Health Issues Related to a Sedentary Lifestyle | 18th Century Medicine


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Editor’s note
      The following is a chapter from the book “Domestic Medicine” written by Dr. William Buchanan in 1785. It provides a fascinating insight into medical knowledge of the time, including the often haphazard and sometimes dangerous techniques used to treat certain injuries and illnesses in the 1700s. We have not edited this book chapter, and as a result it may contain old English spellings of certain words.


      MANY people look upon the necessity man is under of earning his bread by labour, as a curse. Be this as it may, it is evident from the structure of the body, that exercise is not less necessary than food for the preservation of health: Those whom poverty obliges to labour for daily bread, are not only the most healthy, but generally the most happy, part of mankind. Industry seldom fails to place such above want, and activity serves them instead of physic. This is peculiarly the case with those who live by the culture of the ground. The great increase of inhabitants in infant colonies, and the common longevity of such as follow agriculture every where, evidently prove it to be the most healthful as well as the most useful employment.

      THE love of activity shews itself very early in man. So strong is this principle, that a healthy youth can not be restrained from exercise, even by the fear of punishment. Our love of motion is surely a strong proof of its utility. Nature implants no disposition in vain. It seems to be a catholic law, throughout the whole animal creation that no creature, without exercise, should enjoy health, or be able to find subsistence. Every creature, except man, takes as much of it as is necessary. He alone, and such animals as are under his direction, deviate from this original law, and they suffer accordingly.

      INACTIVITY never fails to induce an universal relaxation of the solids,which disposes the body to innumerable diseases. When the solids are relaxed, neither digestion, nor any of the secretions, can be duly performed. In this case, the worst consequences must ensue. How can persons who loll all day in easy chairs and sleep all night on beds of down fail to be relaxed? Nor do such greatly mend the matter, who never stir abroad but in a coach, sedan, or such like. These elegant pieces of luxury are become so common that the inhabitants of great towns seem to be in great danger of losing the use of their limbs together. It is now below any one to walk, who can afford to be carried. How ridiculous would it seem, to a person unacquainted with modern luxury, to behold the young and healthy swinging along on the shoulders of their fellow creatures! or to see a fat carcase, over-run with diseases occasioned by inactivity, dragged through the streets by half a dozen horses! It is not necessity, but fashion, which makes the use of carriages so common. There are many people who have not exercise enough to keep their humours from stagnation, who yet dare not venture to make a visit to their next neighbours, but in a coach or sedan, lest they should be looked down upon. Strange, that men should be such fools as to be laughed out of the use of their limbs, or to throw away their health, in order to gratify a piece of vanity, or to comply with a ridiculous fashion!

      GLANDULAR obstructions, now so common, generally proceed from inactivity. These are the most obstinate of maladies. So long as the liver, kidnies, and other glands, duly perform their functions, health is seldom impaired; but, when they fail, nothing can restore it. Exercise is almost the only cure we know for glandular obstructions; indeed, it does not always succeed as a remedy; but there is reason to believe that it would seldom fail to prevent these complaints, were it used in due time. One thing is certain, that amongst those who take sufficient exercise, glandular diseases are very little known; whereas the indolent and inactive are seldom free from them.

      WEAK nerves are the constant companions of inactivity. Nothing but exercise and open air can brace and strengthen the nerves, or prevent the endless train of diseases which proceed from a relaxed state of these organs. We seldom hear the active or laborious complain of nervous diseases; these are reserved for the sons of ease and affluence. Many have been completely cured of these disorders by being reduced, from a state of opulence, to labour for their daily bread. This plainly points out the sources from whence nervous diseases flow, and the means by which they may be prevented.

      IT is absolutely impossible to enjoy health, where the perspiration is not duly carried on; but that can never be the case where exercise is neglected. When the matter which ought to be thrown off by perspiration is retained in the body, it vitiates the humours, and occasions the gout, fevers, rheumatism, &c. Exercise alone would prevent many of those diseases which cannot be cured, and would remove others where medicine proves ineffectual.

      A LATE author, Cheyne, in his excellent treatise on health, says, that the weak and valetudinary ought to make exercise a part of their religion. We would recommend this, not only to the weak and valetudinary, but to all whose business does not oblige them to take sufficient exercise, as sedentary artificers , shopkeepers, studious persons, &c. Such ought to use exercise as regularly as they take food. This might generally be done without any interruption to business or real loss of time.

      SEDENTARY occupations ought chiefly to be followed by women. They bear confinement much better than men, and are fitter for every kind of business which does not require much strength. It is ridiculous enough to see a lusty fellow making pins, needles or watch-wheels, while many of the laborious parts of husbandry are carried on by the other sex. The fact is, we want men for laborious employments, while one half of the other sex are rendered useless for want of occupations suited to their strength, &c. Were girls bred to mechanical employments, we should not see such numbers of them prostitute themselves for bread, nor find such a want of men for the important purposes of navigation, agriculture, &c. An eminent silk manufacturer told me, that he found women answer better for that business, than men, and that he had lately taken a great many girls apprentices as silk-weavers. I hope his example will be followed by many others.

      NO piece of indolence hurts the health more than the modern custom of lying a-bed too long in a morning. This is the general practice in great towns. The inhabitants of cities seldom rise before eight or nine o’clock; but the morning is undoubtedly the best time for exercise, while the stomach is empty, and the body refreshed with sleep. Besides, the morning air braces and strengthens the nerves, and, in some measure, answers the purpose of a cold bath. Let any one who has been accustomed to lie a-bed till eight or nine o’clock, rise by six or seven, spend a couple of hours in walking, riding, or any active diversion without doors, and he will find his spirits cheerful and serene through the day, his appetite keen, and his body braced and strengthened. Custom soon renders early rising agreeable, and nothing contributes more to the preservation of health.

      THE inactive are continually complaining of pains of the stomach, flatulencies, indigestions, &c. These complaints, which pave the way to many others, are not to be removed by medicines. They can only be cured by a vigorous course of exercise, to which indeed they seldom fail to yield.

      EXERCISE, if possible, ought always to be taken in the open air. When that cannot be done, various methods may be contrived for exercising the body within doors, as the dumb bell, dancing, fencing, &c. it is not necessary to adhere strictly to any particular kind of exercise. The best way is to take them by turns, and to use that longest which is most suitable to the strength and constitution. These kinds of exercise which give action to most of the bodily organs, are always to be preferred, as walking, running, riding, digging, swimming, and such like

      IT is much to be regretted, that active and manly diversions are now so little practiced. Diversions make people take more exercise than they otherwise would do, and are of the greatest service to such as are not under the necessity of labouring for their bread. As active diversions lose ground, those of a sedentary kind seem to prevail. Sedentary diversions are of no other use but to consume time. Instead of relieving the mind, they often require more thought than either study or business. Every thing that induces people to sit still, unless it be some necessary employment, ought to be avoided.

      THE diversions which afford the best exercise are, hunting, shooting, playing at cricket, hand-ball, golf, &c. These exercise the limbs, promote perspiration, and the other secretions. They likewise strengthen the lungs, and give firmness and agility to the whole body.

      GOLFF is a diversion very common in North Britain. It is well calculated for exercising the body, and may always be taken in such moderation, as neither to over-heat nor fatigue. It has greatly the preference to cricket, tennis, or any of those games which cannot be played without violence.

      SUCH as can, ought to spend two or three hours a-day on horseback; those who cannot ride, should employ the same time in walking, Exercise should never be continued too long. Over-fatigue prevents the benefit of exercise, and instead of strengthening the body tends to weaken it.

      EVERY man should lay himself under some sort of necessity to take exercise. Indolence, like other vices when indulged, gains ground, and at length becomes agreeable. Hence many who were fond of exercise in the early part of life, become quite averse from it afterwards. This is the case of most hypochondriac and gouty people, which renders their diseases in great measure incurable.

      IN some countries laws have been made, obliging every man, of whatever rank, to learn some mechanical employment. Whether such laws were designed for the preservation of health, or the encouragement of manufacture, is a question of no importance. Certain it is, that if gentlemen were frequently to amuse and exercise themselves in this way, it might have many good effects. They would at least derive as much honour from a few masterly specimens of their own workmanship, as from the character of having ruined most of their companions by gaming or drinking. Besides, men of leisure, by applying themselves to the mechanical arts, might improve them, to the great benefit of society,

      INDOLENCE not only occasions diseases, and renders men useless to society, but promotes all manner of vice. To say a man is idle, is little better than calling him vicious. The mind, if not engaged in some useful pursuit, is constantly in quest of ideal pleasures, or impressed with the apprehension of some imaginary evil. From these sources proceed most of the miseries of mankind. Certainly man was never intended to be idle. Inactivity frustrates the very design of his creation; whereas an active life is the best guardian of virtue, and the greatest preservative of health.

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