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the book cover of Sweat, blue with serif writing, with an ancient greek illustrated frieze and also a woman doing yoga superimposed
Bill Hayes takes in millennia of exercising (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksApril 30, 2023

Working up a Sweat: Bill Hayes on tracing the long history of exercise

the book cover of Sweat, blue with serif writing, with an ancient greek illustrated frieze and also a woman doing yoga superimposed
Bill Hayes takes in millennia of exercising (Image: Archi Banal)

Ahead of his visit to Aotearoa for the Auckland Writer’s Festival, the author tells Shanti Mathias about his active approach to researching the many ways people have exercised over the millennia.

I’m quite sweaty when I open the video link to my interview with Bill Hayes, which seems appropriate. I don’t bother concealing it from him. In one section of his new book, Sweat: A History of Exercise, the American writer quotes philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht. “We expect our coworker to be clean when they get to work, and still clean at the end of the day; yet we also expect them to have a separate wardrobe for the gym, which they drench with sweat. What curious behaviour.”

In Sweat, Hayes does more than my half-hearted Pilates YouTube videos. He tries out boxing; he goes swimming; he attends yoga classes; he lifts weights. He intertwines his personal history of exercise with a much longer one, from the Greek gymnasiums and Olympic competitions, to 16th century Italian physician Girolamo Mercuriale’s attempts to catalogue different types of exercise, to gyms in San Francisco frequented by gay men building community in the midst of the HIV epidemic. 

In over a decade of working on the book, Hayes says that the title, Sweat, was obvious from the moment he looked around his gym and thought “How did we end up here in gyms? When did exercising begin?” That said, he deliberated over the subtitle. “Should it be a history of exercise or the history of exercise?” he tells me. Eventually, he settled on the indefinite article. “There are so many histories of exercise – this is the one that I happened to research and write.” 

Exercise, practiced in different shapes and forms by all human societies, is indeed much vaster and more complicated than any one book could hope to tackle. Hayes is sanguine about what had to be left out. “I wasn’t trying to write an encyclopaedia,” he says. He acknowledges that he focuses on Europe and America over other traditions and histories of exercise; apart from a brief chapter about yoga, there is no tai chi, no surfing, no kapa haka. 

sunset and still water, a person's arm pushing them through the sea
Swimming: one of Bill Hayes’ favourite forms of exercise (Image: Luca Sage/Getty Images)

He makes a vague attempt to delineate between sports and exercise – there are no balls or other moving objects involved in the book – but the rest of the narrative is a glorious variety of some of the many, many kinds of exercise and the insights about human bodies and lives that reside in the practice and origins of each one. Because each chapter is anchored by Hayes’s personal history, he chose only to write about forms of exercise that he’d tried himself. “Learning to box – now that was interesting,” he says, miming punches. “I went into it quite naively thinking I was fit, I thought I could learn the choreography.” But he forgot a crucial aspect. “Learning to hit means you also get hit – it was quite humbling.” 

While the heart-racing, sweat-producing, muscle-building aspect of exercise is a key focus of the book – Hayes writes particularly affectingly about his relationship to weightlifting as a young gay man – the author spends just as much time in libraries as in gymnasiums. This is part of the pleasure of the narrative, too: as Hayes describes his delight at first encountering Mercuriale’s De Arte Gymnastica in an original edition from 1573, the reader is thrilled by this connection to bodies past, too. “What burst to life before my eyes was a graphic image of two pairs of naked men whose bodies were twisted and entwined, incredibly kinetic for a woodcut engraving,” he writes. 

bald white man with out of focus city in background, and a very cool green leather jacket
Author Bill Hayes, partner of the late Oliver Sacks, spent more than a decade working on Sweat (Photo: Supplied)

As Hayes exercises in the Spokane country club and hotel pools, he also chases archive material across the US and Europe, discovering Mercuriale in translation in Kansas and the UK, then heading to Italy and Greece to see where his story of exercise began. On an island in a lake near Milan, having being given only one date and time to see the material, he finds some of the original drawings that illustrated Mercuriale’s work, brittle paper a piece of the past he’s trying to find. “It was very magical,” Hayes tells me. “I felt like my obsession with Mercuriale – it was just meant to be.” 

Of course, not everyone can, like Hayes, fly around the world following an interest in exercise. That’s not really his point, though. He likes that exercise is ordinary, embedded in many lives. Journalists do it then show up to interviews. Children do it as part of their schooling. Running to the bus is exercise; so is stretching to reach something on a high shelf, all ways that bodies interact with the world around them. 

Hayes is intrigued, too, by the way that bodies have their own kind of knowledge, developing out of reach of the mind. As he describes it, it’s a sort of poetry. “The body breaking the glassy surface, crashing through it, the blasting noise in one’s ears—and the feeling on one’s skin, of one’s skin and nerves, down to the bones,” he writes, diving into the water at the start of the book. His thesis is something like this: in swimming (or boxing, or doing yoga, or lifting weights), his body grows stronger, yes, but it also grows more wise. He learns how to breathe, how to protect his face from punches. He grows older; he learns his limitations. He keeps living in his own skin, and he gives his body exercise.

One frustration of the research process, Hayes says, was the lack of information about exercise for women. He knows that women have moved their bodies, in ways that are both necessary and pleasurable, for all of human history: tired arms from scrubbing nappies, carrying water long distances, dancing, walking. But the sources he found had few records of this; Mercuriale recommended that women exercise, but focused his study all on men. Only in the 19th and 20th centuries did texts written by and for women about exercise begin to emerge. Hayes writes about how the rising popularity of cycling became an integral part of the suffrage movement, then lingers on Jane Fonda’s at home classes in the 1980s. “She really democratised exercise for a lot of women – I rewatched some of her videos and expected them to feel silly and dated, but they hold up.”

man in a sweaty headban stretching on a yoga mat
Exercise: for everyone, any time, anywhere (Image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)

And then there’s the role of resting. When Hayes’s late partner, the renowned neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, died in 2015, he put his research down for a while; wrote, instead, a memoir about New York and Sacks. He didn’t return to the manuscript until partway through the pandemic, itself a cause of enforced rest from familiar patterns. Gyms closed. Online fitness classes became what Fonda VCRs had been a generation earlier. People gathered to exercise outside, stretching or running, trying to keep their distance. Hayes is unapologetically pro-exercise but he also believes that rest is part of growing strong.

Since Sweat was published Hayes says he’s heard a lot of exercise anxieties. People sidle up to him at a reading and confess that they don’t understand why he loves swimming; he’s gotten emails admitting to dreading exercise. People want to enjoy exercising – it often has a moral dimension, a projection of health – but it also hurts, is tiring or dull, or simply forces them to think harder about their body than they wish to. Hayes and his extensive research into exercise can’t fix that, even if he did study personal training as part of the research. But he wants people who read his book to feel that exercise isn’t elevated or impossible, that it’s available to everyone. “I’ve been fascinated by the body since I was a little boy,” he says. “Human beings are animals – we are especially and beautifully gifted to move… The body enjoys moving, and we can all move in different ways.”

See Bill Hayes at the Auckland Writers Festival on Tuesday May 16. Sweat: A History of Exercise can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland

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