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Looking after yourself

Model bath, London, England, 1815-1900

Model bath, London, England, 1815-1900

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Not every illness means a trip to the doctor. Normally we only seek professional medical help for around 1 in 10 of our medical problems. The rest of the time we treat ourselves - and our own recovery systems do the rest.

Exercise, diet and lifestyle


Prescriptions for exercise, diets and lifestyle changes can be found in every medical tradition. Traditional Chinese MedicineAyurveda and Unani Tibb all have a strong emphasis on preventative care, in order to preserve balance in the body. Looking after yourself by doing exercises such as t’ai chi or yoga, eating the correct foods and staying in touch with the changing seasons is generally encouraged.

A healthy lifestyle

The Greeks considered Hygeia, the daughter of Asklepios the god of medicine, as the goddess of health. The concept of hygiene comes from her, the idea that lifestyle changes can prevent disease and bring about long life. In the Roman Empire, Galenic medicine simplified this by prescribing a regimen of the six essential things, or ‘non-naturals’, needed for good health. These were: air, diet, exercise, sleep and work, digestion and emotions. The Romans were famous for their expensive medical drugs, hot baths and grooming. They also began the long European tradition of medical self-help manuals. The author Celsus wrote summaries of medical science for the educated classes.

Self-experimentation and Christian self-help


In medieval Europe, Christian theologians continued the tradition of self-help. Charitable Christian authors, such as Hildegard of Bingen, wrote herbals and health regimens. By the 1600s self-experimentation was being used to push forward the frontiers of science. Some, such as Sir Francis Bacon, who caught a chill while trying to determine the effect of cold on the flesh, even died as a result of their experiments. Others, including the scientist Robert Hooke, simply dosed themselves with every new medicine that came along and noted down the results. The popular health-book author Thomas Tryon urged his readers to adopt ‘pure’ vegetarianism and avoid alcohol.

Improvements in the home and access to water

During the Enlightenment health advice poured out from books, pamphlets, encyclopedias and magazines. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the bestselling health-care novel Emile. From the late 1700s, baths, washstands and soap became progressively cheaper. Indoor plumbing and flushed water closets became more common in Europe around 1800; urban water supplies were re-engineered after 1850. But it was not until the second half of the 1900s (in Europe and the USA) that every house had its own bathroom.

Exercise and physical fitness


In the late 1800s governments in Europe and the USA, worried about the health of their populations, encouraged physical fitness, whether through gymnastics, cycling or body building. Eugen Sandow and Charles Atlas developed systems of exercise which they claimed would restore health as well as build muscles. In the 1900s new public parks, gyms, athletic tracks and swimming pools saw a massive rise of organised sport and physical exercise regimes.

Health expectations

Rising incomes and better facilities have allowed more people to become fit and healthy. For many people, especially those in wealthy nations, expectations of what it means to be healthy have risen. Being healthy now means more than the absence of any illness; it also involves trying to obtain what they consider the ideal level of wellbeing and fitness.


F de Bonneville, The Book of the Bath (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998)

W Buchan, Domestic Medicine: or a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by regimen and simple medicines (Exeter: J B Williams 1785)

V Eblin, The Body Decorated (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1979)

J P Goubert, The Conquest of Water: The Advent of Health in the Industrial Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989)

Celsus, De Medicina, English translation by W G Spencer (William Heinemann/Harvard University Press, 1935)

D Morris, The Naked Ape. A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967)

J J Rousseau, Emile, or Education, translated by B Foxley (London: Dent, 1911)

R Sarti, Europe at Home. Family and Material Culture 1500-1800 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002)

C Schilling, The Body and Social Theory (London: Sage Publications,1993)

V Smith, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

G Vigarello, Concepts of Cleanliness. Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages, translated by J Birrell, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Paris: Editions la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1988)


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