The Utmost Importance of Fresh Air and Exercise

The Utmost Importance of Fresh Air and Exercise

The rings show progress on movement, exercise and the “stand” goal.

No, you haven’t stumbled across a health website, but it is January, just beyond the two-week mark of when a large percentage of the population has renewed their vow to take better care of themselves, so it seemed appropriate. Particularly for one such as I, whose pursuit of health has proven frustrating and elusive, particularly in recent years. I told my husband that I wanted to go back to wearing a health tracking device. My experience some years back with a BodyMedia armband taught me that having the data motivates me to do better, so for Christmas, he gave me a shiny, new Apple Watch. Meaning that technically, I had a head-start on my resolution start date. It’s a good thing, too, because as with any new device, it takes time to learn how to use it.

It didn’t take long to notice that the hourly reminder to stand up and move around for a minute helped my circulation and that regularly taking a 60-second breather where the point was simply to “breathe” helped me stay focused on the task at hand and improved my blood pressure readings. I had forgotten, after abandoning the armband I used to wear, how simply knowing how many steps I’d taken and how much energy I’d expended over the day inspired me to stay on track and push myself toward daily goals. As I have directed energy to these things, I already see the rewards, and I am rediscovering truths taught by Jane Austen over two centuries ago. It is a truth, widely if not universally acknowledged, that good health is far better than a good fortune. I try each day to close the Activity rings.

Regency Period Walking Dress (Public Domain – Wikipedia Commons)

Anyone familiar with the state of healthcare during the Regency can’t be surprised that this was a culture where people went out of their way to preserve their health if they had it and reclaim it if they didn’t. Walking and horseback riding were so universally employed for exercise that they were fashion and social events when the weather permitted it.

Jane Austen frequently used this aspect of the culture to both shape her characters and twist the plot. It’s easy to pick out the hypochondriacs in her work, and fun to analyze them too, but today we’re going to discuss how Austen deftly used health, particularly exercise, in her work.

The first example that came to my mind would be Elizabeth Bennet, who would have undoubtedly been an athlete had she been born in a modern time. She runs and skips, climbs on rocks, and dances, but most notably, she walks. Her purpose is not to get exercise, she walks because being active is at the core of who she is. She is not particularly conscious of the health benefits of her walking, but it is one of the initial charms that we know captures Darcy’s eye:

We must allow that she’s an excellent walker.

“Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing…” 

Austen does an excellent job of subtly reinforcing the attractiveness that stems from her activity when she first arrives at Netherfield when Jane has taken ill:

“She was shewn into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother’s manners there was something better than politeness; there was good-humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.”

We understand later, when he defends Elizabeth’s walk to Netherfield in this passage, we get a second confirmation that the glow of energetic health is part of Elizabeth’s appeal:

“I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley, in a half-whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.”

“Not at all,” he replied; “they were brightened by the exercise.”

Elizabeth Bennet isn’t the only heroine Austen graced with health due to exercise. Consider Fanny Price, whose exercise is taken in the form of a daily horseback ride.

Austen skillfully uses her regularity in the activity to push Fanny aside, when, despite promises that he would return the horse to Fanny in time for her ride, Edmund allows Mary Crawford to selfishly exceed the time. He adds insult to injury by this manipulation:

When they parted at night Edmund asked Fanny whether she meant to ride the next day.

“No, I do not know—not if you want the mare,” was her answer.

“I do not want her at all for myself,” said he; “but whenever you are next inclined to stay at home, I think Miss Crawford would be glad to have her a longer time— for a whole morning, in short. She has a great desire to get as far as Mansfield Common: Mrs. Grant has been telling her of its fine views, and I have no doubt of her being perfectly equal to it. But any morning will do for this. She would be extremely sorry to interfere with you. It would be very wrong if she did. She rides only for pleasure; you for health.”

By this means, Mary Crawford gains the use of Fanny’s horse for the next several mornings, with Fanny reduced to walking for exercise. Ah, but then we see a twist when Fanny is sent away, and Austen tells us outright:

“Fanny was beginning to feel the effect of being debarred from her usual regular exercise; she had lost ground as to health since her being in Portsmouth…”

And here, among other endeavors he has undertaken to prove himself to Fanny is when Henry Crawford’s capacity to be a better person becomes personal to her, for he has observed Fanny’s need for both fresh air and activity and offers a solution:

“I am considering your sister’s health,” said he, addressing himself to Susan, “which I think the confinement of Portsmouth unfavourable to. She requires constant air and exercise. When you know her as well as I do, I am sure you will agree that she does, and that she ought never to be long banished from the free air and liberty of the country. If, therefore” (turning again to Fanny), “you find yourself growing unwell, and any difficulties arise about your returning to Mansfield, without waiting for the two months to be ended, that must not be regarded as of any consequence, if you feel yourself at all less strong or comfortable than usual, and will only let my sister know it, give her only the slightest hint, she and I will immediately come down, and take you back to Mansfield.”

Of course, his selflessness will not last, but one must admire Austen’s cleverness in using the importance of fresh air and exercise to Fanny’s health in making Edmund seem insensitive and Henry the opposite.

There are many other references in Austen novels to the importance of exercise. Have any of them made an impression on you? I left some of the best ones for you to share!




16 Responses to The Utmost Importance of Fresh Air and Exercise

  1. Continued mobility is so important to our overall well being. I see my father, not at all old at a mere 72, struggling with declining health, the decline sped up exponentially after losing mobility after a couple of strokes. Alas the loss of mobility was not a direct result of the stroke but of him stubbornly refusing to do any exercise and thus losing the ability to do any exercise. And so I get off the train one stop early or don’t catch the connecting bus, walking the distance instead, taking the stairs instead of the lift, still climbing as the escalator climbs, parking in the far bay at the supermarket. It all adds up.

    Thank you for the timely reminder to stand more, sit less, move often.

    • A good motto! “Stand more, sit less, move often.” I love it! Your examples of everyday things we can do to work live by that motto are as wonderful as your example of the consequences of failing to do so is tragic. Thanks so much for commenting!

  2. That was fun Diana, and Happy New Year. In looking over your post, I couldn’t help but think about poor Anne de Bourgh who probably never, well hardly ever got out of the house. If she did indeed have a breathing problem, it may have pained her just to walk about the house. Although in modern times, we often find that some form of exercise will actually improve breathing ailments like asthma. My niece who has been suffering with a lung/breathing issue since she almost died last April from the H1N1 flu virus that settled in her heart, exercises every day to build up her strength. Walking, climbing stairs PT and the gym. She and the docs are still hopeful that her lungs will improve. Very interesting post. Thanks, Jen

    • Excellent point about Anne de Bourgh, Jen. When she did get out, I think it was just to ride in a phaeton now an then – not much of a workout! Something more robust would probably have been beneficial. And it’s true that many of the issues that strike people even now can be improved with exercise. My MIL used exercise to combat the debilitating effects of her MS for many years, and her doctors told her that although she had muscle atrophy, the muscles that had not atrophied had expanded and were taking on the work of the ones that had.

  3. “Miss Eliza Bennet, let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room. – I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude.”

    This reminds me of our grandmother getting her daily exercise by doing laps around the living room, kitchen and dining room. It was not just to “show off her figure” but to get exercise, even when it became impossible to go outside. She also insisted on going up and down the stairs multiple times daily until a month before she died at 98 1/2. Activity was part of her passion to life and health.

    • I had to giggle when I read this. I have followed both Caro’s and our grandmother’s example and was taking multiple turns about the room when I stopped mid-lap to check my email notifications just now. With a goal of 10,000 steps per day, indoor laps are an excellent option, I assure you!

    • You are so right, and Austen used this aspect to great advantage, with several examples in Persuasion. The example you cite with their walk at Uppercross is echoed later on when they are walking at the sea in Lyme. When you think about what occurred within each of these walking events, so similar on the surface, but so different in terms of character and relationship development, Austen’s ability to employ a simple outing “for exercise” is illuminated yet again. Love this example!

  4. We also have those who use their health to get their way. Mrs. Bennet with her spasms and trembling and always calling for her salts. Mary Musgrove and her feigned illness as a maneuver to get her way, to get out of doing something unpleasant or to manipulate those around her. Lady Bertram comes to mind as some have suggested that she was taking something to calm her. In most of Austen’s work… someone was always dying of some ailment. One of the reasons women were encouraged to exercise was due to the high mortality rate in childbirth. Women needed to be strong. Excellent post. Good luck with your health this year.

    • I have always wondered about Mrs. Bennet. Some think she’s faking it, others think she has an anxiety disorder, but it’s fairly certain that Austen must have known someone who acted this way. I have wondered if she may not have a heart problem, with her descriptions that could signify heart palpitations and/or the occurrence of atrial fibrillations. In any event, it gets her lots of attention! The juxtaposition of Kitty with her coughing emphasizes Mrs. Bennet’s unwillingness to have someone else in the household getting attention for an ailment – nervous complaint or otherwise! Mary Musgrove and Lady Bertram are also fantastic examples of Austen’s use of health for characterization and storytelling. Thank you for pointing out the connection with health and childbirth. Exercise wasn’t the only consideration, although they didn’t realize it. With all the bonnets and parasols and long sleeves used to keep themselves from tanning, a certain percentage of the girls and women of were woefully deficient in Vitamin D. Many of them didn’t ever stand a chance with childbirth, having deformed hips as an effect of developing rickets from that deficiency. It is speculated that this may have been what caused Princess Charlotte’s ill-fated delivery.

  5. I’ve always thought that walking was even better exercise for women then than it is now. I have no idea how much a regency walking dress weighed, or how to figure that out, but I bet it weighed a lot more than most of my clothing and really did make walking more of a workout. You know, like wearing small weights or shoveling snow while dressed in lots of layers.

    • I think you’re right – it’s a push for me to get 10,000 steps into a day, but I suspect that was pretty much nothing for the ladies – even ladies of leisure back then. When you consider what trouble had to be gone through to get a carriage or wagon prepped for even a short trip, the advantages of just hoofing it for errands or visits is more evident. We have it pretty easy with cars that start up with the turn of a key. I never even considered the impact of the weight of clothing, which would be even heavier in winter when walking would be less frequent. Thanks for your thoughtful input!

  6. Two characters immediately come to mind when health is the issue:
    Marianne Dashwood neglects her health with nearly fatal consequences.
    Mr. Woodhouse is constantly concerned about his health as well as everyone else’s.

    • Excellent examples Renata! I think with Marianne, Austen used her health both as a character development aspect as well as a plot device. With Mr Woodhouse, his obsession with health is an undercurrent that takes us from the very first chapter through to the last. Perfect!

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