This comes last alphabetically of the five essentials concerned in the maintenance of health — namely, ablution: the skin and the bath; bed-room ventilation; clothing; diet; and exercise — but it is none the less important on that account. Exercise may be defined as action of the body, whereby its organs and their functions are kept in a state of health. Each one of us has from the moment of his existence a certain stature allotted, as it were, to which he will attain. In this way some will be tall, others will be short, so that the height of the body is something quite beyond our control, as we know by the interrogation, “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his stature?” But in contradistinction to height, we know that the muscles of the body can be developed and increased in size by use. It is by their action in exercise that the muscles are enlarged, hardened, and brought to their greatest state of perfection. And it is only by exercise, and by exercise alone, that they can be maintained at the acme of physical condition.
Now, in the same way that education develops and increases the power of the brain, so exercise has a similar effect on the body. When the muscles are strengthened, the beneficial effect is also participated in by the heart, lungs, and digestive organs, and thus the removal of worn-out material from the body is assisted. The effect of exercise is thus to remove used up products from the system, and so afford an opportunity for renewed material to take their place. Ceaseless changes are constantly going on throughout the body, and any part which has fulfilled its object is no longer necessary for the requirements of the system, in fact it becomes injurious. Its removal has to take place by one of the various outlets, and it is by exercise that its expulsion is greatly assisted. In this way exercise differs altogether from the part played by food. The latter is the introduction of nourishment into the system for the renewal of its wants, while exercise is the principal agent by which DEBRIS is eliminated.
It was well known amongst the Greeks and Romans that the muscles reached their greatest state of development by means of exercise. Though, therefore, gymnastics formed a great part of their system of education, yet the chief aim in their athletic instruction was the desire to train men to fight their battles, and in those days war was a matter of personal valour and of individual bravery. On that account, therefore, the men who were selected as their soldiers were among the healthiest of the nation. Those who by reason of bodily infirmity or inherent weakness were unfitted for military prowess were left alone. But, as Maclaren has well pointed out, the object of systematic and proper exercise is not for the production of a race of soldiers, though a certain proportion of the population will always be required for military service. With the great majority of men the struggle for existence is keen, and it is simply a question of the survival of the fittest, and of the weakest going to the wall. The requirements of the present time are therefore a capacity for endurance and an ability to withstand the effects of work day after day. We do not require athletes who are capable of performing wonderful feats of strength; but the fight of the nineteenth century is brain against brain, and he will be best equipped for the struggle who has the advantage of good bodily health. In the higher callings, where brain power is everything, the necessity for perfect physical condition is all the more imperative, because the brain is supplied with healthy blood, and the ideas flow with less effort.
The brain is an organ of the body exactly in the same way that the heart, the lungs, and the liver are, and therefore is subject to the same changes which belong to every other part of the frame. It will be at its best when there is circulating through it a full supply of rich red arterial blood, for that means a continual renewal of fresh material to it, and a speedy removal of worn-out products. It is by exercise mainly, whether it be voluntarily undertaken, or whether it pertain to the calling, that the body is kept at the pink of condition, and the brain benefited accordingly. Another great and important result from improving the bodily health is the increased power of what we call the will. The undertaking, say, of a long walk or climb involves the possession of a certain amount of determination, and many people, though perfectly aware of the good to be obtained by a few hours’ exercise outside the house, have not the determination to carry it into effect. Once the disinclination to move is overcome, the effort required is less each time, and ultimately the will gains a distinct mastery.
When the muscles are put into action, what is termed their contractility is called into play — that is, the force which was dormant before is roused into activity. This is effected through the nervous system, and it is the will which emanates from the brain and is carried along certain nerves to accomplish definite actions. During the contraction of a muscle its individual fibres change in form, producing an alteration in the shape of the whole muscle; thus it becomes shorter and thicker. At the same time, while it is in action more blood flows through it, hence we see that one of the beneficial effects of exercise is to stimulate the circulation through the muscular system. It has also been ascertained by experiments, that the venous blood which comes from a muscle in action is darker in colour than that from a muscle in repose. When the circulation is quickened by movement, and the blood stream hastened, the vigour of the body is increased, because the used up material is all the quicker taken away, and a freshly created supply of nutrition brought to every part.
The rate of breathing is accelerated whenever the body is engaged in muscular exertion, and with this quickened breathing there is an increased amount of oxygen drawn in, and an increased amount of carbonic acid gas and water exhaled by the breath. The oxygen which is absorbed from the air into the blood is stored in the red corpuscles of the latter, by which it is carried to every part of the body. The venous blood which returns from every portion of the system comes back as a dark crimson, instead of being bright scarlet like the arterial blood. It contains carbonic acid, and returns it to the lungs, where it is exhaled by the breath. The oxygen is necessary to existence, while the carbonic acid is injurious. The effect of exercise, then, in any form, is thus to distribute healthy blood more rapidly through the system, while it removes the injurious matters quite as speedily. The effect of active exercise on the heart, as it is well known, is to make it beat faster; by this the blood is driven through the body at a quicker rate than usual. Sometimes, when the effort is unusually severe, there is a disturbance of the regular balance between the heart and the lungs. There is thus produced an irregular or unequal action of the former, causing what is known as “loss of wind,” which is, however, soon restored by resting.
There is an excessive flow of blood to the surface of the body, causing it to redden, and at the same time the perspiration is greatly increased. It is on account of this latter moisture opening up the pores of the skin that the good effects of exercise are chiefly due. The perspiration consists mainly of water containing different salts and organic matters. It is found by experiment that the amount of water passing through the lungs and skin is usually doubled even with moderate exertion.
The result of moderate exercise in benefiting the nervous system is well known, and the effect of a gentle walk in making the ideas flow through the brain is a matter of common observation. At the same time, it must be borne in mind that exercise, when carried to the verge of fatigue, compels inactivity of the brain for a time, since Nature must have repose. But when carried out in moderation with a view of improving the condition of the body, it conduces to the salubrity of the brain as well, for the latter organ shares in the health of the former. The only thing to guard against is irregular and fitful doses; thus it is far better to take a little in moderation daily, than to attempt to make one day’s exercise suffice for the rest of the week.
It follows from the foregoing, therefore, that without exercise a perfect state of health is an impossibility. There can be no proper bodily health unless there be daily exercise. It is the same with everybody, no matter what the condition of life may be. Exercise is quite as necessary for the well-to-do man as it is for him who is not so circumstanced. The laws of health cannot be violated, and all the money in the world will not atone for neglect in this respect. Exercise is not a matter that can be carried out by proxy. No; each one must take his own exercise, and he derives all the benefit for himself.
It is a fortunate thing, then, that most people have to earn their own living, for the exertion thereby entailed is actually necessary for health. Yet, while this is the case with those who live by their bodily labour, it hardly applies to those who are more dependent upon mental work. For instance, the latter include literary men and journalists, the members of the professions, and those of the vast commercial world — all, indeed, who have brain strain and clerical occupations. In their case the great fault is that they use their heads too much and their limbs too little. For them walking is one of the very best means of obtaining health, and it should be regularly and systematically practised.
It has been said that no man under sixty, unless he be kept walking while at his work, should walk less than six or eight miles a day, if he wishes to keep well and have healthy children. In the cooler weather in Australia these are certainly suitable distances, but in the hot months half these amounts will be found sufficient, and they had better be carried out in the cool of the evening. Then again, for those over sixty it has been well observed that a daily walk is still the best means of promoting health. But the walk must always be proportionate to the strength, and should be done at nothing more than a moderate pace, if a man wishes to take care of his blood vessels.
There is another matter which calls for notice, and it is that of early morning exercise. Now, I am quite willing to admit that there are many who derive great benefit from their early morning swim, their matutinal walk, or their tennis before breakfast. But it should be distinctly borne in mind that there are others with whom such early morning exercise does not agree. They get as a result a weary, languid feeling which lasts throughout the entire day. Now, they are apt to imagine it is the exercise in itself which produces this effect. But the truth is, it arises from the time of day at which the exercise is taken, and is not due to the exertion at all. It must not be forgotten, therefore, that while many people derive the greatest advantage from early morning exercise, yet there are others for whom it is altogether unsuitable. But, on the other hand, the latter will obtain every possible benefit by taking their allowance of exercise at some other period of the twenty-four hours.
There are other forms of exercise besides walking, and these have their good points. Riding is, of course, invaluable, especially in cases of sluggish liver. As it has been wittily observed, the outside of a horse is the best thing for the inside of a man. In the cool months in Australia riding is a real pleasure, but in the hot season it is hardly so agreeable. Then again, rowing is a magnificent exercise, and has much to recommend it in early adult life. There is no harm whatever in rowing as an exercise, but when it comes to racing that is a different matter. It is the great strain on the heart, together with the excitement which constitute the sources of risk. The other varieties of exercise, namely, gardening, the different games, cricket, football, tennis, &c., need not be particularized as they all subserve the same purposes, and are in consequence very desirable.
In all the preceding I have endeavoured to show that daily exercise is absolutely necessary for the proper maintenance of health. But there is something even more than this. It is that a long life itself is to be ensured by exercise. It is only by exercise, and by exercise alone, that the various organs of the body, the heart, the lungs, the stomach, the liver, &c., are maintained in their normal state of health. Their condition, moreover, is only to be improved by the muscular movements belonging to exercise. The heart itself is intended for action, not for inaction. By action it thrives, and by disuse it becomes weakened. It is so with all the other organs. In conclusion, therefore, it must be said that the whole system can only be kept in perfect health by muscular movements, and that in addition to keeping the body in health exercise actually increases the chances of living to a good old age.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11