Weakness is a Crime, and Other Lessons From America’s First Fitness Guru
If you've been an adherent to the Atkins or South Beach diets, the new book Mr. America (Harper Collins) might just help you slim down for swimsuit season—and for good—while providing a glimpse at the birth of preventative medicine and tabloid journalism in New York City.
The new biography by ADVENTURE Contributing Editor Mark Adams follows the remarkable life of Bernarr Macfadden, America's first (and largely forgotten) fitness guru. Macfadden believed any ailment could be solved with starvation and that physical weakness was a crime. Most of his antics, such as starting his own
religion, regularly eating sand, and skydiving into the Hudson River at 83 years old (see a video), were truly stranger than the sensational headlines pumped out by his publishing empire, which employed the likes of Ed Sullivan, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Walter Winchell.
To further understand the teachings of his subject, Adams even turned himself into a Macfadden lab rat: He fasted; he walked great distances daily; he sometimes existed on milk alone. It's not surprising that such commitment has been rewarded with glowing reviews from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
ADVENTURE: Bernarr was cooking up his concepts early in the 20th century, long before there was any medical research to support them. What are the most significant, life-enriching tips he got right? What did he get terribly wrong?
Mark Adams: The most obviously beneficial part of Macfadden's health-improvement system was the idea that a person could seriously change his or her own health by eating less and exercising more. Today we'd call this notion "preventive medicine," and companies reimburse gym memberships to encourage it. But a hundred years ago, the medical establishment thought Macfadden was nuts. Remember, we were deep into the era of patent medicines—snake oil, that is—and weren't too far removed from the era of bleeding people as a cure-all. Bed rest was big at the time. I found it touching that one of the last things Macfadden did before dying in 1955 was to send President Eisenhower—who'd just suffered a coronary—a letter telling him to ignore the advice of doctors who were sure to tell him to avoid any exertion. As it turned out, Ike's doctor was one of the first to realize that exercise was a huge part of the rehabilitative process.
As for Macfadden's biggest blunders, his absolute refusal to believe that germs could cause harm to anyone who ate sparingly and exercised regularly probably hasn't done his reputation any favors. He really dug in his heels on that one, right about the time penicillin was being developed. Oops.
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