Physical Culture- How Exercise Can Add Years to Your Life

 In Nature Cure

Nature Cure Clinical Pearls
Sussanna Czeranko, ND, BBE

Gymnastic exercise is undertaken for the purpose of bringing every part of the human frame into action, thereby regulating and accelerating the circulation of our blood and at the same time hardening the entire body.
-Benedict Lust, 1901b, p. 305

I want to say that I have never yet seen a person who did not need [exercise] because you can’t keep up a high degree of health and vigor without it.
-Joseph F. Barth, 1912a, p. 317

[Exercise] adds years to our life and life to our years.
-Carl Strueh, 1918, p. 65

Exercise had a prominent place in the tool kit of the early 20th-century ND. Those who advocated exercise and gymnastics in their treatment of diseases numbered many, and quickly a discipline called physical culture began to appear in the literature and in naturopathic practice. Eventually, physical culture spawned the endorsement and implementation of physical education in public schools and the many fitness movements that have surfaced in the last century. For the early NDs, the strong belief in the efficiency of physical exercise was widely held by the profession. One early naturopathic physical director (or physical culturist, as these leaders came to be known), Robert Rubin, explained the reasons behind the conviction that incorporating exercise into one’s life was essential:

The object of any rational scheme of physical activity—gymnastics, athletics, and games is to acquire health, better physique, grace, self control, self reliance, fortitude, courage, power of endurance, alertness of perception, quickness of action, a higher degree of coordination, muscular development, will power, right ideals. (1922, p. 447)

Another physical culturist pointed out:

When you stop to consider that every move of the body, from the conscious flexing of the arm, to the unconscious beating of the heart, and the digestion of food, is all done by muscles, you will then realize that exercise, properly done, is not only beneficial but is absolutely essential. (Smith, 1912, p. 387)

It was without question among our forebears that exercise had enduring and central value for the body.

Walk a Few Hours Every Day!

Lust explained that gymnastics and exercise “are particularly necessary for people, whose mode of life is sedentary” (Lust, 1901a, p. 2). Erieg, a decade later, was still espousing this central belief. He explained that exercise keeps the mind “alert and keeps away stiffness and corpulency” (Erieg, 1915, p. 590). Sedentary lifestyles were met with the naturopathic prescription of curative gymnastics and exercise, particularly in the open air. Those who spent their days indoors were counseled to “at least take a few hours walk every day” (Lust, 1902, p. 366). Erieg concurred: “Walking is the best all around exercise. It takes us out in the sun and fresh air and puts vigor in the body and interests and delights the mind by the things we see” (1915, p. 590). The dire consequences of sedentary habits and their treatment options were not overlooked by the early NDs.

Lust wrote:

Too much sitting, which fails to give the abdominal muscles the opportunity of exercising their function, leads to disturbance of digestion, gastric weakness, constipation, defective formation of blood, congestion of the liver and spleen (the whole system belonging to the portal vein), the consequences of which are, in their turn, chlorosis [anemia], nervousness, chronic headaches, vertigo, hypochondria, hysteria, melancholy, scrofula, etc. (1901a, p. 3)

Today, we could add obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and a host of chronic diseases to Dr. Lust’s list. Sedentary habits were also associated with poor elimination of impurities. In this regard, Strueh asked:

How can we expect to enjoy health, if our body is filled with impurities (auto-toxins) which poison the blood and all tissues. We cannot remove these impurities by drugs or diet cures, but first of all by physical exercise i.e. by stimulating the flow of the waste matter that is contained in the thousands of lymphatic vessels which are distributed through all the tissues and the muscles in particular. (1918, p. 65)

Lazy Body Equals Lazy Mind

Our early NDs understood well that tiredness and an inclination to shrug exercise were connected. Barth insisted that “a lazy brain and a tired body always go hand in hand. If you allow your body to degenerate physically, your brain will follow with a mental tiredness and laziness” (1912c, p. 458). Lust agreed, contending that “excessive strain of either body or mind is severely punished by the complete exhaustion of the brain and the nerves that follows; this kind of exhaustion can only be relieved by a long rest from all work” (1924, p. 51).

Indeed, the benefits of exercise were incontrovertible. Cromie taught:

The enforced breathing due to exercise increases the circulation of the blood by more oxygen being taken into the system. Under the influence of this powerful oxygenated blood the intestines perform their peristaltic movements, which are necessary for digestion with more energy. Even the rise and fall of the diaphragm caused by deep breathing aids the circulation by its alternate contraction and relaxation. It also directly tends to stimulate peristalsis in a similar way. (1904, p. 220)

Neglect Exercise and Suffer the Consequences

According to the early physical culturists like Cromie, Barth, and others, individuals with fatigue symptoms who did not exercise were labeled as lazy “only in so far as their physical condition is concerned” (Barth, 1912b, p. 385). Barth recounted a common retort to exercise:

I am feeling good. Why should I exercise? For the fellow that thinks this let me say—you have no guarantee as to how long you will feel good if you persist in neglecting your body. While some people are favored with stronger constitutions than others, let me say, that regardless of your strong constitution, you cannot disregard all rules of reason and not suffer the consequences if you neglect yourself. You are just human, and just as sure as day follows night will you lapse into physical decay unless you adhere to Nature’s way of keeping physically fit. (1912a, p. 318)

Cromie, who was an avid proponent of exercise, reasoned that “we hear all kinds of excuses from those who do not take daily systematic exercise. Some say they have no time. . . . The fact is some have not the time to live long” (1902, p. 255). Barth added, “Most men waste more time on their bad habits than would be required to build up a robust body with a high degree of health and vigor included” (1912d, p. 532).

Early NDs noted that exercise was neglected or was performed in excess. They emphasized balance and urged, “Don’t overdo it” (Lust, 1901a, p. 5) Rubin counseled those who embarked on physical training by insisting, “Do not rush through the exercise just to get finished. Take your time, and enjoy it; exercise is a recreation. Remember you must do the exercising to obtain health and strength—no one can exercise for you” (1922, pp. 450-451).

The fundamental purpose of physical culture was to develop the body with exercise: “The function of a muscle is to contract, which means to use. And only by using your muscles can you keep them in a normal condition” (Barth, 1912a, p. 317).

Methods to exercise properly were developed by the many who rallied to side with the physical culture movement. Metcalfe emphasized that exercise should “be proportioned to the strength of the patient. Pushed beyond this, it is followed by exhaustion, and the body is weakened instead of being strengthened” (1901, p. 313). Yet, Rubin reminded his followers that getting the right training to match the sport was important too: “The kind of muscle used for weight lifting is different from that required for swimming, boxing or fencing” (1922, p. 450).

Despite how arduous and onerous implementing exercise into one’s life could be, Metcalfe encouraged his patients to remember that “exercise in order to be beneficial must be enjoyed” (1901, p. 312). Metcalfe insisted:

It is not sufficient to go daily through a fixed and circumscribed mode of taking exercise. Besides becoming monotonous and spiritless, it only puts in motion a certain set of muscles, and so fails to effect the purpose which was had in view. There must be variety in exercise. (1901, p. 312)

While diseases resulting from lack of exercise were a real concern, the naturopathic physical culturists viewed the decline in the human form more than 100 years ago equally disturbing. Surely, if poor posture was a barometer of concern, the early NDs would be horrified to witness the chronic problem of obesity in America today. Hubert-Miller, a professor of physical culture and naturopathy in Chicago, Ill., had cause to state at the time: “Our dissipated unnatural way of living has brought the human race to such a state of imperfection that it is hard for any artist to find models to equal the pieces of old Rome and Greece” (1904, pp. 12-13). This sentiment was reinforced by Purinton, whose judgments about the civilization of his time included observations of “the presence everywhere of weakly, sickly, undeveloped, unskilled human bodies” (1914, p. 65).

Notably, the literature suggests that the early NDs did not confuse exercise with work and considered both to be important, frequently differentiating the type, duration, and focus of physical effort as instrumental factors in outcome. As Cromie pointed out at the beginning of the last century, “Physical exercise in order to be of the greatest benefit requires absolute freedom of the mind from business cares, and the use of the body in a manner entirely different from that demanded in daily work” (1902, p. 256). Lust added: “Work, exercise, and rest are exceptionally important principles of health, that is, when we direct them in such a way that our mental and bodily powers are always evenly balanced and harmoniously developed” (1924, p. 50). Cromie, Lust, and others developed and shared a call for the “return to nature” to combat the degenerative dangers of life in the new century.

Return to Nature

Hubert-Miller, for example, spoke about how we needed to “watch how [nature] keeps her children who live a natural life in fine physical condition without artificial helps or a learned instructor” (1904, p. 14). He observed that domestic and wild animals would stretch, roll, run, jump, and do acrobatic tricks in their endeavor to keep their bodies physically in shape. During this time, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) emerged and thrived.


Cromie called attention to the YMCA, explaining that it “provides excellent facilities for systematic body-building exercise and one can have access to this for a very small fee compared [with] what one receives in return” (1902, p. 256). Building on this description, Purinton wrote in another context: “How does physical exercise tone the moral fibre? Through cultivating promptness, decisiveness, sureness, poise, initiative, adaptability, self-reliance, good humor, and a cleanness of thought reflected by a cleanness of body” (1914, p. 68). Strueh, writing toward the end of World War I, commented on the effect that exercise had on mental vigor, stating that exercise “teaches co-ordination of mind and body, will-power and self control” (1918, p. 65). The prolific writer that he was, Lust weighed in:

In the continual mutual influence of mind and body, a healthy mind acts just as beneficially on the body as a healthy body does on the mind. Hence, if a man’s work is chiefly corporeal a certain amount of time should be devoted every day to the cultivation of the mind; and the mental worker must not neglect bodily exercise. (1924, p. 50)


At the turn of the 20th century, enhanced by the teaching and clinical work of NDs, the fitness craze exploded with new exercise forms proliferating the health field. Jujitsu was one such new exercise that attracted a lot of attention. Actually, the early physical culturists, who adored wrestling and boxing as their avenue for physical training, were initially indignant with the new kid on the block. Weight training, accompanied by the science and art of posing, was the public brand and image for the physical culturists. One English fitness magazine, Health and Vim, counseled men to “adopt natural easy attitudes or positions that are not difficult to take up” (Astro, 1914, p. 118). When jujitsu appeared in America, stories of its Oriental mythical superpowers were used in advertisements. The early physical culturists did not want to lose market share, brand recognition, or face and began to counter with new images to capture the American public interested in physical health. Hubert-Miller spouted a challenge:

I would like to invite a good exponent of Jiu Jitsu to come to Chicago, and try to stop some of our hold-up men, with two fingers when they have the drop of him. I don’t think he would live long enough to tell the tale. (1904, p. 306)

A Mixed Vegetarian Diet

While exercise comprised the core element of the physical culture movement, our naturopathic ancestors were quick to bring dietary counsel and bathing to the equation of good health. Rubin’s dietary advice for those who exercised was complementary to the naturopathic dietary doctrines:

A mixed vegetarian diet I find to be the best and three meals each day should be eaten. Never overeat and avoid complicated dishes. Eat bountiful of protein foods, such as vegetable meats, or meat substitutes, fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk and cheese. Use tea and coffee substitutes moderately. Eat fruits only between meals. Drink a lot of water between meals. A glass of water the last thing before retiring and the first thing in the morning, will keep your bowels in regular condition. (1922, p. 451)

Bernarr Macfadden, Millionaire Health Crusader

Perhaps no one stands out in the physical culture movement so much as Bernarr Macfadden. He single-handedly changed forever the meaning of exercise and at the same time created a publishing empire. His early life was rampant with tragedy and misery. He lost his parents early, was adopted by a cruel farmer, and fled by age 12 years. At age 15 years, he was stricken with tuberculosis, to which his mother had succumbed. Lust described Macfadden’s odyssey after trying one physician after another:

Driven by extremity he began to experiment with exercise with the idea that this might help him where other treatments had failed. From the first he made rapid improvement and realizing its wonderful curative qualities he continued the practice and at the same time extended his knowledge of different systems as they existed. (1912, p. 30)

Macfadden’s endeavors included publishing, restaurants, teaching, and a 2,000-acre settlement devoted to his health ideals. He was the most illustrious and famous of the physical culturists. He became the role model and inspiration for Charles Atlas, Paul Bragg, and Jack LaLanne, all of whom continued to evolve the fitness movement in America.

Television and Exercise

How common for us living in the 21st century to be so tired that we flop in front of some media screen to numb our stress. According to the A. C. Nielsen Company (New York, N.Y.), the average American watches more than 4 hours of television each day (28 hours per week, or 2 months of nonstop television watching per year). Over a 65-year life span, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube (Herr, 2007). One hundred years ago, people also experienced fatigue. Barth described the symptoms:

The individual muscles become soft and flabby and you wonder why you are tired when the day is half over. You wonder why every movement becomes an effort and sometimes you are even tired when you get out of bed in the morning. (1912a, p. 317)

From Barth’s perspective, such individuals were caught in a cycle of behavior that departs from nature:

He who would not use an atom of energy to increase his health is a slave to his business in his mad effort to accumulate money and he [doesn’t] seem to realize that by neglecting himself, he shortens his lease on life by many years. . . . The tendency of human nature seems to be to move along the lines of least resistance and I believe this is one of the principal reasons why so many people adhere to the old time worn pill and medicine route in the attempt to get well. You can swallow a pill without effort, but remember this, without effort you produce no results. (1912b, p. 385)

Of the many contributors to The Naturopath and Herald of Health, Barth presents refreshing common sense in his Physical Culture Department columns. He reasoned: “It requires less exercise to maintain health than it does to produce it. . . . If you want to get well, strong and vigorous, eat right, think right, rest right and exercise” (Barth, 1913, p. 397).

czeranko Oct 05Sussanna Czeranko, ND, BBE  is a faculty member working as the Rare Books Curator at National College of Natural Medicine. She is currently compiling several books based on the journals published by Benedict Lust. In addition to her work in balneotherapy, she is the founder of the Buteyko Breathing Academy, a training program for NDs to incorporate a scientific model of breathing therapy called Buteyko into their practice.



Astro. (1914). The science and art of posing. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 11(2):118.

Barth, J. F. (1912a). Physical culture department. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 17(5):317-318.

Barth, J. F. (1912b). Physical culture department. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 17(6):384-386.

Barth, J. F. (1912c). Physical culture department. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 17(7):458-459.

Barth, J. F. (1912d). Physical culture department. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 17(8):532-533.

Barth, J. F. (1913). Physical culture department. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 18(6):395-397.

Cromie, W. J. (1902). The demands of nature. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 3(6):254-257.

Cromie, W. J. (1904). Some results of muscular exercise. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 5(9):218-221.

Erieg, S. T. (1915). Why we should exercise daily. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 20(9):589-590.

Herr, N. (2007). The Sourcebook for Teaching Science: Television & health. Retrieved September 26, 2011, from

Hubert-Miller, R. S. (1904). Physical culture at home. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 5(1):12-16.

Lust, B. (1901a). Gymnastics and muscle-exercises of all kinds. The Kneipp Water Cure Monthly, 2(1):2-7.

Lust, B. (1901b). Gymnastics. The Kneipp Water Cure Monthly, 2(11):305.

Lust, B. (1902). Exercise. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 33(9):366-367.

Lust, B. (1912). Bernarr Macfadden: A physical culture history. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 17(1):30-32.

Lust, B. (1924). The science of health, work and exercise. Herald of Health and the Naturopath, 29(1):49-54.

Metcalfe, R. (1901). The value of physical exercise. The Kneipp Water Cure Monthly, 2(11):312-314.

Purinton, E. E. (1914). The moral value of exercise. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 19(2):65-68.

Rubin, R. (1922). Health creating through muscular development. Herald of Health and the Naturopath, 27(9):447-451.

Smith, C. E. (1912). Physical culture and its benefits. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 17(6):386-388.

Strueh, C. (1918). Exercise. Herald of Health and the Naturopath, 23(1):65.

Recommended Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search