Exercise in the 16th Century

In De Arte Gymnastica, written in 1569, Hieronymus Mercurialis describes six exercise principles:

  1. Each exercise should preserve the existing health state
  2. Exercises should be suited to each part of the body
  3. All healthy people should exercise regularly
  4. Sick people should not be given exercises that might exacerbate existing conditions
  5. Special exercises should be prescribed for convalescent patients on an individual basis
  6. Persons who lead a sedentary life urgently need exercise (Shem and Shankar 1998, p.3)

Ford has credited Mercurialis with producing the ‘first complete text on the subject of exercise in relation to health and medicine’ (Ford 1955, p.30 – downloadable pdf available in the reference list).

In his paper published in The Australian Journal of Physiotherapy, Edward Ford explains that Mercurialis’s work drew together centuries of beliefs, customs and practices surrounding exercise and gymnastics, dating back to Ancient Greece, where ‘physical culture’ was an essential part of high Greek culture.

The art of exercise that Mercurialis articulates, Ford writes, ‘lies in the ability to foresee the effects of exercise, and to apply it in suitable form for both hygienic and curative purposes’ (ibid, p.32).

Mercurialis defined three kinds of exercise:

  • Legitimate, otherwise known as regular or medicinal exercise (‘dancing, ball games, wrestling, boxing, walking, running, jumping, discus and dumb-bells, throwing, postural exercises, breathing exercises, singing, riding, swimming, fishing and hunting’ (ibid).
  • Military
  • Athletic or ‘dangerous’

Mercurialis also considers some of the ‘possible evil effects of exercise, baths and massage’.

It’s sometimes worth remembering that so much of what we think is original today has a long history in human civilisation; particularly when it comes to the physical therapies.


Ford, E. (1955). The De Arte Gymnastica of Mercuriale.  The Australian Journal of Physiotherapy, 1(1), pp.30-32. doi.org/10.1016/S0004-9514(14)60893-X (pdf here).

Shem, K. & Shankar, K. (1998).  History of Therapeutic Exercise.  In, Kamala Shankar, Exercise Prescription.  Philadelphia: Hanley & Belfus, pp.1-17.

Posted by Dave Nicholls

Dr. Nicholls is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health and Psychosocial Studies, AUT University, Auckland, New Zealand. He is a physiotherapist, lecturer, researcher and writer, with a passion for critical thinking in and around the physical therapies. David is the founder of the Critical Physiotherapy Network, an organisation that promotes the use of cultural studies, education, history, philosophy, sociology, and a range of other disciplines in the study of the profession’s past, present and future. David’s own research work focuses on the critical history of physiotherapy and considers how physiotherapy might need to adapt to the changing economy of health care in the 21st century. He has published 35 peer-reviewed articles and 17 book chapters, many as first author. He is also very active on social media, writing more than 500 blogposts for criticalphysio.net in the last three years. David has taught in physiotherapy programmes in the UK and New Zealand for over 25 years and has presented his work all around the world. The End of Physiotherapy – the first book-length critical history of physiotherapy, and written by David – was published by Routledge in mid-2017.

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