Walt Whitman's Complete Guide to Wellness in 21 Tips
Walt Whitman was more than just one of America’s greatest poets; he was a health guru, too. In a series of columns he wrote under a pseudonym in the New York Atlas in 1958, Whitman expounded on the topic of “manly health,” covering subjects like diet, proper forms of exercise, and the benefits of fresh air. The essays by “Mose Velsor” were rediscovered by a graduate student in 2015 and subsequently republished in a scholarly journal [PDF]. Now, they’re available to readers in the slim, newly released compendium Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training. Here are 21 pieces of (sometimes) timeless advice he had for living a happy, healthy life:
1. RUN MARATHONS, NOT SPRINTS.
Whitman emphasized endurance, not speed. He wrote (the italics are his), “In robust training for this life, which is itself a continual fight with some form of adversary or other, the aim should be to form that solid and adamantine fiber which will endure long and serious attacks upon it, and come out unharmed from them, rather than the ability to perform sudden and brilliant feats, which often exhaust the powers in show, without doing any substantial good.” Marathons? Awesome. Pole-vaulting? Not so much.
2. YOU’RE NEVER TOO BUSY TO GET FIT.
Then, as now, it was easy for students to sacrifice hitting the gym for another hour spent hitting the books. Whitman was a fan of well-rounded scholars, though. “If you are a student, be also a student of the body, a practiser of manly exercises,” he wrote, “realizing that a broad chest, a muscular pair of arms, and two sinewy legs will be just as much credit to you, and stand you in hand through your future life, equally with your geometry, your history, your classics, your law, medicine, or divinity. Let nothing divert you from your duty to your body.”
3. WALKING IS THE BEST FORM OF EXERCISE …
As might be expected from the author of poems like “Song of the Open Road” and “As I Walk, Solitary, Unattended,” Whitman was a huge fan of long walks, which no doubt helped him get his creative juices flowing. “Walking, or some form of it, is nature’s great exercise—so far ahead of all others as to make them of no account in comparison,” he wrote. Some modern doctors agree, saying that a brisk walk is one of the healthiest exercise methods around, even in the age of CrossFit. However, Whitman also recommended rowing, boxing, swimming, and tossing rocks into the air as great workouts.
4. … AND IT WILL CURE YOUR DEPRESSION.
Whitman lived in a time before anti-depressants and mental health awareness campaigns, so his advice on curing the blues—or “the horrors,” as he dubbed it—is understandably a little simplistic. Essentially, he advises extreme exfoliation and taking a walk. He wrote: “If the victim of ‘the horrors’ could but pluck up energy enough, after turning the key of his door-lock, to strip off all his clothes and give his whole body a stinging rub-down with a flesh brush till the skin becomes all red and aglow—then, donning his clothes again, take a long and brisk walk in the open air, expanding the chest and inhaling plentiful supplies of the health-giving element—ten to one but he would be thoroughly cured of his depression, by this alone.”
5. HITTING THE GYM WILL MAKE YOU HAPPY.
Though Whitman’s exfoliation advice might not have been super helpful, recent research has shown that exercise can significantly boost moods, even among the clinically depressed. “The observance of the laws of manly training, duly followed, can utterly rout and do away with the curse of a depressed mind, melancholy, 'ennui,' which now, in more than half the men of America, blights a large portion of the days of their existence.” It would be a stretch to say that taking his training regimen could “utterly rout and do away with” depression, but he was right to think that it could help.
6. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.
Whitman was an early proponent of #selfcare. “Guard your manly power, your health and strength, from all hurts and violations—this is the most sacred charge you will ever have in your keeping,” he declared.
7. STAND UP STRAIGHT.
Good posture can improve your breathing and guard against back pain, as Whitman intuited. “Always go with the head erect and breast expanded,” he wrote, “always throwing open the play of the great vital organs, inhaling the good air into the throat, lungs, and stomach, and giving tone to the whole system thereby.”
8. GET SOME SLEEP.
“The healthy sleep—the breathing deep and regular—the unbroken and profound repose—the night as it passes soothing and renewing the whole frame,” Whitman mused. (He never let things like “complete sentences” get in the way of his writing.) “Yes, nature surely keeps her choicest blessings for the slumber of health—and nothing short of that can ever know what true sleep is.” He was on to something—recent research has shown that sleep is, in fact, vital to our health and happiness. The poet recommended going to bed at 10 p.m. every night. (Arianna Huffington would approve.)
9. WORK OUT IN THE MORNING.
Whitman was definitely a morning person—he advised waking up at dawn or even before—and the preference extended to his workouts, too. “[A man] who is devoting his attention … to the establishment of health and a manly physique,” he wrote, “will do well to spend an hour of the forenoon (say from 10 to 11 o’clock) in some good exercises for the arms, hands, breast, spine, shoulders, and waist; the dumb-bells, sparring, or a vigorous attack on the sand-bags (a large bag, filled with sand, and suspended in such a position that it can be conveniently struck with the fists). This should be done systematically, and gradually increased upon making the exertion harder and harder.”
10. TAKE A BREATH OF FRESH AIR.
“Few know what virtue there is in the open air,” Whitman observed. He, of course, was well aware of the benefits. “Beyond all charms or medications, it is what renews vitality, and, as much as the nightly sleep, keeps the system from wearing out and stagnating upon itself.” Still, he probably wouldn’t be a fan of the modern “breatharianism” movement, whose adherents say they can survive on only air. (Whitman believed that a manly diet should include meat, preferably beef, and a lot of it.)
11. DITCH THE GYM MEMBERSHIP.
Whitman’s obsession with the outdoors extended beyond just taking the occasional walk. He believed you should never exercise indoors, especially not in a basement or anywhere with low ceilings. “Places of training, and all for gymnastic exercises, should be in the open air—upon the turf or sand is best,” he advised.
12. CUT A RUG TO GET CUT.
Dancing wasn’t just fun and games for old Walt. “We recommend dancing, as worthy of attention, in a different manner from what use is generally made of that amusement,” he wrote, “namely, as capable of being made a great help to develop the flexibility and strength of the hips, knees, muscles of the calf, ankles, and feet.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t say which steps are best to cultivate awesome calves.
13. TAKE A LOT OF BATHS.
“The tonic and sanitary effects of cold water are too precious to be foregone in some of their forms,” Whitman wrote. Weirdly, he seemed to believe that a cold bath would open your pores. “You cannot have a manly soundness, unless the pores of the skin are kept open, and encouragement given to the insensible perspiration, which in a live man is thrown off in great quantities, and the free egress of which is of the utmost importance,” he declared.
Though contemporary wisdom holds that warm water opens pores and cold water closes them, pores don’t actually change size depending on the temperature. Still, a little cold water can be healthy. One 2016 study found that people who took cold showers took fewer sick days from work, and a 2014 study suggested that cold water can activate calorie-burning brown fat stores.
14. DON’T FORGET TO WASH YOUR SOCKS.
Laundry day can play a role in staying fit and manly, according to Whitman. “The clothing of the feet is of importance; clean cotton socks in summer, and woolen in winter, carefully selected as to the size,” he advised. “These are little things, but on such little things much depends—yes, even the greatest results depend. And it is, perhaps, to be noted, that many a man who is mighty careful of his outside apparel—his visible coat, vest, neckcloth, jewelry, etc., is habitually careless of the fixings and condition of his feet.”
15. DON’T GO TO DOCTORS.
Whitman was not a huge fan of the medical profession, such as it was in his lifetime. “Occasionally the advice of an intelligent and conscientious physician may be necessary—and such men are to be found yet,” he conceded. “But, generally speaking, the benefit of medicine, or medical advice is very much overrated. Nature’s medicines are simple food, nursing, air, rest, cheerful encouragement, and the like. The art of the surgeon is certain and determined—that of the physician is vague, and affords an easy cover to ignorance and quackery. The land is too full of poisonous medicines and incompetent doctors—the less you have to do with them the better.” Considering that the practice of bloodletting continued well into Whitman’s time, his wariness wasn’t that unfounded. But today, having a good relationship with your general physician has been shown to improve longevity.
16. GROW A BEARD.
Whitman’s mistrust of doctors didn’t stop him from doling out his own form of quackery, of course. His method of warding off colds? Growing a beard. “The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be,” he advised. “Think of what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, etc., would be immense.”
17. INVEST IN GOOD SHOES.
In addition to his passion for clean socks, Whitman strongly believed in investing in quality shoes, preferably custom-made. “Probably there is no way to have good and easy boots or shoes, except to have lasts modeled exactly to the shape of the feet,” he thought. “This is well worth doing. Hundreds of times the cost of it are yearly spent in idle gratifications—while this, rightly looked upon, is indispensable to the comfort and health.”
18. BOIL YOUR POTATOES.
Long before the Atkins diet or the Paleo craze, Whitman took a stand against carbs. He did, however, allow for the use of potatoes, provided they were boiled and eaten for breakfast. “We have spoken against the use of the potato,” he reminded his readers. “It still remains to be said that if it agrees with you, and you are fond it of, it may be used; it is best properly boiled, at the morning meal. Do not partake of it, however, except in moderation.”
19. HAVE A DRINK EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE.
Whitman was a proponent of temperance, but he allowed that the occasional drink could be healthy. “A gentle and moderate refreshment at night is admissible enough; and indeed, if accompanied with the convivial pleasure of friends, the cheerful song, or the excitement of company, and the wholesome stimulus of surrounding good fellowship, is every way to be commended.”
20. HANG OUT WITH YOUR PALS.
Whitman knew that socializing was an important part of staying healthy. In fact, he recommended hanging out with friends every night. “The evenings ought to be devoted, to some extent at least, to friendly and social recreation (not dissipation, remember),” he wrote. “Friends may be visited, or some amusement, or a stroll in company—or any other means that will soothe and gratify the mind and the affections, friendship, etc.—for every man should pride himself on having such affection, and satisfying them, too.”
21. TAKE A VACATION.
In Whitman’s time, paid vacations and jet-setting travel bargains didn’t exist, but he still advised hitting the road every so often. “Often, a complete change of scene, associations, companionship, habits, etc., is the best thing that can be done for a man’s health (and the change is perhaps beneficial to a further extent in his morals, knowledge, etc.),” as he wrote. Studies have found that people who take vacations are less likely to have heart attacks and use fewer anti-depressants than those who slave away 365 days of the year.