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Why the change in personal wellness in America?

May 12, 2012
By C. Paul Martin, M.D. , Marshall Independent

A recent column (April 30, 2012) emphasized a phenomenon which is more evident to us "baby boomers" than the present younger generation: the prominent role of personal wellness and exercise.

"It is often amazing to those of us of an 'advanced' age to see the significant role and popularity of physical culture with its emphasis on running, exercise and wellness in contemporary society. Races such as 5 and 10 kilometer events and city-wide marathons (beginning less than 40 years ago) are common and well attended. The average person probably would not have recognized nor been aware of such activities in the late 1970s and 1980s before the publication of the running books of Jim Fixx." The history of thoughts and events related to physical culture outlined in our last column give some idea of the past and future status of exercise and other related health activities.

Although important events point to certain currents of interest (Green Movement) and specific individuals as catalysts for the growth of physical culture, historical changes in society provided the nidus for this renewed interest. Improvement in general population and personal health, the development of a safe society and modern sanitation and public health measures coincident with the cessation of plagues and prominent infectious diseases, improved nutrition, medical care, and medications, better housing and personal safety, and most importantly, increased leisure time, has allowed us to think about personal health and wellness. Up until the recent 60 years, we were working at physically demanding jobs for long hours with few "leisure hours." Just envision the difference in the work of farming and other occupations in the last half-century. Working conditions such as described by Upton Sinclair in his novel, "The Jungle," described the working conditions in the last century in Chicago. The "40-hour work week" began in the early part of my lifetime!

However, the individuals and organizations involved in the Physical Culture and "Wellness Movement" are an interesting group. Eugen Sandow (1890s-1920s) and others combined physical ability and beauty, showmanship, and vaudeville entertainment to promote the business of beauty and health and exercise. (It has been said that a portion of Sandow's success was related to his exhibited physical attractiveness and the fact that women were allowed to touch his muscles for a fee!) He was also an author, entertainer and entrepreneur. He was imitated by several other men in the early 20th century, including Charles Atlas!

Approaching the idea of the importance of mental and physical wellness from a different aspect were two men and their successors in the development of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and its concept of fitness called "muscular Christianity." In 1844 George Williams and 11 others began a Christian association in London which became the YMCA, founded by Boston sea captain Thomas Valentine Sullivan in 1851. The YMCA built gymnasia in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York City in 1869 to facilitate the physical health of its members.

A landmark in fitness in the YMCA included the term "body building" used by Robert J. Roberts in 1881. In the same era, at the YMCA Training Center for Physical Education in Springfield, Mass., three men, Dr. Luther Gulick, Dr. James Naismith (basketball), and William Morgan (volleyball), promoted "muscular Christianity" by inventing recreational games for the benefit of the members, believing "man's well-being depends on an essential unity of body, mind, and spirit."

President Theodore Roosevelt said of the YMCA: "The thing that I like about you YMCA folks is the way you mix religion and common sense." (1903) I would like to think that his statement summarizes how the presence of physical culture, wellness, and religion (spirit) should operate in promoting our personal lives.

Check the local YMCA site for information of interest to you and your family.

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