Catherine Esther Beecher on Exercise


Woman’s great mission is to train immature, weak, and ignorant creatures to obey the laws of God; the physical, the intellectual, the social, and the moral. Catherine Beecher

Born in 1800 into the famous Beecher clan which included Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame and the infamous preacher Henry Ward Beecher, Catherine as the oldest daughter took over care of her nine siblings after her mother passed away when she was sixteen.

When her fiance died in a shipwreck, she decided to use the money he left her to further the education of women. In 1824 she established the Hartford Female Seminary with the help of her sister Mary and her brother Edward. When her father, Lyman Beecher, moved west to Ohio in 1832, she went with him. There she established the Western Female Seminary and several other schools for girls. Discovering that there were inadequate textbooks for the education of girls, she decided to write her own and went on to write numerous educational works. 

In 1841 Catherine Beecher published a Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School. Although she has been considered an anti-suffragist because of her emphasis on women’s place being in the home, she had advanced ideas about what and how women were taught. For example, she developed a calisthenics program performed to music.

The following excerpt from the 1843 version of her Treatise explains the importance of exercise and how to get people to do it.

The only mode of preserving the health of these systems, is, to keep up in them an equilibrium of action. For this purpose, occupations must be sought, which exercise the muscles, and interest the mind; and thus the equal action of both kinds of nerves is secured. This shows why exercise is so much more healthful and invigorating, when the mind is interested, than when it is not. As an illustration, let a person go a shopping, with a friend, and have nothing to do, but look on; how soon do the continuous walking and standing weary! But suppose one, thus wearied, hears of the arrival of a very dear friend: she can instantly walk off a mile or two, to meet her, without the least feeling of fatigue. By this is shown the importance of furnishing, for young persons, exercise in which they will take an interest.

Long and formal walks, merely for exercise, though they do some good, in securing fresh air and some exercise of the muscles, would be of triple benefit, if changed to amusing sports, or to the cultivation of fruits and flowers, in which it is impossible to engage, without acquiring a great interest. It shows, also, why it is far better to trust to useful domestic exercise, at home, than to send a young person out to walk, for the mere purpose of exercise.

Young girls can seldom be made to realize the value of health, and the need of exercise to secure it, so as to feel much interest in walking abroad, when they have no other object. But, if they are brought up to minister to the comfort and enjoyment of themselves and others, by performing domestic duties, they will constantly be interested and cheered in their exercise, by the feeling of usefulness, and the consciousness of having performed their duty. There are few young persons, it is hoped, who are brought up with such miserable habits of selfishness and indolence, that they cannot be made to feel happier, by the consciousness of being usefully employed. And those who have never been accustomed to think or care for anyone but themselves, and who seem to feel little pleasure in making themselves useful, by wise and proper influences, can often be gradually awakened to the new pleasure of benevolent exertion to promote the comfort and enjoyment of others. And the more this sacred and elevating kind of enjoyment is tasted, the greater is the relish induced.

Other enjoyments, often cloy; but the heavenly pleasure, secured by virtuous industry and benevolence, while it satisfies, at the time, awakens fresh desires for so ennobling a good. But, besides the favorable influence on the nervous and muscular system, thus gained, it has been shown, that exercise imparts fresh strength and vitality to all parts of the body. The exertion of the muscles quickens the flow of the blood, which thus ministers its supplies faster to every part of the body, and, of course, loses a portion of its nourishing qualities. When this is the case, the stomach issues its mandate of hunger, calling for new supplies. When these are furnished, the action of the muscles again hastens a full supply to every organ, and thus the nerves, the muscles, the bones, the skin, and all the internal organs, are invigorated, and the whole body develops its powers, in fair proportions, fresh strength and full beauty.

All the cosmetics of trade, all the labors of mantua makers, milliners, makers of corsets, shoemakers, and hairdressers, could never confer so clear and pure a skin, so fresh a color, so finely molded a form, and such cheerful health and spirits, as would be secured by training a child to obey the laws of the benevolent Creator, in the appropriate employment of body and mind in useful domestic exercise. And the present habits of the wealthy, and even of those without wealth, which condemn young girls so exclusively to books or sedentary pursuits, are as destructive to beauty and grace, as they are to health and happiness.

Every allowance should be made for the mistakes of mothers and teachers, to whom the knowledge which would have saved them from the evils of such a course has never been furnished; but as information, on these matters, is every year becoming more abundant, it is to be hoped, that the next generation, at least, may be saved from the evils which afflict those now on the stage. What a change would be made in the happiness of this Country, if all the pale and delicate young girls should become blooming, healthful, and active, and all the enfeebled and care-worn mothers should be transformed into such fresh, active, healthful, and energetic matrons, as are so frequently found in our mother land! It has been stated, that the excessive use of the muscles, as much as their inactivity, tends to weaken them. Nothing is more painful, than the keeping a muscle constantly on the stretch, without any relaxation or change. This can be realized, by holding out an arm, perpendicularly to the body, for ten or fifteen minutes, if anyone can so long bear the pain. Of course, confinement to one position, for a great length of time, tends to weaken the muscles thus strained. This shows the evil of confining young children to their seats, in the schoolroom, so much and so long as is often done. Having no backs to their seats, as is generally the case, the muscles, which are employed in holding up the body, are kept in a state of constant tension, till they grow feeble from overworking. Then, the child begins to grow crooked, and the parents, to remedy the evil, sometimes put on bracers or corsets. These, instead of doing any good, serve to prevent the use of those muscles, which, if properly exercised, would hold the body straight; and thus they grow still weaker, from entire inactivity. If a parent perceives that a child is growing crooked, the proper remedy is, to withdraw it from all pursuits which tax one particular set of muscles, and turn it out to exercise in sports, or in gardening, in the fresh air, when all the muscles will be used, and the whole system strengthened. Or, if this cannot be done, sweeping, dusting, running of errands, and many household employments, which involve lifting, stooping, bending, and walking, are quite as good, and, on some accounts, better, provided the house is properly supplied with fresh air.

So everyone…time to get up and exercise doing something you love.


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