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11 Workout Tips from Ancient Civilizations

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Whether you were hoping to drop a few pounds or build that summer six-pack, the ancient world was loaded with helpful pointers about getting in shape.

1. Drunk Athletes Still Have to Exercise (Just Not as Strenuously).

Intoxication wouldn’t excuse you from one of Philostratus’ fitness lessons. The Greco-Roman gymnastics guru realized that people couldn’t train as effectively while under the influence. Nevertheless, he maintained that tipsy pupils should still complete their regularly scheduled workouts, just with a bit less intensity than usual.

2. Nothing Builds Endurance like Lifting Boiling-Hot Cauldrons.

As its name suggests, the ancient Chinese sport of cauldron-lifting involved picking up metal pots filled with burning coal. Participants held these high above their heads in a painful test of human willpower. This spectacle occasionally turned deadly: King Wu of the Qin Dynasty broke his kneecap during one such contest and died a few months later.

3. Don’t Over-Train.

The Indian Caraka Saṃhitā is one of the world’s oldest medical documents (though historians don’t know exactly when it was created). While this text praises the many benefits of physical activity, it also calls for moderation: “Physical exercise in excess causes exertion, exhaustion, consumption, thirst, bleeding from different parts of the body, [shortness of breath], cough, fever, and vomiting.” [PDF]

4. Ease Up on the Barley.

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Denouncing high-carb diets is nothing new; many Roman gladiators bulked up by consuming a dense barley porridge loaded with beans. Claudius Galen—a celebrated Roman physician—believed this made them too flabby for serious combat and criticized the practice.

5. Your Pre-Workout Routine Should Include Lots of Body Oil.

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Ancient Greek sportsmen were known to lather themselves in natural oils before exercising, which gave their bods a distinctive glisten. At the time, scholars claimed that doing so kept athletes from getting cold while toughening their skin. 

6. Run Through Sand For Extra Stamina.

Anacharsis, a Mediterranean philosopher who spent much of his time traveling through Athens during the 6th century BCE, once wrote a detailed description of how the Greeks trained their sprinters. “The [practice] running is not done on hard, resistant ground,” he noted, “but in deep sand where it is not easy to plant a foot solidly or get a grip with it since it slips away from underneath the foot.” As an added bonus, these young men were also instructed “to jump over a ditch, if necessary, or some other obstacle carrying lead weights that are as large as they can hold.”

7. Flexibility is Critical.

Taking Yoga classes? Here’s one pose that might sound familiar: a 2000-year-old Egyptian painting depicts a limber citizen bending over backwards until her hands touch the ground behind him.

8. Focus on Breath Control.

During the 2nd and early 3rd centuries CE, China harbored a medical pioneer arguably on par with Hippocrates. Hua Tuo always preached the gospel of regular exercise; as he put it, “the human body requires exertion.” Tuo also knew that proper breathing played a vital role in personal well-being—so he designed a special stretch known as “Tiger Pawing” to help expand the lungs and improve respiration.

9. Wanna Get Toned? Try Digging.

If your goal is to build chiseled, well-defined muscles without using techniques that involve “violent movement,” the aforementioned Galen recommends digging, rope-climbing, and extending the arms while a workout buddy tries pulling them downwards.

10. Pick Short and Simple Exercises.

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Seneca the Younger would’ve been a terrible Phys Ed teacher. The Roman philosopher believed that strenuous exercise was, ultimately, pointless. However, if somebody absolutely had to work out, Seneca favored keeping it quick. “There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay,” he conceded, “[such as] running, swinging weights about, and jumping—either high jumping or low jumping… But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon.”

11. Nobody Likes a Noisy Weightlifter.

Say what you will about Seneca, but at least one of his fitness observations was spot-on. The following rant—inspired by an especially obnoxious breed of bodybuilder which frequented Rome’s urban bath-houses—might as well have been written about a present-day gym:

Conjure up in your imagination all the sounds that make one hate one’s ears. I hear the grunts of musclemen exercising and jerking those heavy weights around; they are working hard, or pretending to. I hear the sharp hissing when they release their pent breath.

And the bellyaching didn’t stop there. “Add to this,” Seneca moaned, “the racket of a cocky bastard, a thief caught in the act, and a fellow who likes the sound of his own voice … plus those who plunge into the pool with a huge splash of water.”

BONUS: Livestock Can be Used as Makeshift Dumbbells.

Milo and the Calf

Just how badass was Milo of Croton? During his childhood (or so goes one legend), the future Olympian wrestler owned a young calf he used to lift onto his shoulders and carry around for a spell. Milo is said to have done this every single day: as it got bigger, he grew stronger. Four years later, Milo could be seen wandering around with this fully grown pet bull resting on his manly shoulders.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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