The developing understanding of Human Health and Fitness: 6. The Enlightenment.

Roy J. Shephard


This segment in an on-going review of our developing understanding of health and fitness discusses some important milestones of the English Restoration and the French Enlightenment. This was a period marked by growth in the prestige of health science centres in Leiden, London, and Edinburgh, and the appearance of the first North American medical colleges in Philadelphia and New York. However, Canada had to await until the 19th century for its first medical schools to open in Montreal, Kingston and Toronto. New scientific discoveries during the Enlightenment included a clear description of circulatory anatomy and its basic hydrodynamics, a growing understanding of the properties of oxygen and carbon dioxide, experiments demonstrating the excitability of skeletal muscle and the development of simple dynamometers to provide accurate determinations of muscle strength. Some Enlightenment scholars saw a strong body as helping the mind in its search for piety, while others argued for a dualism of mind and body. For some, sport was important in its own right, and for others it offered a means of knowing the realities of both our bodies and the world in which we live. Among the newer sects of Christianity, Anabaptists argued for a simplicity of childrens play, Congregationalists showed increasingly liberal attitudes to the involvement of their flock in sport and physical activity, and Methodists included valuable lifestyle advice in the medical tracts that they offered to the poorest members of their congregations. Some physicians promoted health through physical activity, fitness and an adequate diet, but many of the medical profession clung to bizarre beliefs in restoring the humoral or electrical balance of their patients. Faith healing, homeopathy and quack treatments such as Mesmerism found plenty of advocates. Occasional attempts were made to provide communities with clean drinking water and to promote vaccination, but in general population health was poor, both in Europe and in North America, with correspondingly short life expectancies. Scholars such as Comenius and Rousseau pressed for physical activity to be included in the school curriculum, but their suggestions were generally ignored, both in Europe and in the New World. Among the aristocracy, pursuits such as hunting, horse racing, horse trotting, yachting, rowing, boxing, dancing and visits to public gardens and spas all became opportunities for social display and spectatorism. The theatre, secular literature, musical soirs and visits to coffee houses provided further opportunities for the wealthy to engage in sedentary leisure behaviour. The early stages of the Industrial Revolution, with the introduction of first water and then steam power began to reduce the physical demands of many occupations, and the improvement of major highways allowed people to travel by coach rather than on foot or horseback. Nevertheless, the traditional lifestyle of early North American settlers persists in a few isolated groups of Amish and Mennonites. Even today, such communities offer a fascinating glimpse into likely patterns of physical activity and levels of physical fitness levels associated with subsistence agriculture before the Industrial Revolution.


Age of Reason; Circulation; Lifestyle; Medical History; Medical Schools; Muscle; Physical Activity; Physical Education; Public Health; Quackery; Respiration; Sedentary Behaviour; Sport

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ISSN: 19206216