Considering the billions of people who exercise on a regular basis, it?s odd that an unequivocal relationship between moderate exercise and improved health wasn?t properly presented, ie with scientific evidence, until as recently as 1953.
Almost seventy years ago a British doctor, Jeremy Morris, examined the health records of drivers and conductors on London buses; he found that the more active of the pair, conductors, on their feet all day, up and down stairs issuing tickets, collecting fares while dispensing bonhomie, showed a significantly lower rate of heart disease. How we?ve embraced the benefits of exercise since.
Of course ancient Greeks and Egyptians enjoyed exercising (Greek wrestlers would sell their post-workout sweat, mixed with oil and powder, to those seeking respite from sprained ankles and other ailments), although the start point for this wonderful book is several centuries later, in 1573, and a treatise on fitness and exercise published by a Renaissance physician, Girolamo Mercuriale.
Author Bill Hayes, an accomplished weightlifter, happened upon Mercuriale and was captivated by the book?s diagrams, although he couldn?t translate the book?s Latin text. And so we follow Hayes as he seeks a translation of Mercuriale?s treatise, journeying to London, Paris (where he studies a seventeenth century tract on fencing), Lake Maggiore, San Francisco (a stop which includes a punishing six-week boxing boot camp) and Kerala.
Hayes is in his element on the road, cleverly combining elements of personal memoir, travel, history and physiology as well as enjoyable asides focusing on his own workout regime coupled with snippets on education, feminism, writer?s block and a host of other subjects. By doing this, Hayes personalises his history of exercise, the book?s sub-title, making it a compelling read, jam-packed with characters such as Eugen Sandow, an enormous Prussian bodybuilder who, on a visit to India, was partly responsible for transforming yoga into its modern-day form.
We?re also treated to fascinating colour reproductions of cave paintings discovered in southern Egypt considered the earliest known depictions of swimming.
Hayes prefaces Sweat with an extract from Works and Days, written by the Greek poet Hesiod around 700BC:
The immortal gods have made it so;
To achieve excellence, we must first sweat.
It must have been a tough pitch, persuading a publisher to back a book about sweat and exercise, but Hayes has succeeded; readers will be pleased that he did.