15 Tips From Walt Whitman for Living a Healthy Life
Walt Whitman was a Paleo diet adherent—at least that's what it seems like, according to a series of columns the poet wrote for the New York Atlas in the fall of 1858, as The New York Times reports. The almost 130-page series of 13 columns, written under Whitman’s pen name Mose Velsor, remained lost until last summer, when it was discovered by a graduate student researching Whitman’s journalism career.
The series, called “Manly Health and Training,” expounds on Whitman’s beliefs in the powers of fresh air and healthy exercise. It came out only a few years after his first edition of Leaves of Grass.
Some of Whitman’s rules for ideal manliness, republished in their entirety in the latest issue [PDF] of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, resonate with health advice from the modern era—he’s a big proponent of enjoying things in moderation and going for plenty of walks. Others, such as his anti-cucumber stance or his insistence that a healthy lifestyle can cure poor eyesight, have not aged as well. Here are 15 pieces of advice on how to be a healthy man from the eccentric American poet. Note that none of them are actually gender-specific.
1. GET UP EARLY.
Like Founding Father Ben Franklin, Whitman was all about early rising. "Let nothing divert you from your duty to your body. Up in the morning early!" he advised students and clerks in one column. "Habituate yourself to the brisk walk in the fresh air—to the exercise of pulling the oar—and to the loud declamation upon the hills, or along the shore. Such are the means by which you can seize with treble gripe upon all the puzzles and difficulties of your student life—whatever problems are presented to you in your books, or by your professors."
2. DEVELOP HEALTHY HABITS, AND THE FLOWERS WILL BLOOM.
Whitman didn't pretend his advice was going to change lives overnight. In one column, he urged readers to be patient with their progress. "Give our advice a thorough trial—not for a few days or weeks, but for months," he advised, before promising immense (and numerous) rewards for faithful devotees of his plan. "Early rising, early to bed, exercise, plain food, thorough and persevering continuance in gently-commenced training, the cultivation with resolute will of a cheerful temper, the society of friends and a certain number of hours spent every day in regular employment—these, we say, simple as they are, are enough to revolutionize life, and change it from a scene of gloom, feebleness, and irresolution, into life indeed, as becomes such a universe as this, full of all the essential means of happiness, full of well-intentioned and affectionate men and women, with the beneficent processes of nature always at work, the sun shining, the flowers blooming, the crops growing, the waters running, with all else that is wanted, only that man should be rightly toned to partake of the universal strength and joy."
3. EAT WELL TO SUPPORT YOUR VOICE.
Preachers and performers, Whitman believed, needed to maintain healthy eating habits to support their voices. "Of all who have to speak, sing, or converse much, &c., the diet is important," he wrote. "The simplest and most natural diet is the best; and lest we be misunderstood, we specify that we do not mean a vegetarian or water-gruel diet, but one of strengthening materials, beef, lamb, &c., and that fruits, wines, and the like, are not to be excluded. But indulgence in a great variety of dishes at the same meal, and, in general terms, the absorption into the system of fat, or any indigestible substance, or the drinking of strong coffee or liquors, will be pretty sure to injure the voice."
4. TAKE COLD SHOWERS AND EXFOLIATE.
Whitman did not believe in keeping a relaxed morning routine. "The man rises at day-break, or soon after—if in winter, rather before," he declared. And hot showers? Pshaw. "In most cases the best thing he can commence the day with is a rapid wash of the whole body in cold water, using a sponge, or the hands rubbing the water over the body—and then coarse towels to rub dry with; after which, the hair gloves, the flesh-brush, or any thing handy, may be used, for friction, and to put the skin in a red glow all over."
5. EAT DRY MEALS.
Part of Whitman's dietary advice involved eschewing just about any kind of sauce. "Modern taste and ingenuity have contrived not a hundred, but hundreds of solid and liquid stimulants, artificial tastes, condiments—and these, in some of their various forms are partaken by all," he wrote. "By him who is determined to place his vigor and health above par, from his mouth and stomach, these must be rigidly excluded. Simple and hearty food, and no condiments, must be his motto." Better yet, don't drink anything, either: "Drink very sparingly at each meal; better still not at all—only between meals, when thirsty."
6. EAT LOTS OF BEEF.
Paleo dieters may have found a kindred soul in Whitman, whose favored meals revolved almost exclusively around beef. "Dinner should consist of a good plate of fresh meat, (rare lean beef, broiled or roast, is best)," he claimed. But he did allow the occasional exception: "Eat according to your appetite, of one dish—always, if possible, making four or five dinners out of the week, of rare lean beef, with nothing else than a small slice of stale bread. Or, if preferred, lean mutton, cooked rare, may be eaten instead of beef, at times, for variety. No scraggly, grisly fat, or hard cooked pieces, should be eaten." In another column, he would claim that eating rare beef could cure pimples.
7. STAY AWAY FROM CUCUMBERS AND SALT.
Cucumbers, cabbage, and several other foods stood in direct opposition to manly health for Whitman. "Lobster and chicken salad, cabbage, cucumbers, and even potatoes, are to be turned away from," he wrote. "Salted meats are not to be partaken of either; and salt itself, as a seasoning, is to be used as sparingly as possible."
8. SLEEP IN A LARGE BEDROOM.
"Ten o’clock at night ought to find a man in bed," Whitman suggested. He also advocated for spacious accommodations: "The bedroom must not be small and close—that would go far toward spoiling all other observances and cares for health."
9. GO OUTSIDE AFTER WORK.
After being inside all day, Whitman wisely urged his followers to get some fresh air and exercise. "A man, for instance, engaged in work that gave him too little exercise in the open air, should accustom himself, when not at work, to make up for that by out-door activity in some form or other—walking, or in some manly game," he wrote, not expanding on what, exactly, constituted a "manly" game.
10. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR APPEARANCE, DUDES.
Whitman, whose overtly sexual poetry depicted both male-female and male-male affections, made a point of telling his male readers to not be shy about appreciating their own beauty: "We repeat it, both for a prevalent application, and for the use of you, reader, who may be attracted to our well-meant paragraphs, be not afraid or ashamed definitely to make your physical beauty, of form, face and movement, a main point of interest you have here in life, at all of its periods, and whatever position of wealth or education you may be."
11. WATCH OUT FOR SYPHILIS.
Before the days of penicillin, syphilis ran rampant. Whitman was by no means interested in sex-shaming, but he did want his readers to watch out for disease. "We are no moralist, in the usual acceptation of the term, but consider this subject solely in its reference to health and physique," he wrote. "And we must candidly inform the reader, especially the youth, that there is no more deadly foe to manly development than the infusion of the virus of any from [sic] of venereal disease, however moderate it may be, through his blood and system. It may remain lurking and lurking there for years, and appear a long while afterward, in terrible forms."
12. WORK OUT FOR BETTER EYESIGHT.
Among the many benefits of exercise, according to Whitman, was better eyesight. "Of course, all the senses become healthier, longer lasting in keenness, and more perfect, from the clean and buoyant state of the body which results from continued training," he wrote. "The eyes and sight may be mentioned as likely to be vastly improved, if they were previously ailing. Much of the bad eyesight that we notice, is simply from the fact that the whole system wants renovation, the blood being bad, from all sorts of unwholesome and injurious habits. Under good training, continued year after [sic], the eyes will be likely to continue good through life, however advanced it may prove."
13. TAKE IT SLOW.
"One of the faults to be guarded against, in gymnastic, and indeed all the exercises of training, is the wish to get along too fast," Whitman noted, advising his devotees not to rush into tough workouts too quickly—advice plenty of trainers dish out still. "The body is too complicated and exquisite a piece of work to be suddenly brought to bear upon, for any lasting good effects of this sort. It ought to be considered enough if the general course of exercise, health and development be started in the right direction, and kept in it, and then let the results be patiently waited for."
14. YOU’RE NEVER TOO OLD TO WORK OUT.
"We would have exercises for all ages, without excepting any—requiring only that they should be fitted properly to each stage, modified to each individual case," Whitman wrote, preceding current CDC recommendations by a few years.
15. EXERCISE AND YOU’LL NEVER BE SAD.
"With perfect health, (and regular agreeable occupation,) there are no low spirits, and cannot be," the poet wrote. He might have been on to something here: plenty of recent studies have linked exercise to happiness.