Beware the Chair: Medieval Roots of School Exercise

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To some children’s delight and others’ dismay, "gym class" is a standard requirement today in American schools. Pushback always ensues when school districts cut physical education, sports, or recess to save time or money. Amid concerns about childhood obesity and other fallout from too much sitting, some schools are experimenting with additional ways to get children moving such as standing desks, chairless classrooms, and nature immersion. But it’s not just schoolchildren who need to get out of their chairs—many American adults struggle with sedentary living too.

What are the historical dimensions of today’s efforts to help Americans become more active? Plymouth State University history professor Rebecca R. Noel reveals the quirky history of gym class and related exercise schemes in her Humanities to Go presentation, "Beware the Chair." She shows why educators and physicians of the 1800s fretted about schoolchildren developing tuberculosis, spinal curvature, or neurological problems from unhealthy school practices. These fears had haunted adults in sedentary occupations as long ago as the medieval period. In addition to exercise, early advice for sedentary "deskers" included chewing tobacco, wrapping the head in wet towels, and not eating sparrows.

The presentation touches on more recent and familiar exercise issues as well, such as the founding of what is now called the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition and the impact of Title IX, the federal law enacted in 1972 to help prevent gender discrimination in the United States educational athletic system.

A presentation about gym class wouldn’t be complete without some audience participation. Dr. Noel brings vintage badminton rackets, Indian clubs, the game of "graces" or flying hoop, and a decidedly non-vintage version of a calisthenics baton to get willing participants out of their own chairs.

The author of several articles and a forthcoming book about this subject, Rebecca Noel has taught at PSU since 2004. To book this program in your community, visit