Exercise That Rests

WOODS HUTCHINSON May 1 1909

Exercise That Rests

WOODS HUTCHINSON May 1 1909

ONE of the oldest and truest of the Gallic gibes at the English was that they "took their pleasures sadly.” Matamus caelum non animum ("We change our skies but not our temper”), and if old Froissart could comment on this hybrid Anglo-Saxon civilization of ours he would need to change only one word—we "take our pleasures strenuously,” What else could be expected of a nation, one dominant influence in the founding of which had for its motto, “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do?” In such an atmosphere idleness has come to be regarded not merely as a negative fault, but as a positive crime. Not even the rich dare to be idle, but are driven by public opinion to a perpetual round of busy foolishness, to make themselves believe they are doing something. Play must always be apologized for.

We have eagerly accepted and practised the Gospel of Work, but ignored the Gospel of Rest—save by postponing it to a future life. Indeed, any attempt to promulgate it in this world would have to reckon with the feeling that it was something almost immoral, and certainly against good public policy. Work, whether bodily or mental, is inherently virtuous and profitable, though occasionally dangerous in extremes. Rest, or to put it more frankly, idleness, is inherently immoral and injurious, though to be tolerated at times. One of our latest would-be philosophers has even lamented the irksome and humiliating necessity of wasting one-third of our time in sleep; and our "chew-chew” friends propose to save half the time which we now waste in the coarse and unspiritual task of devouring our food. We have no time to live nowadays, only to work.

A decided reaction has set in, however, against this "strive, never grudge the strain” attitude, not only from an esthetic and hedonistic point of view, but more emphatically from a physical and practical one. On the one hand, we are learning from stern practical experience that it does not pay to work either ourselves or others too hard or too incessantly, if we want a high quality of product. On the other hand, our laboratory workers are piling up proof upon proof that all life, all activity, is emphatically rhythmic—a phase of activity alternating with a phase of rest, both phases being absolutely necessary to its continuance. The intenser the activity of the positive stage the longer and profounder the calm of the resting stage. They tell us emphatically that rest is not a mere breathing-space for recovery from action, a mere negative interval, but on the contrary a most positive one, during which are built up the energies which are to be expended in the next bout of work. In short, intelligent idleness is not only an important factor in success, but is as necessary as well-directed industry.

Take, for instance, such a classic illustration of incessant and unremitting activity as the heart. The "muffled drum” of its ceaseless beat has been one of the favorite metaphors for never-tiring, never-ceasing activity, work that cannot stop until death comes to its relief. Never will it rest save in the grave, we are dramatically assured. It is sad to destroy such poetic illusions, but to hold the stopwatch on this physiological little busy bee is to discover that, as a matter of fact, it is resting about thirteen hours out of each twenty-four. Even this eleven-hour day would, of course, disqualify it for joining any self-respecting labor union, but that is very different from its popular reputation of working twenty-four hours a day. The beat of the heart is a series of explosions, like that of a gas-engine or an automobile-motor, and the period of rest (diastole) is a period in which fuel is accumulated and prepared in its muscle-wall, just as gasoline-vapor and air are drawn into the cylinder of an automobile, to be used in the next explosion. Here, as elsewhere, periods of rest are really periods of concealed activity, and in one sense as much “work,” and as important work, is done in our resting phases as in our working phases.

This is beautifully illustrated, in the case of the heart, in that as long as an abundant supply of fresh food-energy is brought to it by the blood, increasing the rapidity of its beat, it will, up to a certain limit, increase the work done. But this period has very definite limitations, and as soon as the rapid beating has continued for a moderate length of time, or the supply of fresh blood-fuel is interfered with, the rapidly beating heart begins to do less work than the slow one. The pulse of exhaustion and of weakness, for instance, is nearly always rapid, and the few drugs which will increase the work done by the heart are chiefly those which slow the beat and enable it to accumulate a reasonable amount of explosive force between its contractions.

Broadly speaking, the younger, the smaller, and the weaker individuals are, the more rapid will be their pulses; while the stronger and the more vigorous, the slower, within certain limits. Though other influences are concerned in minor degree, it is significant, in this connection, that the child has a pulse of one hundred or more, the woman a pulse of eighty-five, and the grown man one of seventy.

Our forefathers stumbled upon a remarkably apt and significant word to express rest, or restful change of activity—“re-creation.” For this is literally what is happening to our powers during apparent rest.

The other so-called incessant, or unceasing, activity of living bodies, breathing, is even more clearly and obviously rhythmic and alternating in character. We breathe about 18 or 20 times a minute, and of the three or more seconds consumed in taking each breath a little more than forty-five per cent, suffices for the active work of expanding the chest and producing the partial vacuum into which the air rushes. The remaining time is taken up by the falling back of the chest-walls under the influence of gravity, in driving out the inspired air, and in resting before the next inspiration.

Of course, all the open activities of the body, muscular and mental, undergo an eclipse of sleep for at least eight hours of the twenty-four. But even this is no longer regarded as merely a negative process, an interval for simple recovery from exhaustion. There are a score of physiologic facts to show that sleep is a positive process, a time of rebuilding, of recharging of the body-battery. Instead of its being analagous to death, it is during sleep that our bodies are more constructively and profitably alive— building up energy, accumulating capital to be spent recklessly during our waking hours. We save during sleep and spend when we are awake, and it is the latter which will bring us to bodily bankruptcy, not the former.

Another important, almost revolutionary, change in the scientific attitude toward work has come from the study of the nature of fatigue. Formerly it was, not unnaturally, regarded as a literal exhaustion of strength, a burning or using up of all the store of energy or fuel in our muscles. Now, however, we know that fatigue is simply the result of a form of self-poisoning. We are being suffocated and paralyzed by our waste products. To take a very simple illustration, if the leg-muscle of an anesthetized frog is stimulated by an electric current, after contracting rapidly and vigorously for some minutes, its responses will gradually become slower and slower until they cease altogether. The muscle, we say, is tired out. It, however, a current of normal saline solution (simple salt water) is driven through the muscle so as to wash it out thoroughly, and the electric stimulus is again applied, it will promptly begin contracting again. And this process can be repeated several times without any fresh food-energy being supplied to the muscle, although the periods of work will become shorter and shorter. In short, fatigue is due to the clogging of the body-engine by its own ashes and clinkers. A practical proof of this in the human body is the restful and invigorating effect of skilful massaging after violent and prolonged exercise. Scarcely a football team will take the field for an important game without being accompanied by one or more masseurs whose duty it is to thoroughly knead and rub and stretch every muscle in the players’ bodies at its close. This will be found to make all the difference between waking next morning stiff and sore and rising almost as fresh and supple as ever. The explanation of the process is simply that by vigorous kneading, rubbing, and shampooing, the muscles are assisted to empty themselves of the fatigue- poisons, and circulation being at the same time stimulated these are carried away, to be burned up in the lungs, exhaled through the skin, or washed out through the kidneys. The well-known effects of a very hot bath in preventing soreness and stiffness after unusual or unaccustomed exercise or exposure are another case in point. Here the heat stimulates both the waste-burning changes and the activity of the circulation through the muscles, and washes them clean of their self-poisons.

It is even being suggested by physiologists of repute that this process of fatigue-prevention may be carried a step farther, that by burning up or neutralizing these waste-poisons not merely after, but during, work itself, endurance may be greatly increased. The plan is simply to improve upon nature’s great method of neutralizing these poisons by administering her own antidote, oxygen, in more concentrated form than it is contained in the air. Already Dr. Leonard Hill, a well-known English physiologist, has reported some remarkable improvements of endurance in long-distance running and other athletic feats, by allowing athletes to inhale pure oxygen at certain intervals from a flask carried with them. This is certainly much safer and much less objectionable than the prevailing method -—which is far too common—of administering stimulants and narcotics in the last stages of endurance runs. As an ex-champion bicycle-racer remarked to me recently, “the first two days of a six-day race are run on your training and on food; the next two on your nerve; and the last two on champagne, cocaine, and other ‘dopes.’ ”

This habit, by the way, is another illustration of the nature of fatigue. A drink of whisky or a small dose of cocaine or morphine will promptly remove “that tired feeling,” not by adding any new strength whatever, but simply by dulling our nerves to the sense of discomfort produced by the fatigue-poisons and enabling us to stagger blindly on and use up more of our reserve energy This is the chief secret of the danger of depending upon stimulants, so called.

But why does nature allow the body-engine to be clogged and “hotboxed,” as it were, in this apparently short-sighted and irrational way, long before it has really exhausted its steaming power? A moment’s reflection will show us; and this brings us to the most important and practical point in our new conception of fatigue, which is that it is a protective reaction on the part of nature, one of her greatest and most important danger-signals. In other words, when you are tired it is physically time to quit; that is nature’s five-o’clock whistle. To disregard it is physically as irrational as to crowd on all steam and forge ahead when there is a hot bearing or a screeching axle.

But, it will be objected at once, this may be all very well as a matter of pure theory, but it is impossible, almost absurd, in practice. Here, however, comes in another important new discovery in regard to fatigue which makes the problem simpler and brings it within reach of practical solution. This is that each particular organ or tissue makes its own fatigue-poison, and that this, while disabling to the particular organ or tissue which produces it, is very much less so, and in some instances scarcely at all, to the rest of the body. This is why, within certain limits, change of activity rests us.

All life is, of course, chemical activity, and every change which takes place in our tissues involves the formation of chemical waste products which for the most part are poisonous. Whenever, for instance, unusual strain has been thrown upon the brain and the nervous system there is an unusual accumulation of their special kind of waste-poison in the nerve-cells, and we become conscious of “brain-fag.” Meanwhile, however, our hearts, our lungs, and the great mass of our muscles have been comparatively inactive, and their fatigue-poisons have consequently been formed no faster than they could be burned or washed away by the blood. Now if we shut up our books, or pull down our desk-tops, and go for a brisk walk, or to attend to some out-door business appointments, not only are our brain-cells given a rest and an opportunity to recharge themselves, but by increasing both the rate and the vigor of our heart-beats large supplies of blood are driven to and through the brain-cells, thus burning up and neutralizing the brain fatigue-poisons or washing them away at a more rapid rate.

On the other hand, it must be remembered that this process is also self-limited, though not quite so sharply so. The muscle-cells are now loading themselves with waste-poisons, which will soon be poured into the blood faster than they can be burned up, so that instead of pure, nourishing blood being sent to the exhausted brain, another poison is simply being added to its embarrassments. Practically, if the exercise be too violent for the enfeebled muscles of the brain-worker, or too long continued, or if by prolonged confinement in a badly ventilated room all the tissues of the body have become clogged by waste, produced faster than it could be eliminated, then muscular exercise will often simply pile fresh waste-poisons upon an already smoldering fire and increase one’s exhaustion instead of relieving it. Many a fatigued and exhausted business man or overworked house-mother or teacher would be much more benefitted by an hour’s rest or sleep in a well-ventilated room—if possible in the open air—than by a brisk two-mile walk. The best possible short vacation is often to sleep late, take one’s breakfast in bed, and loaf industriously all afternoon.

This self-poisoning and specific nature of fatigue explains, of course, why we so quickly become tired by doing exactly the same thing over and over and over again. The particular group of muscles, and the brain and nerve cells which direct their action, become swamped with their own fatigue-poisons. No matter how perfect our circulation may be or how deep and full our breathing, we cannot pump enough blood through the artery supplying the muscle and the nerve involved to wash out and burn up these poisons as fast as they are formed. This is peculiarly true in children and accounts for what we frequently hear lamented by parents and teachers as their "restlessness” and “lack of persistence.” In our best and most intelligently planned schools now, the study period for any one subject has been cut down in a most surprising manner, until the maximum for children under twelve years of age is in the neighborhood of fifteen minutes. This is precisely parallel with the method now adopted by trainers in the gymnasium for building up general vigor and a symmetrically developed set of muscles. Light dumb-bells and rapid movements have taken the place of heavy weights and slow “heaving” exercises. No one set of muscles is exercised for more than a few minutes, indeed often a few seconds, at a time, and every practice period must stop just short of a sensation of fatigue.

But, objects some one at once, a ten-minute recitation period and a three-minute dumb-bell exercise are not like work at all, they are merely play. Precisely, that is the chief virtue of them; for when we play we are imitating nature and following her great method of development. All exercise, to do us good, must be play.

But this is equivalent to making mere enjoyment, pleasure, one of our chief guides in conduct! That is precisely what it is intended for and should be used as such, within reasonable limits. Pleasure is nature’s stamp of approval. Like any other instinct or impulse, it may, if followed too blindly, lead to dangerous and harmful extremes, but within reasonable limits it is a legitimate and safe guide. No better illustration of both its value and its limitations can be given than the case of muscular exercise. When we come out into the glorious sunlight of a brisk October morning in the mountains, fresh from our night’s rest and the bath, every sort of movement and exercise is a delight and an exhilaration to us. We are eager to run, jump, climb, wrestle, dance, even shout and sing for the sheer joy of living. But follow any one of these delightful impulses for half or three-quarters of an hour steadily at the top of our pitch, and it quickly becomes, first monotonous, then fatiguing, and finally positively painful. Pleasure, or the play instinct, has done its work and fulfilled its mission and now gives place to fatigue and the rest instinct. Both are wholesome and life-protecting in their proper time and place. Indeed, curiously enough even the pure abstract philosophers have come to the conclusion that pleasure is at the bottom merely the sensation connected with those actions which are done easily, without friction, and with a sense of reserve power behind them; while pain is the sensation accompanying those that are done with a sense of effort, of strain and drag and an overtaxing of the resources of the organism. Tasks which are easily within our strength are pleasant or at least tolerable; those beyond our strength are punishment.

So whatever we may hold in the field of morals, in the field of exercise and physical training it is safe to say that if an action gives us pleasure, and so long as it gives us pleasure, it does us good. When it begins to give us pain, to produce fatigue, in fact, it is usually doing us harm. Though in the world of work this sensation must often be disregarded for the sternest of reasons, yet in the world of play and of physical upbuilding its sway is absolute and its demands everywhere to be obeyed.

Now that we have grasped the underlying principles that control good exercise and helpful sport, their practical applications need not long detain us. First and most fundamentally, no exercise of any sort, whether bodily or mental, whether work or play, should be persisted in to an extreme or marked degree of fatigue. In the case of work this may be necessary, indeed is sadly inevitable at times, but it should be done only in emergency, and not as a regular habit. The practice does not pay in the long run, either to employer or to employe. In the first place, it is the quality of the work rather than the quantity of it that counts. In the second, it is a fact as firmly established as the law of gravitation, that the shorter the hours of labor in a factory or industry the larger the output per workman. Men who are well rested, well fed, and clear headed will do more work in all ranks of life in eight hours than they will in ten, and in ten than in twelve. The secret of successful work, of real efficiency, is to keep oneself at the highest pitch of vigor and in the highest condition of efficiency during working hours, by intelligent rest and recreation between.

Every man, for instance, who is engaged in a sedentary indoor occupation ought to spend at least two hours a day in the open air in some light but enjoyable form of exercise—not merely as a concession to his laziness, as an act of self-indulgence of his lower nature, but as a means of increasing his efficiency during office-hours. If, however, one has worked and overstrained oneself until there is no play spirit left, then what is needed in the way of recreation—yes, of physical culture—is not exercise, but rest. Much as we may deplore our system of vicarious athletic exercise—raken by simply going and watching two hired teams pull off a match instead of playing the game ourselves—it may often happen that for the brain-weary and slack-muscled business or professional man or clerk, his tissues, saturated with nerve-poisons and the lung-poisons of foul indoor air, it is more wholesome to go out and sit for three hours in the open air in storm or in sunshine, upon a hard bench, with no exercise save for his lungs and his arms in the congenial occupation of “rooting,” than it would be to tire himself out by a long country walk, by an hour’s heavy work in a gymnasium, or even by exercise with an axe or a buck-saw, so often recommended by rural philosophers.

Let everyone begin with the form of exercise in the open air which is most agreeable and most attractive to him, and let him always stop short of real fatigue, at least the degree that is accompanied by any marked discomfort. A mild sensation of fatigue, especially toward bedtime or toward the end of the day, is rather agreeable than otherwise and is no sign that exercise has done any harm. It makes no difference how light and apparently trifling the exercise may be; so long as it keeps you pleasantly occupied out in the open air it is doing you good. It will, of course, usually be found that the appetite for exercise grows by what it feeds on, and that while you may begin with the lightest and laziest forms of outdoor sports, it will not be long before you begin insensibly to increase your range and your endurance.

But don’t try to force the process. What you are after is not championship records, but health; not muscle-development, but heart-power and appetite; not specialization, but balance. Let your strength grow naturally, unconsciously, like everything else in nature, and in a few months you will be surprised at your own increase in vigor and endurance, not only in the open air but in the office as well. If the outdoor sport that you follow, the exercise that you take does not increase the clearness of your head, the keenness of your appetite, and your zest for your life-work, there is something wrong with it. Either there is not enough of it, or you are taking it too strenuously.

All sports and exercise, to be of real benefit, should be in the open air. This is obvious when we remember that its chief value to the sedentary man or woman is in burning up the old accumulated fatigue-poisons from nerves and lungs, as well as the new ones from muscular effort. Gymnasium work is at best only a substitute for real exercise, nature’s kind, and a poor one at that, often little better than a fraud. It is of surprisingly little practical value for real health-building, first, because it has to be carried on indoors, in an atmosphere loaded with the vapor of perspiration and overheated breaths and decayed teeth. Most city gymnasia smell to the nostrils of the mountain-born or the desert-trained like a livery-stable or a Turkish bath-house. Then the work is so utterly uninteresting and unattractive that it will usually be carried on only from a sense of duty and in violent spurts for a few weeks at a stretch, which often do nearly as much harm as good. Again, exercise, to be really useful, must be of the nature of play in its attractiveness. The chief value of the gymnasium is in balancing up unsymmetrical muscular development in the young, under school or military discipline and skilled instructors (and even this can be done much better in the open air), and in enabling the athlete to get into that unnatural state of muscular hypertrophy known at “training.” Even school gymnasia, while admirable in many respects, are a mere apology for abuses instead of a reform—an attempt to correct our present outrageous over-confinement indoors of school children by another kind of confinement mitigated by muscular exercise and music.

Let everyone play and exercise according to his or her age and humor, so long as it is done in the open air.

For the young, nothing better could be imagined than the hundred and one running, racing, catching, and fighting games already invented by the wise mother-wit of the race. Let them play everything that comes with bat, with ball, with racket, hoop, top, marble; then they will be provided with resources for every state of the weather. There are not fifteen days out of each year in our North American climate in which some outdoor sport cannot be played by those who have once got the open-air habit. For manhood and womanhood, the great battle-like team and “side” games, the rod and the rifle, the racket, the paddle, and the snowshoe. For the dominant decades after forty-five, golf, the fishing-rod, the farm, the garden, and the collecting craze. Golf is the ideal sport for sedentary men and women of any age, for it combines the maximum of interest with the minimum of effort.

Above all, in starting your play, go slowly at first. Be as shamelessly lazy as you like for the first two to five days of your vacation. Be sure to get all the nerve-poisons and lung-poisons and germ-laden dust of the city out of your lungs and system before you begin to take any real exercise. Time so “wasted” will often save you from coming back to town with the feeling that your vacation has not done you much good.