A History of Exercise

From Insomniac City author Bill Hayes, “who can tackle just about any subject in book form, and make you glad he did” (SF Chronicle) – a cultural, scientific, literary, and personal history of exercise.

Exercise is our modern obsession, and we have the fancy workout gear and fads from HIIT to spin classes to hot yoga to prove it. Exercise-a form of physical activity distinct from sports, play, or athletics-was an ancient obsession, too, but as a chapter in human history, it’s been largely overlooked. In Sweat, Bill Hayes runs, jogs, swims, spins, walks, bikes, boxes, lifts, sweats, and downward-dogs his way through the origins of different forms of exercise, chronicling how they have evolved over time, dissecting the dynamics of human movement.

Hippocrates, Plato, Galen, Susan B. Anthony, Jack LaLanne, and Jane Fonda, among many others, make appearances in Sweat, but chief among the historical figures is Girolamo Mercuriale, a Renaissance-era Italian physician who aimed singlehandedly to revive the ancient Greek “art of exercising” through his 1569 book De arte gymnastica. Though largely forgotten over the past five centuries, Mercuriale and his illustrated treatise were pioneering, and are brought back to life in the pages of Sweat. Hayes ties his own personal experience-and ours-to the cultural and scientific history of exercise, from ancient times to the present day, giving us a new way to understand its place in our lives in the 21st century.

Reviews for Sweat

“I was riveted by Sweat and its extraordinary tale of the ups and downs of exercise over millennia. Who knew?”

-- Jane Fonda


-- The Times, London

“Charming and idiosyncratic….One senses that the real impetus for Hayes’s inquiry is personal, as exercise always is. It’s this quest—an outlet for grief, or perhaps a redoubled zeal for life—which leads to a distinctive, often moving blend of historical and memoirist writing….”

-- The New Yorker

“Bill Hayes’ peripatetic inquiry into the history of exercise is a delight for anyone who loves a good search for a missing manuscript, as well as anyone who loves being ‘so drenched in sweat as to feel amphibious.’ And if those predilections happen to overlap for you, hang onto your Bosu ball-you’re in for a treat. Hayes weaves his riveting findings in the archives with a revelatory memoir of physical exertion that begins to answer that most human of questions: what does the body mean?”

-- Alison Bechdel

“Erudite, ludic, eccentric, energetic and historically transporting, it’s like falling through a gym and landing in a joust.”

-- The Guardian

“Leavened with Hayes’ own personal experiences of exercise… Sweat is a dynamic investigation of bodies in motion.”

-- Esquire, Best Nonfiction Books of the Year - 2022

“At its heart, [Sweat] is a deeply personal book about the universal subject of humans attempting to grapple with the meaning of their own physicality…an erudite memoir of a lifelong fitness enthusiast….It’s not a coincidence that in some of the most evocative sections of Hayes’s book, exercise isn’t a means to an end so much as a pursuit of raw sensation: the violent, ‘watery chaos’ of diving into a frigid lake in October; the primal thrill of sprinting, naked, up the driveway of a secluded country home….””

-- Outside Magazine

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