Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sports, Physical Activity and Health: A Look Back, Way Back

One of the most pressing health issues today is the growing incidence of obesity. More and more children are classified as overweight and this excess weight gain carries over into adulthood resulting in a host of health problems. Some label the problem as the “obesity epidemic” and experts attribute the obesity rise to increased calorie eaten coupled with a lack of physical activity. Historically, physicians have cautioned the public about the health consequences of physical inactivity. As far back a Hippocrates, the importance of regular exercise was stressed. The Science of Soccer Online has also emphasized the important role sports and youth soccer programs can play in increasing physical activity and combating the obesity problem. However, the role of sports in promoting public health is not a new concept. Two articles published in the mid-1800s by the editors of the British Medical Journal warn what might happen if sports and exercise programs are reduced or eliminated.

In both articles, you will notice a few common themes. First is the eloquent yet blunt writing style. Medical writers in the 1800s did not pull any punches nor mince words. Second is the intense nationalism of the British medical professionals. It is clear that this journal takes great pride in being a British publication and has a rather unflattering view of the US and other nations. Third, and most important, is the dire consequences to “Englishmen” if they neglect sports and physical activity. As you read these quotes, you quickly realize how the concepts of physical inactivity and poor health are applicable to today’s society.

The first article is written in response to Dr. Edward Craven Hawtry, Headmaster of Eton College. In 1857, Dr. Hawtry discontinued public cricket matches “on the plea that they produce licentiousness in the youths and lead to excessive expenditure.” Basically, he felt that organized sporting contests are a waste of both time and energy and that they had no place in an academic institution.

The editors of the BMJ adamantly disagreed. They argued, in no uncertain terms, why public schools should take the lead in promoting sports and physical activity as an integral part of ones educational experience.

“To make up the truly able man, muscle as well as grey brain-matter should be thoroughly exercised. Your pale student is only half a man, and will never produce those robust movements which form epochs in the world's history; your mere athlete, on the other hand, will not advance beyond the excitement of the ring; they, on the contrary, who alternate football and cricket, riding and shooting, with a steady mental training, are the sort of stuff out which we carve new empires.”

Clearly, the BMJ feels that a proper education involves both the mind and body. They go on to quote an article from the New York Times that describes the lack of organized sports in the US compared to England.

“The unbalanced despotism of the intellect is the sorest social curse under which we labour in the United States. Sports of all kinds, and especially the hearty athletic sports which develope the body with the brain, and bring forward the sharp, quick, active qualities of what may be termed the 'physical' mind in an equal degree with the subtler faculties of ratiocination, have never been encouraged among us as they should have been. Our muscular nature rarely gets a fair chance in our life. We exist by and for the nerves; and it is no fanciful theory which attributes the sudden excesses and equally sudden relapses of political feeling, the partisan intolerance, and the coquetish impatience of our public life in no small degree to the want of national games and pastimes, mainly joyous and earnest."

What the NYT author is saying is that an unbalanced emphasis on academics at the expense of exercise and organized sports limits the development of decision-making skills and rational train of thought. This lack of organized physical activity also leads to other societal ills.

As for the public schools, the BMJ feels strongly that, “the young Englishman begins his education in self-reliance and fair play through the trying ordeal of foot ball at Eton and Rugby, and graduates on the back of a sixteen hand thorough-bred, or on the deck of a clipping schooner."

In short, no one’s education is complete without both academic and physical training.

The second article was published less than a year later. At that time, some members of the academic community were arguing, as did Dr. Hawtry that too much emphasis was being placed on physical education and not enough on academics. Again, the BMJ makes the case for sports and organized physical activity as an integral part of the educational system by contrasting the physicality of the British to that of the Americans. They state,

“…current of opinion has set in among a certain small minority amongst us which, if carried to its full extent, would do much to unman the Englishman and to degrade his physical nature to the continental standard. We have only to look across the Atlantic to see how easily the healthy, jolly, muscular Englishman can degenerate into the sallow, dyspeptic, lanthern-jawed Yankee.”

They continue, “If you were to ask an American ‘to take a constitutional,’ he would stare with wonder; the Yankee schoolboy would think the English lad mad to strain so at foot-ball, or to try his wind in the foot-race or the boat-match.”

In simple terms, without regular exercise, Englishmen who live in the US are becoming sickly, irritable and lazy. So much so that Americans scarcely understand what it means to exercise. The editors even point out that the legs of Americans lack so much muscle that they “are matters to be implicitly believed in without any solid proof as to their reality” and that tailors are re-designing clothing to mask the frail American physique.

As pointed out above, medical writers of the 1800s stated exactly how they felt.

The BMJ editors then emphasize how the public schools can combat this problem of physical inactivity and foster a nation of healthy individuals.

“The universities and the great public schools, as we have before said, set the fashion of games and sports to the youth of this country; and we think that medical men should express themselves heartily as to the wrong direction these schools are now taking in these matters.”

“With all our respect for the philanthropy of the age (concern for human well-being), we cannot help thinking that, as regards physical education, it has been content to destroy without building up - to push the head at the expense of the thews and sinews; and to make a clever, sharp lad, instead of a strong, enduring, and self-reliant man. Woe be to England when these qualities shall have departed from her sons! They may be adepts in all the "ologies"; but they will be no longer the bold, healthy, out-of-door Englishmen, whose good sense springs from their sound health, and whose love of adventure and power over men are learned in their contests with their fellows, and in the vigorous pursuit of all health-giving exercises.”

In the end, the BMJ editors warn of dire consequences of investing in academics at the expense of physical activity programs. Building up the brain at the expense of the muscle will limit development of health, confidence and independence.

As far back as the mid-1800s medical professionals warned against physical inactivity. Despite this, public school physical education and athletic programs have steadily declined. At the same time, the incidences of obesity and inactivity-related diseases have risen. Some would also argue that characteristics of self-reliance and independence. Recent research also suggests that those individuals, male and female, who participate in organized sports program during the high school years are more likely to be more physically active as well as healthier as adults than their non-sporting classmates (see Further Reading, below).

Were the editors of the BMJ correct? Does a lack of physical education and organized sports lead to health problems? Perhaps they were onto something. However, given today’s economy, it is unlikely that school-based physical education programs will increase in number. This is where the soccer club can step in – providing the balance the mental and physical education equation. By offering “hearty athletic sports which develope the body with the brain, and bring forward the sharp, quick, active qualities of what may be termed the 'physical' mind”, they will also encourage lifelong, “vigorous pursuit of all health-giving exercises”.


The Value of Physical Training, The British Medical Journal, 1 (26): 548-549, 1857.

Physical Education, The British Medical Journal, 1 (57): 91-92, 1858.

Further Reading:

The Role Soccer Clubs Can Play in Promoting Healthy Lifestyles, Science of Soccer Online, April 16, 2009. Link

Soccer as Preventative Medicine: More Evidence, Science of Soccer Online, October 29, 2009. Link