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Paleo Diet Echoes Physical Culture Movement Of Yesteryear

An ad for Bernarr Macfadden's physical culture course appeared in one of his periodicals, <em>Fair Play</em>, in 1902.
/ Courtesy of The Wolfsonian-FIU Library Collection
Courtesy of The Wolfsonian-FIU Library Collection
An ad for Bernarr Macfadden's physical culture course appeared in one of his periodicals, Fair Play, in 1902.

The paleo diet is sometimes ridiculed as a fad that relies on an overly rosy view of our primitive past.

But it turns out that popular health movements that advocate going back to a more natural way of living are nothing new.

Consider this quote: "It is reasonably certain that man was originally made to live and exercise in the open air, bathe in rivers, and expose his body to the healthful action of the sun."

And this one:

"Civilized man is manufacturing and eating many substances that slowly but surely lead to degeneration, disease and premature death."

These nuggets could easily come from a paleo lifestyle blog, the kind that argues our modern diet and way of life are making us sick.

Except that the first one is from an 1894 book called Athletics for Physical Culture. And the second is from a 1926 book called Natural Foods: The Safe Way to Health.

Both were written by proponents of physical culture, a fringy movement of health enthusiasts, which lasted from the 1880s to 1920s in the U.S. and Europe.

As Hamilton Stapell, a historian at the State University of New York, New Paltz, found when he went digging into the archives of physical culture, there are striking resemblances to the paleo movement today. And, he argues, this shows that people seem to romanticize a healthier past in the midst of great societal upheaval: the Industrial Revolution, in the case of physical culture; and the digital revolution, in the case of paleo.

"The problem, according to physical culture and paleo, is modern civilization," Stapell tells Shots. "With so much change, people reject overconsumption of food, alcohol and mainstream medicine, and look for ways to get back to nature. Both movements have a clear sense of going back to the past to fix the present, and a willingness to throw out what's normal and acceptable to try an alternative."

The paleo movement, also known in scholarly circles as the "ancestral lifestyle," looks at modern health from an evolutionary perspective, and finds inspiration for what to eat and how to exercise from the past — the distant, preagricultural past, in some cases. Followers adhere to a simple diet of meat, fruit and vegetables, and exercise in ways that mimic the movements of our ancestors — like lifting heavy objects.

In another editorial cartoon from the September 1905 issue of <em>Physical Culture</em>, the ideal specimens of humanity judge the weak.
/ Physical Culture
Physical Culture
In another editorial cartoon from the September 1905 issue of Physical Culture, the ideal specimens of humanity judge the weak.

Rewind to the 1880s in England when Eugen Sandow, a Russian-German, was pioneering the sport of bodybuilding. Over the years, Sandow fine-tuned his ideas about "natural" dietary habits and weight training, sowing the seeds of the physical culture movement. Rather than the preagricultural era, he drew inspiration from the Greeks and their ideas of the perfect physical form — he even modeled his own body after Greek sculpture. He would eventually open the first of many Institutes of Physical Culture to teach diet and exercise to the masses.

As Stapell notes, weightlifting was at first seen as a peculiar activity 100 years ago in the same way that CrossFit and Vibram FiveFinger shoes — staples of the paleo community — seemed extreme when they first appeared a few years ago.

Bernarr Macfadden, who lived from 1868 to 1955, brought physical culture to the U.S. He was also a bodybuilder and a self-made millionaire, who used the publications he founded to promote ideals of a healthful diet and physical fitness, and to rail against medical quackery.

Just as the paleo community has evolved largely through the Internet, with hundreds of paleo bloggers offering dietary and exercise advice to newbies, the physical culture movement spread through magazines and books. Both media rely heavily on success stories — photos and stories from people who try the alternative diet and exercise, and lose weight and feel better.

But although some paleo adherents take advantage of conferences to connect today, people in the physical culture movement had designated places of retreat, such as Dansville, N.Y.

The diet recommended by physical culturists emphasized natural and pure foods, and took a scientific approach to nutrition. White sugar and processed foods were no-nos, while raw milk and cod liver oil were encouraged. But even then there was a lot of disagreement about the ideal diet.

"And we're still having the same debates 100 years later — vegetarian vs. meat-eating, raw vs. cooked, endurance exercise vs. pumping iron," Stapell says.

Stapell says the physical culture movement was eventually discredited in the 1930s because of its ties to fascism: Mussolini contributed to Physical Culture magazine.

But the ideals seem to be making a comeback of sorts: Ethos Health Company in San Francisco offers corporate wellness services that apply "the principles and best practices of the [physical culture] movement to the modern-day workplace."

For more, you can watch Stapell's talk on paleo and the physical culture movement from last year's Ancestral Health Symposium here.

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