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"[New York Atlas, 17 October 1858]"

image 1image 2image 3image 4image 5image 6image 7image 8cropped image 1 [Written for the New York Atlas.] To teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body.



(Continued from last week.)


One of the greatest mistakes made in arbitrary theories of certain things supposed to be conducive of health, is that they forget that the true theory of health is multiform, and does not consist of one or two rules alone. The vegetarian, for instance, insists on the total salvation of the human race, if they would only abstain from animal food! This is ridiculous. Others have their hobbies—some of one kind, some of a different. But it is often to be noticed that, in the same person, habits exist that mutually contradict each other, and are parts of opposite theories.

A system of health, in order to be worth following, ought to be consistent in all its parts, and complete besides; and then followed faithfully for a long time. It is too much to expect any great immediate results; it is quite enough if they come in the course of a few months. It is also to be understood that every man's case requires something specially applicable to it.

We should recommend any one to first get a general knowledge of the subject, through what has been written upon it, without, for a while, undertaking to examine every branch minutely. It is a study, moreover, which will grow upon one, and as its illustrations lie within the daily experience of us each and all, it can be continually pursued.


The game of Base-Ball, now very generally practiced, is one of the very best of out-door exercises;1 the same may be said of cricket—and, in short, of all games which involve the using of the arms and legs.

Rowing is a noble and manly exercise; it developes the whole of the body. To many, the hunter's excursion, with dog and gun, will prove salutary. The fishing jaunt the same.

"Hurling" is also a noble game, and calculated, if made popular, to help with the rest in producing a noble race of men. We happened, by accident, to be present at a game of this sort, a few days since, in Brooklyn. The preliminaries being arranged (it was in a fine, large, enclosed lot,) the hurlers stripped, and with hurl-bat in hand awaited the throwing up of the ball. The latter flew high in the air amidst the silence of the crowd, which, as the ball received the first "puck," broke into a loud cheer. Once in motion, an exciting struggle commenced, in which the greatest strength, skill and activity were exhibited, which continued for nearly three hours. This was our first observation of the practical working of the game, but from what we saw of it we can recommend it as worth a high place on the list of manly exercises.

The simplest performance of hurling, however, as the name imports, is merely throwing a heavy weight, often a large stone, or a blacksmith's or stone-cutter's sledge—each person trying to outdo the rest in the distance the sledge or stone is sent. Nor do we know a better exercise than this. It should hold its place in all the programmes of work to be done.

Quoits.—We wish this graceful and ancient game were more common. There is far more "science" in it than is generally supposed. In former ages, before the invention of gunpowder, when missiles were used in warfare, the lessons of this game were in vogue to give adroitness and precision in throwing objects with the arm. By a practised player, almost any mark can be hit. Boys should be encouraged to play the game. In country places it is often played with flat stones, or with horse-shoes. Most of our American cities have grounds where it is regularly played.

In truth, however, a man who is disposed to attend to the matter of strengthening and developing his muscular power, will be continually finding means to further that object, and will do so in the simplest manner, as well as any. To toss a stone in the air from one hand and catch it in the other as you walk along, for half an hour or an hour at a stretch—to push and roll over, a similar length of time, some small rock with the foot, thus developing the strength of the knees and ankles and muscles of the calf—to throw forward the arms, with vigorous motion, and then extend them or lift them upward—to pummel some imaginary foe, with stroke after stroke from the doubled fists, given with a will—to place the body in position occasionally, for a moment, with all the sinews of the arms and legs strained to their utmost tension—to take very long strides rapidly forward, and then, more slowly and carefully, backward—to clap the palms of the hands on the hips and simply jump straight up, two or three minutes at a time—to stand on a hill or shore and throw stones, sometimes horizontally, sometimes perpendicularly—to spring over a fence, and then back again, and then again and again—to climb trees in the woods, or gripe the low branches with your hands and swing backward and forward—to run, or rapidly walk, or skip or leap along—these, and dozens more of simple contrivances, are at hand for every one—all good, all conducive to manly health, dexterity, and development, and, for many, preferable to the organized gymnasium, because they are not restricted to place or time. Nor let the reader be afraid of these because they are simple, but form the daily habit of some of them, without making himself uneasy "how it will look" to outsiders, or what they will say.


Much, very much, ought to be said on this subject. Walking, or some form of it, is nature's great exercise—so far ahead of all others as to make them of no account in comparison. In modern times, and among all classes of people, the cheap and rapid methods of traveling almost everywhere in vogue, have certainly made a sad depreciation in the locomotive powers of the race.

Of the persistent exercise, for strengthening and developing them, of the lower legs, and of the ankles and feet, very much might also be said. No example is yet seen—not in these days, hereabout, at least—of the quality of endurance and performance by the legs—walking, running, leaping, supporting, &c. (We suppose there are some who will dissent from us; but that is our deliberate opinion.) The legs have a great deal to do with the accomplishment of the work of the other parts of the body, and give grace and impetus to it all.

It is a singular fact that what might be supposed such a simple accomplishment as perfect and graceful walking, is very rare—is hardly ever seen in the streets of our cities. We have plenty of teachers of dancing—yet to walk well is more desirable than the finest dancing.2 Perhaps some of the teachers we allude to might take a hint from the foregoing paragraph.

A great deal may be done by gymnastic exercises to increase the flexibility and muscular power of the legs. The ordinary exercise of bending forward and touching the toes with the tips of the fingers, keeping the knees straight meanwhile, is a very good one, and may be kept on with, in moderation at a time, for years and years. The simple exercise of standing on one foot and lowering so as to touch the bent knee of the other leg to the ground, and then rising again on the first foot, is also a good one. On the exercise ground, a good result is obtained from having a large stone and pushing or rolling it over, first by one foot, and then by the other, as long as it can be done without fatigue.

The art of the dancing-master may also be called in play, for the development of the legs, and their graceful and supple movement. As originally intended, dancing was meant to give harmonious movements to the whole body, from the legs, by keeping time to music. In that sense, it was a beautiful art, and one of the noblest of gymnastic exercises. Modern arrangements have made it something quite different.

We would be glad to see some manly genius arise among the dancing teachers, who, out of such hints as we have hastily written, would assist the objects of the trainer and gymnast.


Many advantages are here concentrated in one,—for swimming, being relieved of all the clothes, and supported in the water, allows of bringing nearly all the muscles of the body into easy and pleasant action. Persons habituated to a daily summer swim, or to the rapid wash with cold water over the whole body in the winter, are far less liable to sudden colds, inflammatory diseases, or to the suffering of chronic complaints. The skin, one of the great inlets of disease, becomes tough and thick, and the processes of life are carried on with much more vigor. Then cleanliness and enjoyment are also to be added to the merits of swimming.

Where swimming is not eligible, then bathe. The tonic and sanetary​ effects of cold water are too precious to be foregone in some of their forms. You cannot have a manly soundness, unless the pores of the skin are kept open, and encouragement given to the insensible perspiration, which in a live man is thrown off in great quantities, and the free egress of which is of the utmost importance.

Even the first shock, the reviving chill of the cold water, will soon come to be welcome. Of a hot day, how refreshing to feel the cool liquid poured over the naked body—or even dashed upon the face, head, hands and wrists. Cheap and simple as it is, there is a pleasure about it which costly enjoyments might not give.

We hear much, now-a-days, of the Water-Cure; but the real merit of the habitual use of water, especially swimming in it, is to prevent illness—in which it has a far greater scope. Buoyed up on the liquid element, the body of the swimmer is supported by an equal pressure on every part—none of the limbs and joints are overstrained, and none relaxed. It is probably one of the most ancient of health-generating and body-perfecting exercises. The sculptors say that the ample development which the muscles, trunk, lungs, &c., obtained in the regular swimming, (in the open waters, or the large baths,) of the Greeks and Romans, gave their chests that round and full form so noticeable in their statues.

Probably the finest and best developed forms now to be found in any portion of the human race are those of the South Sea Islanders, who bathe in the sea continually, and are as much at home there as on the land; and where the diseases of civilization have not been introduced, it is rare to find among them a case of sickness, deformity, or decrepitude—and hardly a death, except from extreme old age.3

In learning to swim, which should be in childhood—but at no age is it too late—the main thing is to keep going in the water, once every day in summer, in a place not deep, and in moving around, and occasionally trying to strike out a little. The art will soon come to one who does this.

Early in the morning, in summer, is a good time to swim, or take a basin-wash; the evening is also good for either. Avoid going into the water immediately after a meal; and, also, do not stay in too long—never long enough to get chilled. We do not mean by this latter the cool feeling of the first shock, after which there is a reaction, and the system soon, by the exercise, becomes all aglow—but the blue and trembling chill of exposing the naked body to a low temperature too long, especially if not accompanied by active motion of the limbs, rubbing, &c. Stop while the warmth continues, give the whole body a brisk friction and drying, and the good effects will be permanent.

It is somewhat remarkable, and equally to be regretted, that we Americans, in every part of our land, are not a nation of swimmers; although our coast of sea, bay, and inlet includes thousands of miles, and lakes, rivers, creeks, ponds, &c., are profusely distributed in every state and every county. To this, among other causes, is to be assigned our too frequently gaunt, bilious and non-perfect national physique. Certain it is, to our mind, that the popular commencement and introduction of the habit of daily swimming, which, in four-fifths of the United States, need hardly be intermitted more than from three to four months in the year, would not only be a great reform in itself, but would carry with it, and cause to rise out of it, many of the other practices that complete the human form, and make it what it ought in general to be, large, clean, beautiful, and long-lived—instead of that being the marked exception, as at present.

If the reader, either a young or middle-aged man, should be induced by our remarks to commence learning to swim, or the practice of washing the body, let him (as in all new things of this sort) commence with moderation, and be satisfied to form the habit by degrees—not giving up, however, because of some little personal discomfort, or inconvenience of any kind, at first. Even in such a habit as bathing, to a novice, a good deal of resolution and perseverance is needed; but after the habit is once formed, it will almost invariably be kept up, of a man's own accord.

After washing the body, the use of dry cloths, to rub the flesh briskly, is almost always to be observed. An animated walk afterwards will come in well.


The voice can be cultivated, strengthened and made melodious, with an ease and certainty, and to degrees of which very few people have any notion. We do not know a better exercise, either for young or middle-aged men, than practicing (at first with moderation), in loudly reciting and declaiming in the open air, or in some large room. This should be systematic and daily; it strengthens and developes all the large organs, opens the chest, and not only gives decision and vigor to the utterance, in common life, and for all practical purposes, but has a most salutary effect on the throat, with its curious and exquisite machinery, hardening it all, and making it less liable to disease. It helps, indeed, the bodily system in many ways—gives a large inspiration and respiration, provokes the habit of electricity through the frame, plays upon the action of the stomach, and gives a dash and style to the personality of a man.

We would recommend every young man to select a few favorite poetical or other passages, of an animated description, and get in the habit of declaiming them, on all convenient occasions—especially when out upon the water, or by the sea-shore, or rambling over the hills in the country. Let him not be too timid or bashful about this, but throw himself into it with a will. Careful, however, not to overstrain his voice, or scream, for that is not the object that is aimed after. A loud, slow, firm tone, as long as it can be sustained without fatigue, and agreeably to the ear, is the test. Some voices will need to be used with great care for a long while. For in this, too, as in all physical exercises, let the learner remember, that there is plenty of time, and that it is the habit we mainly wish to form; after which the results will be sure to come in good time.

We repeat emphatically, that all persons whose life or occupation requires the frequent use of the vocal organs, and makes a fine, clear tone, and a superior pronunciation desirable, (as to what human being is it not?) may greatly aid the production of that tone and pronunciation, by exercise, by habituating themselves to open the mouth, by carefully avoiding all nasal and other unpleasant habits, and by regular attention to the health, especially in the way of simplicity of food.


Though we have once or twice alluded to the great importance of steady, daily, moderate exercise, as better than any extreme taxing of the bodily powers, at intervals, we think it of sufficient weight to call attention to it in a special paragraph.

The great object is to have the body in a condition of strong equilibrium—but very violent exertions defeat this end. In youth, or for young men, we may mention the evils of undue exertion, lifting immense weights, overworking in the fields of a long and hot day, being badly strained or wrenched in wrestling, or excessive and ill-timed "run," (as often happens to young firemen in our cities,) as some of the occasions when the results we deprecate are apt to take their rise.

We would over and over again caution the young reader of our articles of the often incurable effects of some of these brief but excessive outlays of strength. The fund of vigor and stamina must be used constantly, and encouraged to develope itself gently, but never violently abused.

In training exercises, as before remarked, begin and keep on for a few days with great moderation. "Gently does it," is the motto which must never be forgotten. The custom among some young men of trying to perform very difficult and dangerous feats should be discouraged. These are only for the professional gymnasts, who have made them the study of their lives. Nor are any of those feats worth applauding unless they are evidently performed with ease.


It is very desirable that these should become common through our cities—some for beginners, young boys, &c., and others for grown persons, and those who have attained sufficient strength and endurance. Because the exercises for young boys should continue to be moderate, and gradually advance from the easier ones—taking particular care, in the spirit of the charge previously given, not to attempt feats of any kind merely because they are very difficult. This, indeed, in all gymnastic schools for boys, ought to be a sufficient reason to exclude any feat or exercise.


In that word is the great antiseptic—the true medicine of humanity. We have confessed in our articles that there is no withstanding the modern requirements of life, which compel myriads of men to pass a great portion of the time employed in confined places, factories and the like; and that, this being accepted, the health and vigor of the body must be carried to a high pitch, and can be. Still, it is to be understood that, as a counterweight to the effects of confined air and employment, much, very much reliance is to be placed on inhaling the air, and in walking, or otherwise gently exercising, as much as possible out-doors. We have elsewhere mentioned the formation of the habit of walking; this is to be one of the main dependencies of the in-door employee. It does not tire, like other exercises—but, with practice, may be continued almost without limit.

Few know what virtue there is in the open air. Beyond all charms or medications, it is what renews vitality, and, as much as the nightly sleep, keeps the system from wearing out and stagnating upon itself. Naturally, we should all breathe this health-bestowing fluid; but the thousand artificial forms and necessities prevent it. We must, therefore, do the best we can—first understanding what sustenance to the blood there is in the air, even to the remedying of the evils of the great portion of our lives that we are debarred from it.

Places of training, and for all gymnastic exercises, should be in the open air—upon the turf or sand is best. Cellars and low-roofed attics are to be condemned, especially the former.


The habit of rising early is not only of priceless value in itself, as a means toward, and concomitant of health, but is of equal importance from what the habit carries with it, apart from itself. In nature, there is no example of the bad practice of an animal, in full development of health and strength, in fine weather, lingering in its place of rest, nerveless and half dead, for hours and hours after the sun has risen. The only thing like it is the torpid condition of some animals, mostly in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, during the depth of the winter season. But civilized life, with its close houses, its fires for warmth, and its plentiful and cheap envelopment of clothing, is protected against winters, and makes any copying of such an example unnecessary.

Summer and winter, he who intends to have his physique in good condition must rise early. This is an immutable law. It is one of the most important points of thorough training, and is to be relied on as much as anything else.

It is worth noting that the law of rising early necessitates the habit of retiring to bed in good season, which cuts off many of the dissipations most injurious in their effects upon the health. So important is this, that he who should adopt his rule alone will go a great way toward a complete reform—if reform be needed.

We will hardly reach our assertions to the extravagant length of some of the lauders of the habit of early rising—those, for instance, who hold to the celebrated maxim of Franklin, we believe, who said: "No great work can be performed, and no person can ever be good or great, without early rising."4 We are of those who believe that no law is without exceptions; and there may, after all, be aims, in which the health, for the time being, has to stand aside and take its chances. But, for a perfect attainment of that aim, namely, health and a fine physique, we may candly​ say that we do not believe it can be accomplished at all without the habit we speak of.


An eccentric but wise old country physician, down in the state of Georgia, who was himself a living example of good health and unimpaired faculties, used to have a saying about people's meals, to the following purport: "Eat a good breakfast if you can, a good dinner if you will, but no supper if you please."5 In city life, and very largely among all classes, the spirit of the foregoing aphorism is exactly reversed; very few eating any breakfast—being without appetite for that meal, while the late hour of a fashionable dinner makes it equivalent to an evening feast. And then the habits of modern society invite to more or less indulgence of the appetite afterwards.

We allude to the custom of all modern amusements being held in the evening—parties, balls, theatres, concerts, &c. A main part of these, or an invariable accompaniment of them, are suppers, generally rich ones. Some of these are at 11, 12, or 1 o'clock at night, when numbers of people gorge themselves with hearty viands, oysters, jellies, beefsteaks, poultry, and more or less out of the hundreds of condiments, creams, and drinks.

A gentle and moderate refreshment at night is admissible enough; and, indeed, if accompanied with the convivial pleasure of friends, the cheerful song, or the excitement of company, and the wholesome stimulus of surrounding good fellowship, is every way to be commended.

But it must be borne in mind that, as a general thing, the stomach needs rest as much as the other parts of the system—as much as the brain, the hands, or the feet. The arrangements of every individual, for his eating, ought to be so prepared, if possible, as to make his appetite always possess keenness and readiness in the morning. There is not a surer sign that things are going wrong than that which is indicated by no want or relish for food, soon after rising, or in the early part of the day.

Portions of heavy food, or large quantities of any kind, taken at evening, or any time during the night, attract an undue amount of the nervous energy to the stomach, and give an overaction to the feelings and powers, which is sure to be followed the next day by more or less bad reactionary consequences; and, if persevered in, that must be a strong constitution indeed which does not break down.

Somebody has said that "we dig our graves with our teeth."6 There is a great deal of exaggerated statement about the evils of hearty eating, (we mean of plain food —but​ it is very true that this habit we are complaining of, and endeavoring to guard the reader against, habitual night-eating, quite justifies the proverb. In this, as in all other instances, nature must be considered, and must decide before all artificial decisions. If there be those whose employments, or combinations of circumstances beyond their control, make it imperative upon them to violate the natural rules of eating, those persons must then make up for such violations by temperance, regularity and extra care in all other respects. They must choose with invariable prudence the quality of their food, simple and digestible dishes, and be as abstemious as possible. Actors and actresses, public performers, writers and printers on morning newspapers, pressmen, persons on the ferries, the city cars, and a numerous body of operatives and others, under modern arrangements, are all deeply involved in the bearings of this matter. In nearly all such and the like cases, a great and salutary improvement could be made in their comfort and health by a little prudent regard to their hours of eating and choice of aliment, and by bringing both as near to the standard of nature and simplicity as possible.


1. For more on the poet's relationship to baseball, see "Whitman and Baseball" in Ed Folsom's Walt Whitman's Native Representations (Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 27-54. See also Whitman's description of "youngsters playing 'base,' a certain game of ball," in an article for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published June 16, 1846, in which—much like this installment of "Manly Health and Training"—he also mentions quoits, running, wrestling, fresh air, and clerks getting out of the office. The article may be found under the title "Brooklyn Young Men" in Walt Whitman, The Journalism, Volume I: 1834–1846, ed. Herbert Bergman, Douglas A. Noverr, and Edward J. Recchia (New York: Peter Lang, 1998), 477. [back]

2. The previous paragraph and a half (beginning with "Of the persistent exercise . . .") matches draft writings found in Whitman's manuscripts, written on the backs of tax forms from the city of Williamsburgh. They may be found transcribed in Whitman's Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts (hereafter cited as NUPM), 6 vols., ed. Edward F. Grier (New York: New York University Press, 1984) 6: 2249. William E. Finkel traces these writings to R. T. Trall's Illustrated Family Gymnasium (1857), or perhaps his article "Family Gymnastics," which Whitman would have copied out of the Water Cure Journal 22, (July 1856): 1–2. See Finkel's "Sources of Walt Whitman's Manuscript Notes on Physique," American Literature 22, no.3 (1950): 308–31. [back]

3. Almost all of the preceding five paragraphs (beginning with "Many advantages are here concentrated . . .") are taken, with only minor changes in wording, from John William Orr's Orr's Book of Swimming (New York: J. W. and N. Orr, 1846), 5–6, 14–15. Whitman had anonymously reviewed the book in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle upon its publication. See "Can You Swim?" (June 18, 1846), 2, in which he quotes the same passage. See also NUPM 6: 2253, in which Whitman copies out in manuscript a fragment from Orr on "the body being supported by an equal pressure on every part." [back]

4. This quote may be a very loose paraphrasing of Benjamin Franklin's maxim in Poor Richard's Almanack: "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise." Otherwise, it appears nowhere in Franklin's writings. [back]

5. The source of this quote may be Parson Weems (1759–1825), author of the first biography of George Washington. William Gilmore Simms relates this maxim as one of Weems' favorites. See Simms' "Weems, the Biograher and Historian," in Views and Reviews in American Literature: History and Fiction (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845), 131. [back]

6. Usually attributed to the French, this common proverb pre-dates "Manly Health and Training" by at least a century. [back]

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