Before Zumba or CrossFit, There Was Physical Culture

By , May 26, 2013

The term “physical culture” refers to a movement promoting exercise and an active lifestyle that became especially popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It is also the title of a fascinating magazine published from 1899 to 1955 by Bernarr McFadden (pictured below), a zealous proponent of physical fitness with an entrepreneurial spirit who was also considered the inventor of the “confession” magazine, making millions off of titles like True Story and True Detective Mysteries.

Physical Culture magazine represents McFadden’s ideas about nutrition and exercise (and his crusade against prudishness in American society) and was the first of the bodybuilding or fitness magazines.  Nashville Public Library owns the issues from 1913-1924.

This magazine focuses on a few main themes:

Strength training and exercise for men, women, and children.  Many of the current trends in exercise can be seen in these early magazines – training with kettle bells, medicine balls, or clubs for example.

Nutrition advice – some that seems a little wacky by today’s standards and some that sounds very modern (like eating raw foods).  McFadden was a huge proponent of fasting and there are even articles by writer Upton Sinclair, who followed McFadden’s fasting routine.

General health and wellness:  Where many of the magazines of the time ran ads promoting smoking as a healthy and enjoyable habit, Physical Culture featured ads and articles about how to break the tobacco habit. There are also articles about vitamins, eliminating the corset, and other methods (some more eccentric than others) of maintaining good health . 

Social Hygiene (to borrow a term from that era):  There are many articles about how to prevent and/or treat sexually transmitted diseases and also some fascinating and controversial features on genetics and birth control.  McFadden’s views on these topics (along with the propensity of the magazine to feature photos of scantily clad women, albeit in an athletic context) were a bit radical for the time and got him into legal trouble more than once.

I found this magazine so interesting and relevant, not just to fitness buffs who can get a glimpse of the beginnings of the exercise trends of today, but to anyone who might be curious about where our current ideas on healthy living, women’s involvement in sport, and even social concepts like marriage and family planning, may have begun.

If you’re interested in some current exercise trends that might have started in the pages of Physical Culture, check out these items from our collection:


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