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.
While perfecting tabloid journalism in the U.S., Bernarr had numerous high-profile friends—the Roosevelts, Ed Sullivan, Musollini. But in some ways he seemed perfectly crazy. Why did powerful people find him so charismatic?
I think he was simply one of those people to whom others are drawn, as if by a tractor beam. He looked like a Greek statue, shouted out things like “weakness is a crime! don’t be a criminal!” without prompting, and never, ever showed the slightest hint of doubt. He would have made a wonderful military officer, as long as the army in question was willing to serve its troops a raw, vegetarian diet—which Macfadden suggested Teddy Roosevelt do with the US Army, by the way. Plus, he was a huge success as a businessman, and Americans tend to kowtow to successful entrepreneurs.
We take for granted knowing that exercise is an essential part of a healthy life. Did people buy into it readily when Bernarr started his physical culture movement?
What was unusual about Macfadden wasn’t so much the originality of his thinking—he’d cobbled his ideas together from a variety of sources—but his ability to package those ideas for a mass audience. I was stunned by how many people read his magazine Physical Culture each month—hundreds of thousands, not to mention the tens of thousands who visited his health homes. Time and again Macfadden showed an incredible sense of what the American public wanted, starting with the ideas he preached in Physical Culture.
You tried many of Bernarr’s tactics, from the milk diet to fasting for several days. All things considered, which one had the most positive effect on your life?
I think the several three-day water fasts had the biggest impact. Not necessarily because I lost a lot of weight quickly (though I did), but because they taught me that I could have serious influence on how I felt, quickly, by controlling what I ate. It’s really not that hard to stop eating for a few days. Boredom is the biggest issue. And once you’ve done it, it becomes that much easier to remember that you’re not ‘starving’ if you have to skip lunch or eat dinner a couple hours later than usual.
Our modern lives stray pretty seriously from Bernarr’s idea of a well-balanced life. If he were here to give us three rules to live by, what would they be?
1) Eat less and exercise, of course. These ideas were so central to his thinking that he once based a religion on them, called Cosmotarianism.
2) Think of food as fuel, not a reward. If you consume foods for their health properties rather than taste, you’re more likely to choose edibles that are going to give you more energy and not make you fat.
3) Before you take any sort of medicine, consider all the natural treatments available first. Can you starve down and sweat out that chest cold rather than swilling over-the-counter meds?
Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation DietMr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet
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