Old-school health and fitness tips from the 1911 Handbook for Boys

Scouts-Old-School-Fitness“Two things greatly affect the conditions under which a boy lives in these days. One is that he lives in-doors for the greater part of the time, and the other is that he must attend school, which is pretty largely a matter of sitting still.”

It has been 105 years since Dr. George J. Fisher penned that introduction to the “Health and Endurance” chapter of the BSA’s 1911 Handbook for Boys, but much of his advice is just as valid for Scouts and adult volunteers today. And it might be even more critical as our nation faces the crises of obesity, diabetes and sedentary behavior.

Let’s compare the good doctor’s old-school advice for keeping us physically strong and mentally awake to today’s cutting-edge exercise and medical science.

1911: “Each day should have its out-door exercises.”

2016: A study at the University of California, San Diego found that adults who exercise outside complete about 30 minutes more exercise each week than people who exercise indoors. Dozens of other studies show that people who exercise in natural environments score higher on psychological tests of vitality, enthusiasm and self-esteem, and lower on tension, depression and fatigue.

1911: “Walking is a splendid form of exercise.”

2016: In a study that analyzed 33,000 runners and 15,000 walkers, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., determined that brisk walking can lower your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and other health risks as much as running.

1911: “A boy ought to have at least two hours of sport daily … and at least two hour-long periods each week in a gym for body building.”

2016: Realistically, kids don’t have that kind of free time for exercise. But that’s OK, because hours aren’t necessary for good health. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends vigorous aerobic exercise for 25 minutes at least three times a week or moderately intense exercise for 30 minutes at least five days a week. Muscle-strengthening exercise, as Fisher notes, is important, too. After age 30, adults begin to lose muscle mass by 1 to 2 percent per year and often replace it with fat. The AHA recommends moderate to intense strength training at least two days a week.

1911: “Exercises demanding a sustained support of the body with the arms are not helpful, but may be harmful.”

2016: That’s not sound advice, says exercise scientist Ellington Darden, Ph.D., author of The Body Fat Breakthrough. “We know that growing and strengthening a muscle requires stressing that muscle with resistance exercise.” In fact, the classic pushup, which requires supporting the entire bodyweight with your arms, is the ultimate barometer of fitness, said the late fitness guru Jack LaLanne. It engages the muscles of the arms, chest, abdomen, back, hips and legs.

1911: “Don’t eat too much; don’t eat meat more than once a day; and don’t eat anything that you always taste several hours after you have eaten it, even though you like it.”

2016: Fisher’s advice is even more appropriate in today’s “super-size me” culture. And putting limits on meat consumption is particularly relevant, considering the pronouncement by the World Health Organization that eating processed meats (and probably other red meats) raises the risk of colon cancer. Anyone who has eaten a sauerkraut-dressed hot dog with onion rings knows that Fisher’s last point is dead-on.

1911: “Good, sound, and sufficient sleep is essential to growth, strength, and endurance.”

2016: Fisher is spot-on in the sleep department. Sleep scientists say getting seven to eight-and-a-half hours of quality sleep each night provides huge health benefits, including better mood, clearer thinking, a stronger immune system and better weight control. Darden says that as much as 50 percent of weight loss happens while you’re sleeping. One study in the journal Obesity reports that more than seven hours of sleep increased the likelihood of weight-loss success by 33 percent.

1911: “A stimulant like coffee and tea doesn’t add any fibre to the tissues, doesn’t add any strength, isn’t a food, but merely gets more out of the tissues or nervous system than they would normally yield.”

2016: Tea has been used medicinally for thousands of years, so it is curious that Fisher discouraged his readers from drinking it. In recent years, ample research points toward the health benefits of drinking tea. The National Institutes of Health has determined that tea is rich in polyphenol compounds, antioxidants that might protect cells from DNA damage and aid in cancer prevention. To get the most from tea, choose green and white teas, which contain the greatest concentration of antioxidants. And brew it hot.

As for coffee, studies suggest that drinking it regularly might reduce risk of type 2 diabetes. And caffeine is a proven remedy for headache and migraines due to its ability to reduce inflammation.

For more useful tips that have stood the test of time, grab a reproduction copy of the 1911 Handbook for Boys at scoutstuff.org.


  1. The recommendation against “Exercises demanding a sustained support of the body with the arms” more than likely is a warning against the trendy hanging exercises of the Victorian era, and not against push-ups or even pull-ups. The words “demanding” and “sustained” are key here. Push-ups, even as noted by the exercise scientist, engage the body’s entire frame, and weight is still placed on the lower body which takes more or less of the strain as needed to perform the exercise safely.

  2. And given that we can metabolize certain amino acids into sugars, there are no essential carbs. We all eat too much sugar. If you want to make your diet healthier, drop the carbs first. If you’re an athlete, eat carbs before and after your workouts sparingly to improve your recovery. For body composition training, go for weight lifting and sprints. For better cardiovascular health, moderate cardio workouts.

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