Ten Exercises You Would Have Done If You Were A Victorian Londoner

The beneficial effects resulting from the employment of Gymnastic Exercises, as a curative agent in cases of spinal deformity, or other bodily weakness and contraction, are so generally known and appreciated

— Gustav Ernst 1861

Home exercise equipment has been around longer than you think. And although exercise clothing has come a long way from the petticoats and suits shown in Ernst’s book, the actual exercises themselves, are pretty similar to what you might do today. Of course this shouldn’t really be a surprise since the human body is the human body and movement is dictated by the shape and form we have, but it’s still interesting to see the exercise industry from the late 1800s.

Here are a few images from the book called “The portable gymnasium [electronic resource] : a manual of exercises, arranged for self instruction in the use of the portable gymnasium” by Gustav Ernst, which is in the Welcome Library.

1. Cross Trainer or Mountain Climbers

mountain climbers
Something akin to a mountain climber if you were doing it on the floor – perhaps the modern day equivalent is a cross trainer or a climb mill.

2. Lateral Extensions

lateral extensions

These look like your typical external rotation that you would do even today. Some things never change.

3. Semi Rotatory Movement

pull downs
Perhaps something akin to a stiff arm pull-down for the back? I’m not sure.

4. Horizontal Inclination


If this looks familiar, it’s because here is the Victorian version rowing. Ok, it’s missing a few bells and whistles that you would find on a modern rowing machine, but the basics are there. Rowing is one of the best whole body exercises, so it’s no wonder this one has stood the test of time.

5. Traction and Upward Extension

traction and upward extension

Perhaps something like  a deltoid exercise – it looks like some sort of rotation of the arm is being used.

6. Chest Expander

chest expander

These might be similar to today’s back flyes working the shoulders, mid back and triceps.

7. Lateral Traction

lateral traction

Your typical side bend with a cable machine – a mainstay of the core workout.

8. Neck Lateral Flexion and Extension

neck exercises

Yep, a strong neck is essential.

9. Upward Erect Traction


Working the lower back, abs and shoulders. Similar to an incline row with some added shoulder work for fun.

10. Upward Extension

upward extensionA single arm punch press for the pectorals.

We Fucked Up A Long Time Ago


The World Wide Fund for Nature and The Zoological Society of London have been studying and plotting animal populations since the 1970s. The report their findings in The Living Planet Report. The news is not good. Our wildlife populations worldwide have halved since 1970.

in less than two human generations, population sizes of vertebrate species have dropped by half

We may already have crossed “Planetary Boundaires” that could lead to abrupt or irreversible environmental changes

We fucked up a long time ago.

Over 60 and Fitter than you

See that bloke swinging like Spiderman at 00:13? He’s 67.

Despite rampant cigarette smoking, suffocating pollution and some ghastly food-safety scandals, China compares favorably with other upper middle income countries on life expectancy

And look at that jump rope game in the middle of the video – doesn’t that make you want to embrace your inner child, leap up and start moving? What these oldsters have going for them is an active social life and some daily exercise. Absent are the iPods, the pristine indoor gyms, the exercise bikes with headphones plugged in and scenery playing on personal tvs.

This is wheelie wheelie good

hamster wheel desk

The hamster wheel desk

We sit too much. We sit far too much. In fact, the amount of sitting we do can have a severe impact on our health. Standing a bit more, on the other hand, can help a multitude of problems; standing on one leg can help reduce insomnia, for example and standing can reduce the risk of heart disease as well.

With that in mind, more progressive office workers have begun experimenting with standing desks. Some have hooked up treadmills and created walking desks, because walking around burns even more calories and if you can get some gentle exercise while you work, well, what a bonus. A natural extension of that is the hamster wheel desk…you can look at it two ways – the endless circular walkway could represent the endless rat race or perhaps if you are more positive, it could represent the circle of life. Either way, it’s fairly ingenious, if a little peculiar. Your office mates might laugh at you, but you’ll be healthier for it.

Now, if only we could do some yoga at our desks…