The developing understanding of Human Health and Fitness: 7. The Victorian Era

  • Roy J. Shephard
Keywords: Active Commuting, Cardiovascular Function, Fitness, Metabolism, Muscle Function, Philosophy, Physical Education, Preventive Medicine, Public Health, Respiratory Function, Scientific Societies, Spectatorism, Sports Medicine, Strength, Women in Sport.


Physiological research flourished during the Victorian Era, particularly in France and Germany. Scientific societies were founded. The cult of Positivism encouraged evidence-based research, and the new laboratory equipment developed by Victorian technology allowed investigators to form an accurate picture of cardiac, respiratory and muscular function. In scientific circles, the theory of Evolution supplanted Creationism, and a growing understanding of Microbiology allowed the first effective measures to be taken against epidemics. Although a few health professionals advocated exercise for health, therapy, and intellectual development, many doctors continued to treat illness with prolonged bed rest. The first Sports Medicine texts appeared, but their focus was more upon the treatment of athletic injuries than on the promotion of positive health. Nevertheless, interest in Preventive Medicine was spurred by the work of Florence Nightingale and Almoth Wright in military hospitals. Vigorous exercise programmes also played a role in some popular forms of Alternative Medicine. Good health had previously been seen as a gift bestowed by a capricious God. However, liberal Victorian theologians began to argue the need for both personal and societal efforts to enhance an individual's wellness. Philosophers questioned the nature of reality, and some proposed revolutionary solutions to social problems. Many thinkers began to recognize the individuals role in the quest for good health, and some political leaders demonstrated this belief through their personal lifestyle. Nevertheless, various social changes continued the trend to a reduced need for regular physical activity. Victorian society saw the construction of mass transportation systems, the introduction of new spectator pastimes and a progressive decrease in the energy costs of industrial and domestic work. In Europe, there was a strong rivalry between German and Swedish systems of gymnastic instruction, with both approaches finding their supporters among corresponding ethnic communities in North America. During the final two decades of the 19th century, English public school athletic programmes began to attract attention across Europe. The founding of a wide range of sporting organizations testified to both popular interest in sport and a panoply of new recreational opportunities. For women, the relaxation of dress codes allowed an ever-growing range of recreational activities. Spectator sport flourished as events were popularized by newspapers and made accessible by mass transit. Sedentary entertainment included reading, drama, concerts and opera for the social elite, and burlesque for the working class. The wealthy frequented dining and gaming clubs, whereas workers gathered at their neighbourhood pub to wager on foot-races and boxing matches. In the summer, the railways offered excursions to the seaside and Lakeland resorts. Boards of Public Health began major efforts to improve urban hygiene. Slavery and child labour were abolished, housing conditions were improved, and there was a burgeoning birth rate. Fitness was still considered in the context of survival. There were strident calls for church congregations to adopt Muscular Christianity, but there is little objective data on fitness of the adult population during the Victorian Era.

Author Biography

Roy J. Shephard
Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, University of Toronto
How to Cite
Shephard, R. (2013). The developing understanding of Human Health and Fitness: 7. The Victorian Era. The Health & Fitness Journal of Canada, 6(2), 3-83.