A Victorian Calisthenics Workout

It’s January, and I’ve been lazy through the holidays. Coupled with the lack of sleep from late-night rehearsals, and I’ve found myself feeling run-down. This week, I decided I ought to do something about this. I ought to get up earlier and eat healthier. And I ought to exercise.

But what to do when it’s below freezing and dark outside in the morning? I could do yoga, but I’ve found myself getting bored with my yoga routine lately. And then I found a couple articles on zero-equpiment circuit routines. It made me think, hey, how did people exercise before things like yoga and running and six thousand machines came to the US? I mean, the short answer is that they didn’t because people in the past either didn’t realize the benefits of exercise, or else they led strenuous enough lives not to need specific exercise time.

And then I did some research and found this site, which reproduces a Victorian manual for women’s calisthenics. Now, I always thought of calisthenics as zero-equipment exercises that are usually used for warm-ups. But this manual seems to make the distinction between calisthenics and gymnastics, perhaps suggesting that women ought not to do the jumping around that gymnastics involved. But even the equipment is very minimal. Most of the exercises can be done with dumbbells, a lightweight wand of wood (like a broom handle), and a resistance band. And the free exercises, in addition to being a wonderful light workout, look like great actor’s warmups. I might bring them out before performances this week.

Now, it’s interesting that this Victorian reference specifically recommends strength-building exercises for women when so much conventional wisdom of the time (persisting into the 20th century) was that exercise would harm women. But with so many women experiencing muscle atrophy from corset-wearing, the author makes a good point that strength exercises are necessary for beauty. It’s the same idea behind Pilates, which is another vintage system of exercise. In addition, dancers have trained more strenuously for centuries.

So I’ve come up with a simple, low- or no-equipment plan for increasing my strength using vintage exercise. This morning, without the benefit of having dug my weight equipment out of the closet, I did a zero-equipment workout consisting of more modern-accepted calisthenics, like pushups, squats, windmills, and planks. I warmed up with some arm and foot circles, then then alternated exercises every thirty seconds for a little over ten minutes. Then, I finished off with a stretching routine I developed to increase my flexibility as a dancer. Perhaps in the future I’ll incorporate some Pilates or some of the Victorian calisthenics with a band or dumbbells, and even add some dancing to my routine. In the spring, when the weather warms, I can even do my routine outside.

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