Published: April/May 2009
Lessons of the Lost Guru
Forgo the latest health fads for these back-to-basics rules from America’s first man of fitness.
Text by Mark Adams

Bernarr Macfadden may have known as much about fine-tuning the human machine as any person who ever lived. The brawny brain behind a fitness system he called Physcultopathy, Macfadden was a self-taught wellness entrepreneur and America’s founding father of bodybuilding. (Time magazine dubbed him "Body Love" Macfadden, and Charles Atlas was just one of his discoveries.) Starting more than a hundred years ago, he gathered data from tens of thousands of clients, which he used to compile his 3,000-page Encyclopedia of Physical Culture, a reference work that offered natural remedies for every malady from kleptomania to cancer. His magazine Physical Culture dispensed advice on all subjects health related and sold more than 50 million copies between the World Wars. Crack any diet or exercise book today, from the Skinny Bitch series to Body for Life, and you’ll find ideas Macfadden first popularized.

In the course of writing a biography of Macfadden, I became fascinated by Physcultopathy and its driving principle that almost anyone could radically change his or her health virtually overnight using methods that would have been familiar to the ancient Greeks. His motto was "Weakness is a crime—don’t be a criminal!" A century before Oprah suffered her first diet relapse, Macfadden devoted his life to convincing his sedentary countrymen that strength and health weren’t inalienable rights; they were duties to be upheld by every man, woman, and child. Ideally, no one would ever visit a doctor or need a cup of coffee to feel ready to grab life by the lapels. In the pages of Physical Culture, bedridden asthmatics swore off meat to become cross-country runners, and stick-armed men sprouted bulging biceps by drinking nothing but milk.

As someone who’s covered the fitness industry for more than a decade and has a basement filled with gear once considered cutting-edge and essential—does anyone still repair StairMasters?—I was curious about the efficacy of Macfadden’s extreme back-to-basics techniques. In the spirit of Dr. Jekyll, I decided to try three on myself: a three-day water fast followed by cutting my daily caloric intake in half; a raw food diet; and a high-mileage walking regimen. I expected to lose weight. As it turned out, I also gained a whole new perspective on fitness.

Next: Experiment No. 1: Running on Empty

Experiment No. 1: Running on Empty

I’ll spare you the physiological details of my three-day water fast, other than to say that it was generally unpleasant, that I reached a point of extreme hunger that subsided by the third day, and that 24 hours after I started back on solid food I felt purified and ecstatic, about as good as I have in my entire adult life.

The fast seemed to have a rebooting effect. My cravings for beer and ice cream (two pillars of my personal diet) all but vanished. I could normally force myself through a few three-mile jogs every week, but now my endurance skyrocketed, even as I consumed about half my usual calories. I ran a half-marathon with ease just a month later.

Subsequent fasts conjured similar results and went even more smoothly after a trainer friend suggested I sneak some salt into my beverage. (My physician was delighted with my fitness but horrified by my methods: "This can’t be good for your kidneys," he told me.) I’ve never been a particularly flexible person, but during a later fast I found that I could touch my toes for the first time in years, and then place my palms on the floor. A chronic respiratory ailment vanished, and a year later it has yet to return. I still can’t explain it.

Next: Experiment No. 2: Extreme Walking

Experiment No. 2: Extreme Walking

To prove the power of pedestrianism, Macfadden once sponsored a Physical Culture employee to walk from Chicago to Pittsburgh consuming nothing but water. (The guy originally planned to make it all the way to New York City but gave up when he lost the fat cushioning his foot bones.) My somewhat less ambitious plan was to walk briskly for two hours a day, about eight miles in all, for 30 consecutive days, eating as I always did—heartily.

The great advantage of walking over other forms of exercise, Macfadden preached, is that you can walk hard seven days a week without injury. It is virtually impossible to walk farther than your body can handle. It uses different muscles than running; any soreness I felt was in my butt rather than my thighs and disappeared once I started moving. Halfway through the month, my posture improved. I felt more aware of where I was in relation to other objects. If I timed my walks to counteract my lunchtime hunger pangs as Macfadden recommended, the cravings disappeared in about 20 minutes. After 30 days my pants were definitely baggier, and I’d lost 4.8 pounds.

Next: Experiment No. 3: The Raw Truth

Experiment No. 3: The Raw Truth

Macfadden often prescribed his "natural food" diet for patients who were stressed out and had trouble sleeping at night, a situation I found myself in after falling more than a year behind schedule to finish my book. (He also felt it promoted vigor and tried, unsuccessfully, to get President Theodore Roosevelt to adopt it for Army troops in 1908.) The strictly vegetarian natural diet consisted mostly of uncooked fruits and vegetables and raw nuts. I soon learned that while apples and walnuts are fine additions to a bowl of oatmeal, they grow tedious pretty quickly as staples of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

South of my taste buds, however, my body was definitely taking to the natural diet. Morning runs that had been drudgery felt great, easy, and fast. I decided to stick with the program a second week. On day eight, I noticed that a fruity smell, like strawberries or freshly chopped cilantro, seemed to be following me. Only after a long, sweaty workout did I realize that the odor was me, or rather my perspiration, which had changed chemically. I felt better rested on less sleep. And my skin cleared up and took on an eerie, youthful suppleness.

It’s not necessary, or even advisable, to undertake one of Macfadden’s regimens that echoes the bleakest passages from The Worst Journey in the World. The lesson I took from my time with Macfadden is to resist temptation—not that of Twinkies or Grand Theft Auto—but rather the seductive call of the latest fitness fad. This year’s South Beach Diet is last year’s Ab Blaster class is next year’s Bikram yoga. If you’ve ever grabbed a banana and set out on a hike with no goal beyond taking a walk in the woods, you already know as much about fitness as you need to. Whether you choose to continue on all the way to Pittsburgh is up to you.