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Where pain = no gain : perspectives on sport, exercise and health, c. 1850-1920
conference contributionposted on 2002-01-01, 00:00 authored by Peter Mewett
A common perspective today is that sportspeople must train and compete to a level of exertion beyond the ‘pain threshold’ if they are to succeed; a view that has given rise to the popular expression ‘No Pain, No Gain’. Indeed, a common aphorism is that the health and quality of life of individuals and of the wider population is positively correlated with the frequency and vigour of physical exercise. In the period when modern sports were taking on their present characteristics (approximately 1850-1920), the prevailing opinions about the health and well-being effects of exercise were far more cautious, however. While the benefits of moderate exercise for physical and mental well-being went without question, too great an exertion was considered to be as risky as too little, causing ‘strain’ with the potential to inflict lasting and potentially fatal damage, including mental and physical complaints as diverse as neuralgia and ‘athletes’ heart’. The supposedly more strenuous sports, such as football, athletics and rowing, and the training required for them came under particular scrutiny in medical and popular discourses. This paper, an exercise in historical sociology, examines these discourses to demonstrate how advice about the risks on health of participating in sports and of too little or too much exercise more generally, was informed by prevailing physiological models and the interpretation of these within the medical profession and the wider population. The data sources include medical journals and texts, and sports training manuals from the period under investigation.