Hamstringing the Health Seekers

THE American public has always been an easy push over for quack cure-alls and will-o'-the-wisp health cults. Almost anyone, from his own experience, could write a book on "Foibles and Follies in the Search for Health". This item concerns merely my check-off of a few.

Leaving aside miracle shrines and praying to saints, the wearing of amulets and charms, and bottled water from Lourdes, America has had more than its quota of "health" superstitions. They are almost as numerous as mosquito larvae in a New Jersey swamp. Only a few years ago, thousands were repeating to themselves: "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better." Now they don't bother any more about getting "better". They turn to Christian Science instead, and convince themselves that they never were and never can be sick. Sickness is an "error" of mortal mind and to those who accept "Science and Health" has no real existence, Yet Christian Scientists do continue to die, and even Mrs. Eddy finally had to imagine herself as dead. She "knew" she hadn't been sick even when they put her tenderly in a beautiful, satin-lined casket and closed the lid.

The farmer who carries a potato in his pocket to cure rheumatism -- or is it the gout? --need not invite your smiles, so long as there are city slickers with equally sleazy ideas. If you have read so far, you may be willing to pursue the inquiry a bit further.

First, on my list of "health" pests, are the Big Biceps Boys, who promise to make a Tarzan or a Superman out of you in twenty gruesome lessons. Their plea is always to the runts, with special emphasis on the idea that you shouldn't remain a mouse when you can become a man. Unless you are planning to become a wrestler or a pug, or a bar-room- bouncer, or a knock-em-cold slug, you might as well throw away your money by giving it to the church. Big muscles won't add a single cell to your brain or improve your thinking. They won't even keep disease germs away. They may be useful at times, if you have to move a piano, but more than likely they will get you into trouble if you are at all pugnacious.

Twice a year, at least I am besieged over the phone by a coaxing voice, urging me to join an "exclusive" gymnasium or business executives' club, established for the purpose of daily exercise and the building up of muscle. Here, I am told, I could meet big bankers and brokers, who limber up for the day in the way the monkeys do--by swinging from a bar. If I would only punch a bag regularly, or "chin" myself daily, or jump a hurdle, I would be better fitted to carry on. I cannot see how my hanging upside down, or climbing a rope would help me in my work. I have no intention of becoming either a flag-pole sitter or a steeple-jack.

As a boy, I became friendly with a man in the sideshow of a traveling circus who used to have large blocks of stone broken on his head. He used to let me hold his sledge-hammer for him, before some husky in the audience was invited up to smash the rock. He was featured as the Iron Skull Man, and I so much admired his act that I used to practice it at home With a feather pillow -- and a lot of imagination. I have sometimes wondered why someone hasn't capitalized this idea as conducive to health.Why not, I ask, the Eureka Cult for Developing Thick Skulls?

Some of us manage, somehow, to get through life without much brawn. I have never felt particular need of it myself, even on the occasion when, at an outdoor meeting, some delighted listener hurled a bottle, at me. Muscles, if I had had them, would have complicated matters. Besides, the possession of an idea sometimes gives one confidence. I would have felt rather annoyed at myself, and even that I had lost my morale, if I could not face a crowd in defense of an idea, without the weapons of the mob. The fact that I did not budge sobered them a bit and the meeting went on.

Next, on my list of check-offs, are the "Correct Posture" fiends, who insist that you stand and sit with the stiffness of an arch-duke and the rigidity of a ramrod. I well remember the tortures I went through in school, sitting with my hands behind my back. No slumping Darrows here, no relaxed muscles, no leisure for limb or tissue, or ease of movement. Chins in, chests-out, stomachs in, waists wasp-tight and you were ready for, a goose-step and the Nazi salute. No one, of course, admires a slouchy carriage, but there is a far cry between walking at ease and walking like a robot with rivets in your joints. A West Point cadet looks trim enough in his maneuvers on the parade ground, but he does not walk that way, if he values his health, when he is 'really' on the march. The human body is not built on the inflexible lines of a lead pencil.

Physical endurance, in the race of life, depends on something more substantial than mere sinew or the spectacular performances of track and team. The "Sprinter" and the get-there-fast athlete are not the physical assets or bundles of energy they were once supposed to be. This has been seen in an actual checkup of American youth.

"The reviewer's own experience in the sad, perspiring grind of examining selectees for physical fitness,"writes E. J. Stieglitz in the Scientific Monthly, for November, "has led him to feel that more lads are rejected because of overstrenuous athletic activity in adolescence than because of any lack of big, bulging muscles. It is furthermore significant that the Army physical training program has revealed that farm boys and white collar clerks develop endurance for the long, grueling grind of military maneuvers quicker and to a higher degree than most high school and collegiate athletes. ... There is far more to fitness than bone and muscle. Included are such factors as mental ability; capacity to learn, to correlate and to judge emotional stability; liberal functional reserve capacities of all the vital organs of the body and an implied promise of high performance in many activities."

Man's body is a bio-chemical machine, and the fuel that goes into it is of vital importance. Food unquestionably plays a definite role in the upkeep of the organism. I am not opposed to dietetics, but much of it that passes for "science" today is ephemeral trash. Among its chief propounders, I include the "balanced diet" fanatics and the 'vitamin tablet" demons.

Men vary in structure as much as the members of the canine world. Some are built like bull-dogs, some like mastiffs, and others like greyhounds or Pekingese. Uniform diets are as ridiculous as a uniform size in neck bands. What suits one may choke another. One must check with medical opinion and himself.

Voltaire was as skinny as they come, but he did quite well for himself before the days of "balanced diets" and vitamin tablets. He wrote incessantly, flayed the church, filled 82 volumes, and lived to be 84. 'What he might have been if he had taken "better care" of himself, no one knows.

From a vitamin viewpoint, he was nothing to look at, and it is horrible to think what our dietary fadists might have done to him, had they taken him in tow. They would have been shocked, in the first place, by his emaciated appearance. "In person," says one of his biographers, "Voltaire was not engaging, even as a young man. His extraordinary thinness [was proverbial]. In old age he was a mere skeleton, with a long nose and eyes of preternatural brilliancy peering out of his wig." What they forget about Voltaire is that he had an extraordinary brain, even though his body was skin and bones.

Darwin suffered from chronic dyspepsia all his life, but it did not apparently alter the superb quality and output of his work. His thinking apparatus was always working in high gear.

I have read high medical opinion, which I respect, that Darwin's diet, was wrong, Perhaps it was. But who wouldn't prefer to live a Darwinian life, with Darwin's stomach and brain and all his magnificent accomplishments, than to be a perfect specimen of gastronomic balance -- and little ease? Better a life like his, with, all its digestive disturbances and daily discomforts, than to have a stomach like an ostrich and an ostrich's brain.

Our food fadists today are among the greatest nuisances in the world. They will show you a cage full of rats, made bigger and fatter on a "proper" diet. But who wants to be a bigger or fatter rat -- or as rotund as a Chesterton? Corpulency, in itself, is no guarantee of health. It is your obesity cases that usually cave in under excessive strain. In our longevity tables, your lean Don Quixotes seem to get as good a break as your fat Falstaffs.

I am, in general physique, no Apollo or:Adonis myself, and my wife assures me (she has graciously endured me since my early twenties) that I never was good looking, even in my youth,but it is too late now to go into extensive renovations. I am of medium height and slight of build and have never weighed more than 136 pounds at any time, but I will match my supply of energy for steady and sustained work (aside from weight-lifting) with any stevedore's. I eat plenty of meat, sleep six hours a day, and walk two or three miles daily.

My health habits are my own, and, if they are wrong, I have no one to blame but myself., I smoke incessantly which is bad---and I consume coffee as some inebriates consume whisky. Every article of mine you see in print -- along with all the copy I destroy -- is stimulated by caffeine. If I crack up as I may any time what do a few years one way or the other really matter? I have done some of the things I like to do in life, have had domestic tranquility, a daughter and a son, and more than my share of worldly contentment. As to poundage, why worry? If I weighed more, it would merely mean that I would have to carry around more weight than I do. Compactness, I find, is something of a convenience, even if it isn't impressive in a crowd,

I have a high regard for medicine, even though, as a science, it is, still in its infancy. Its triumphs are substantial. Most medicine is "practice", and there will still have to be many more guinea pigs. This is inevitable. Yet I will place my confidence in a reputable physician or a modern clinic sooner than in any of the homebrew cultists who prate about "health".

Man is, what he eats, but not all that he eats contributes to his cerebral upkeep or the improvement of his intellectual faculties. No one gets wisdom through the mouth, and those who devote too much time to finical food habits will have no time for the development of their brains. There is phosphorus in the brain as there is phosphorus in fish, but no amount of fish-eating (I like fish myself) will improve one's thinking apparatus. If it did, half the world would he brighter than it is.

Leaving out pathological disturbances, health depends:largely on the metabolism of the body as a whole and a well-stabilized nervous system. These and a properly functioning glandular system will make for a balanced organism.

No one can rise above the potentialities of his cerebral system. What he is will depend on what kind of brain he has, and there is little he can do about it after the die is cast. With good brains or bad, we must travel along as best we can. And no amount of proteins, or starch, or vitamin tablets will alter one's cranial structure or cerebral equipment.

It's the cortex that counts. What your gray matter is, that you will be, and it won't matter much whether your nose is straight or snub, your muscles firm or flabby, or whether you have a glass eye. Byron had a club foot, Steinmetz was a hunchback, and Milton was blind. One of the shrewdest men I ever knew was a bed-ridden invalid who lived on gruel.

The tiger in the jungle does not bother about "diet" or vitamin pills. He eats what he likes, or what he can get, and either thrives or dies. Nature in the rough, under natural selection, kills off all but the most vigorous:types. In our hot-house civilization, we nurse the human race along, preserving everything that walks on two legs, regardless of whether they are worth saving or not. And we hope to improve the stock by feeding it vitamin pills ! How does it help the world if all of us are saved and the worst types breed?

Few of us, at any period of life,attain the splendid mental vigor of my fine friend, Sir Buckston Browne, who, at the age of 93, thinks with clarity and good humor and preserves a well-balanced outlook on life. What his secret of vitality is, I cannot surmise, but he is a rationalist in the full sense of the word and still going strong.

Last on my list of check-offs are the Nudists and their loony antics in pursuit of health. Outdoor life is alluring enough, and so are glens and glades, but frisking about in the woods, like nymphs and satyrs, for the sake of ozone, is something to laugh at. Anyone who thinks that good fresh air cannot reach the skin through thin summer garments or the flimsy frocks our women wear, has a lot to learn about the penetrating quality of air. Nudists are quite daft on what they think are the basic requirements for the body to "breathe". So they take to bareness in order to get more ozone into their systems, not realizing that a bear can breathe with forty pounds of fur on its hide. One is no more obliged to strip to the skin in order to breathe more oxygen than he is obliged to take his breeches off to eat more food. An Eskimo, bundled in fur, can inhale fresh air quite as well as the Hottentot with a loin cloth. And I can find no figures to show that he is any less robust or healthy than a jungle savage who goes bare. But the Nudists will, have their little frolic, whether the great goddess Hygeia looks on or not. Most of their interest in bare bodies, I believe, is built on sex starvation or springs from the first stirrings of adolescent awakening. Still, it is their own affair if they like to look at one another.

I am opposed to Nudism solely on esthetic grounds. Faces (most of them) are bad enough to look at, but the human form divine, with glorious exceptions, looks better draped. As a youth, I studied art and learned how difficult it was to get even professional models that looked well in the bare. Beauty of form and figure as we see it in the ancient marbles of the Greeks or in our better stage reviews of today, is not an average possession, and I should hate to see the day when Nudism is practiced in the subway. Even our "Miss Americas" are selected with care, and I am told that the Rockette girls, with their symmetry of form and graceful movement, are hard to find. For the sake of others, the Nudists should corral themselves in their Garden of Eden and keep their hedge-rows high.

As for our semi-bare colonies sizzling themselves on the sand, with their lumps and bumps of flesh and their none too pictorial anatomy, they are saddening to the eye. And what have these sand lizards accomplished when the day is through? Sunshine is healthful enough, but a sun-baked back is no more conducive to health than a parboiled face. And what have tanned arms and legs to do with health?

Here ends my hurried and very incomplete check-off of weird notions and wacky ideas, which any reader may extend or enlarge for himself out of his own experience or from the almost endless examples of everyday life. It is because health is so precious to man, and is sought by all, from prime minister to ditch-digger, and from prima Donna to dish-washer, that many are ready to grasp at straws and to resort to devices which are as ineffectual as a rabbit's foot in one's pocket or a horseshoe over the door. Those who are susceptible to the blandishments of the health fads will find no end of phony ideas from which to choose.

Health is an alluring lady, seldom in one's keeping for long, and as flirtatious and fickle as she is lovely to behold. If she will abide with you for a time, she will at least teach you how to appreciate her better after she is gone.

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