, outdoor exercise.

Vitology Page 836

“Late hours, luxurious living, bad air and want of exercise have made of them mere effigies of women.” Vitalogy

The endearing image of a Victorian woman is the cinched waist coupled with a frail demeanor. Pursuing such fashionable ambitions, however, had many ramifications on women’s health. As a result, many Victorian health advocates urged women to toss aside their restricted waistlines and instead, don looser clothing, which would not only free their abdomen, but allow them to pursue daily exercises. According to Ruddock, women had “a right to exercise, air, light, amusements, symmetry of form and consequent health and beauty.”  Ruddock, like many Victorians, was concerned about the increasing perceived frailty of women, and sought to revitalize them through exercise. However, it should be noted that this strength was advocated for under the caveat that strong women made better wives and mothers.

Victorian exercises, with their arm flailing, knee raising, and thoughtful breathing may appear eccentric to our modern eye, but, in truth, they still bear many similarities to our fitness ideals today. Victorians believed in full-body exercise, much like our modern day cardio workouts, and the first step to any good fitness routine is to control your breathing. Much like us, Victorians sought short cuts in achieving their fitness goals. Victorian vigor tonics had much the same goal as our supplements and vitamins do today, though Victorians were fonder of placing arsenic, opium, lead, and more in their health products! However, perhaps the most striking difference between Victorian and modern fitness culture is in the end goal. Today, the majority of people cite weight loss as their reason for pursuing exercise. In the Victorian era, weight loss was never a prevailing theme. Instead, ideas about fitness were focused around the cultivation of vigor and vitality rather than on achieving a specific body shape.

Join us on August 27th for a Sunday picnic featuring Victorian fitness and ice cream!

All images taken from E.H. Ruddock’s Vitalogy.

One thought

  1. You may be interested in the history of my great grandmother who was a great advocate for woman’s fitness as she was a strong woman in the music hall who travelled the world. See my blog:
    I enjoyed your blog very much. i wonder if you have any information on her you could share with me?

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