I remember seeing that photo of Dr. Sacks squatting 600 lbs.
Did he weigh in on the book? I mean, with that lift, he was an expert. He set the California squat record, right?
Yeah, it was a California record, 600 lbs. He always had a kind of embarrassed pride about that lift because it was something he really went after. But by the time I met him, the damage had been done—his knees were completely shot. He had a knee replacement when we were together. But he looked back on that with chagrin and pride. He kept a framed picture of that squat here in the apartment. Swimming with his thing by the time I met him. He was an incredible swimmer—long distance swimming, open water swimming, put him into a pool, he could swim for hours.
How did sport define masculinity? That discus-throwing scene from The Odyssey which you bring up feels like something out of a Scorsese movie. Is it less gendered, or fraught now?
I think it’s less gender defined today. One of the challenges of writing Sweat was finding the role of women in the history of exercise, and when they enter the picture. To be really honest about it, for centuries women were not encouraged, and in some cases, not permitted to exercise or compete in athletics. So while I sort of wax romantically about antiquity and Hippocrates and and Plato, and a time when the culture worshiped the human body and athletes were held up as the ideal—there were gymnasiums in almost every town in the Greek Empire, and they were quite elaborate—they were only open to men and boys from the upper classes. Women were not allowed into gyms, and not encouraged to exercise. Plato endorsed women exercising but it didn’t actually happen, certainly not in an organized way. Even Mercuriale, in 1569, said women should exercise. But that was not common.
It didn’t begin to emerge until the 19th century, from a confluence of events. Women’s rights advocacy around the world, the suffragette movement, and a global reaction to the Industrial Revolution, where there was this great fear, to put it simplistically, of people going from the farm to the factory and getting too sedentary. Exercise got its due, and was revived in men, boys, and women and children. Coming off the enlightenment, physical education classes are finally being encouraged for children, and women are encouraged to exercise along with men. And the bicycle was invented that century, and became not just a form of exercise but a vehicle of freedom: for a woman to get on a bicycle without the horizontal bar between the seat and the handlebars that would make it comfortable for someone in a dress or a skirt—it was significant.
Susan B. Anthony said how revolutionary it was. Are there forms of exercising now that are tied to change? I think about how powerlifting in the past decade has become much less gendered.
I think that’s really changed. It’s pretty amazing. I’m 61, I grew up in the 60s and 70s when Arnold Schwarzenegger came to prominence, and the idea of that bodybuilder body and joining a Gold’s Gym became the rage. But in the beginning, it was really mostly for men—somewhat for women, but a little freakish. And that has certainly changed, where women lift alongside men. Another significant figure from that era is Jane Fonda, who I think was one of the most important figures in the history of exercise, male, or female, because she democratized exercise and brought it into people’s homes. Women didn’t have to join a gym—they could exercise at home. I grew up in that era and remember aerobics and step classes, and thought it would be kind of campy to look back at it. I was a little skeptical, but once I watched her original workout tape again, and read her book, I realized it was really smart. It’s a great workout, whether you’re a man or a woman. Especially during the pandemic. Her whole philosophy was “just move.”