The History of Exercise Physiology

I recently purchased Exercise Physiology by William McArdle. It is the text used for University of Vermont’s course on that topic. I opened the book expecting to jump right into nutrition, muscular movement, injury rehab, and cardiovascular and neural function. But it started with a 55-page history of the science of exercise physiology. It was fascinating! We may take for granted fundamental principles of training, such things as VO2 Max, hard-easy loading, nutritional balance, and benefits of strength work. And it seems like new developments in the field, or at least novel approaches, come along every couple years. Anything we have a question about has boundless info on the Web. We of course know it wasn’t always like that.   And I raptly read through this historical account.

“Exercise” was first defined by Galen, who lived from 130 to 210 AD and treated both Roman gladiators and their rulers. Roman athletes who threw the javelin, discus, and ran fast were revered. He espoused the “laws of health” including fresh air, proper diet and drink, good hygiene, exercise, sleep, and emotional control. He considered exercise “vigorous movement” and was well aware of what we today call the “overload principle.”   There were numerous other curious “practitioners” before and after Galen who added pieces to the puzzle of human function and performance. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was particularly adept at mapping out human anatomy. Their laboratory was observation, based primarily on autopsies and injury rehab. The procedures were crude, for instance the Hippocratic surgical practice for shoulder dislocations was being strapped in a rack while a physician pulled on the arm. Ouch! Not all innovations were well received — Antoine Lavoisier was beheaded in 1794 for questioning commonly-held beliefs!

A crucial development was in 1616 when William Harvey proved blood flowed in one direction through the body. This was BIG – everything we know about circulation is based on this key finding. Over the next 300 years there were many incremental findings about how our bodies work and repair themselves. During the Industrial Revolution, there was not a lot of spare time for recreational endeavors so exercise physiology largely developed as a sideline for doctors and researchers trying to navigate diseases that plagued the world.   The first formal exercise physiology lab was founded at Harvard in 1891. In the early 1900s refined instruments were developed which led to quantitative measurement of athletic activity. Athletes and team captains looking for a leg up on their competition began taking notice of new developments.  Not surprisingly, the Nordic countries, already with an ingrained ethic of fitness, were some of the first to apply enhanced training regimens.   Dr. Roger Bannister made himself an Experiment of One as he trained to break the Four-Minute Mile in 1954. Things have certainly evolved from there to where we are now on the cusp of a two-hour marathon, though interestingly middle distance records have not moved much in the past 20 years.

The people McArdle wrote about were pioneers. They fumbled along but progressed nonetheless. I believe we are now on the cusp of learning a lot about what it means to age and how we can better manage the aging process. I don’t know one masters runner who is satisfied watching their decline. We won’t go easy! As a group, we are as curious as the pioneers of the past 2,000 years to learn about what works, what doesn’t, and how we might custom our training to maximize remaining potential.  It’s both daunting and exciting!

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