We May Be in Better Shape Than We Thought

If you bemoan your fitness level, you might be interested in the results of this fitness test from 1889:

In order to ascertain the influence of tight clothing upon the action of the heart during exercise a dozen young women consented this summer to run 540 yards in their loose gymnasium garments, and then to run the same distance with corsets on. The running time was two minutes and thirty seconds for each person at each trial, and in order that there should be no cardiac excitement or depression following the first test, the second trial was made the following day. Before beginning the running the average heart impulse was 84 beats to the minute; after running the above-named distance the heart impulse was 152 beats to the minute; the average natural waist girth being 25 inches. The next day corsets were worn during the exercise, and the average girth of waist was reduced to 24 inches. The same distance was run in the same time by all, and immediately afterward the average heart impulse was found to be 168 beats per minute. When I state that I should feel myself justified in advising an athlete not to enter a running or rowing race whose heart impulse was 160 beats per minute after a little exercise, even though there were not the slightest evidence of disease, one can form some idea of the wear and tear on this important organ, and the physiological loss entailed upon the system in women who force it to labor for over half their lives under such a disadvantage as the tight corset imposes.

I’m not in great shape but I don’t think even I would have to wait 24 hours to try another two-and-a-half minute run!

This article on “The Physical Development of Women” was written by Dudley Allen Sargent, M.D., and published in the February 1889 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.

And before we had cellulite, we had “imperfect circulation”:

But there are other evils arising indirectly from this interference with the action of the heart and lungs. I refer to the malnutrition of all parts of the body in consequence of imperfect circulation. From long-continued observation, with the history of the individual before me, I have come to associate disproportionately large lower limbs with what is termed a feeble aspiration of the thorax. This means a failure of the heart and lungs to draw the blood back to the centre of the body. It tends to linger in the extremities through force of gravity; oxidation of the tissues is interfered with, and an accumulation of adipose below the waist is frequently the result. This tendency is much more common in women than in men. In my opinion this is largely due to the want of a sufficient aspiration of the thorax in consequence of the usual constriction about the waist. In some cases this accumulation of adipose in the lower extremities has become so excessive that the girth of the thighs actually exceeds the girth of the waist. It would hardly seem necessary to state to any one that a woman so formed is incapacitated not only for all gymnastic and athletic work, but for the common enjoyments of active life.

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It is the symmetrical and proportionate development of parts, with adipose enough to cover the angles and hollows, that constitutes true beauty. This is the style of development that is likely to accompany the active gyrations of the premiere danseuse, the skater, and the lady fencer. It may be attained by such exercises as running, walking, rowing, swimming, tennis, or gymnastics where the lower limbs and body are actively used and the circulation and respiration are not impeded by tight clothing.

From 1890.

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Also from 1890.

One hour’s physical exercise, however, even though it be of the best kind and under the most favorable circumstances, will not make amends for ten to four- teen hours of unfavorable treatment. The girls corsets must be taken off, in order that the heart, lungs, stomach, and viscera may have an opportunity to build up the body with the new material that will come to it as a result of the exercise, and to eliminate the old broken- down tissue from the system.

During exercise the skirt should be worn to the knee, or should be exchanged for the bloomer costume, such as is now in use in the college gymnasia for women.

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The Bloomer costume, hear shown in 1855, had gained acceptance for exercise wear by 1889, at least according to Dr. Sargent.

The common-sense garments that are now being worn by hundreds of young ladies throughout the land who are practising and teaching physical exercises, are having a great influence in bringing about the much-needed dress reform. The girl of athletic taste finds much enjoyment in garments that allow her plenty of air to breathe and freedom of movement.

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From 1905.

Details of a corset from 1887, now in the Chicago History Museum.  All that beauty and detail in something so restricting!