Photo by David Lees
Artillery Row Books

The fit and famous

To strive, to struggle, to sweat, is to be human

Sweat by Bill Hayes

Kafka was at it. So was Plato. Einstein undoubtedly did it on occasion. As for Tolstoy, you could barely hold him down. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s tastes will shock.

Sweat, Bill Hayes, Bloomsbury (£18.00)

I’m referring, of course, to exercise. Among the pleasures of Sweat, Bill Hayes’s idiosyncratic and delightful history of exercise, is learning about the sweat lives of the great and good. Hayes the author of four other works of popular science, and a life-long devotee of the burn is in fine company. Kafka, for instance, recorded in his diary: “Every night for the past week my neighbour in the adjoining room has come to wrestle with me … In me he has a good opponent; accidents aside, I perhaps the stronger and more skillful of the two. He, however, has more endurance.”

The great Russian novelist could scarcely be dragged away from his bone-shaker

Einstein’s preferred mode of transport, meanwhile, was his trusty bike. So too with Tolstoy: the great Russian novelist could scarcely be dragged away from his bone-shaker, setting off on 20-mile epics well into his sixties, much to the horror of his wife. Ruth Bader Ginsburg confesses to Hayes that she kept in shape for the Supreme Court with a daily routine of 20 press-ups, even at the age of 81. And Plato made his name as a wrestler before he was a philosopher: his given name was Aristocles, but his coach called him Plato “from the Greek for broad, platon, on account of his broad-shouldered frame”.

Sweat, then, is partly a cultural history of exercise. But it is also a memoir of Hayes’s own lusty relationship with working out. He’s no slouch. Alongside his gym routine delineated in loving, if slightly numbing detail he also describes his flirtations with running, swimming, yoga and boxing. He even signs for an eight-week personal training course.

The Mr Motivator of socio-cultural exegesis, his approach is vigorously gonzo. He tests nude sprinting in the manner of Ancient Greek athletes, racing up and down his driveway in the buff: “There was some jostling down below, some definite bouncing. But within seconds, my testicles retracted and scrotum followed, as if shrink-wrapping my balls. I found myself sporting nature’s own jockstrap.” You don’t get that commitment with Bill Bryson.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy, 1890s. Photo by Heritage Images

In fact, dedication is arguably the point. For Hayes, exercise implies intent it must be done with deliberation. What separates exercise from the incidental business of health and fitness, is its very gratuitousness. It’s excess or nothing at all. We’ve been chasing that excess for a very long time. There are 5,000-year-old Egyptian wall reliefs of running races each year, the Pharaoh had to freshly prove their fitness to rule by completing a symbolic distance. But they raced without competition: as gods themselves, only their fellow divines could judge. Yet perhaps the earliest depictions of exercise come from Neolithic pictographs, dating from around 8,000 BC. They appear to show swimmers practicing different phases of a stroke. “To my eyes, it looks like a breastroke,” Hayes judges, a little fancifully.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, exercise fell out of fashion. The Ancient Greek celebration of virility and physical beauty was seen as vanity by another name; the weights mat was a slippery slope to sin. “Cathedrals replaced gymnasiums as sacred sites; it was the holy spirit the soul and not the body, that was to be glorified.” It took the Renaissance, with its renewed emphasis on the concept of the individual, to begin to celebrate exercise for its own sake again. Indeed, the first comprehensive, illustrated history of exercise was Girolamo Mercuriale’s De arte gymnastica, which was published in 1569.

Sweat contains a charming, Umberto Eco-esque account of tracking down the manuscripts of this all-but-forgotten text. A doctor who rose to be the personal physician of Cardinal Farnese, one of the power players of the 16th Century papal court, Mercuriale used his Gymnastica to forensically argue for the benefits of exercise and advance his own career. It was a success: Mercuriale died a wealthy man, even if his book is practically unknown now. In the course of tracking down its various iterations, Hayes skips from the American library at Rome via Paris’s Bibliothèque nationale to the remote archives of the fabulously rich and reclusive Borromeo family. Found on an island in Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, these vaults are kept by a single archivist and guarded with a “large, old-fashioned pewter key”. Hayes’s vivacious writing, while occasionally overly strenuous, makes these passages as lively as his descriptions of sports.

To strive, to struggle, to sweat, is to be a human being

Yet Sweat is most compelling as a memoir. Hayes worked for decades at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. In the early 80s, he moved to the city to find freedom as a gay man. His measured but wrenching account of watching the disease scythe through his friends, lovers and acquaintances is perhaps the book’s strongest moment. As with so much of his life, it’s a tale told through working out. “It was not illness or exposure to HIV I feared the most at the time,” he writes. “But the disappearance of men I did not know. Someone I would see often at the gym or on the bus [would be] suddenly missing. It was as if one day at the gym, he simply walked through the mirrors and disappeared.”

This, then, is perhaps the most powerful rebuttal to those who sneer at pavement-pounders and gym junkies. (The writer Mark Greif compares gyms, with their acreage of mirrors and glistening bodies, to “well-ordered masturbatoriums”.) To strive, to struggle, to sweat, is to be a human being in the fullest sense of the word; it’s to move through the world with discipline, purpose and delight. “The erudite body is a good body to have,” observes the philosopher Colin McGinn. Yet as Sweat energetically proves, an erudite book is the next best thing.

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