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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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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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