Sweat: A History of Exercise

Mr. Bill Hayes

Sweat: A History of Exercise
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
United Kingdom
18 January 2022

Sweat: A History of Exercise

Mr. Bill Hayes

Exercise is our modern obsession, and we have the fancy workout gear and fads to prove it. Exercise - a form of physical activity distinct from sports, play, or athletics - was an ancient obsession, too, but as a chapter in human history, it’s been largely overlooked. In Sweat, Bill Hayes runs, jogs, swims, spins, walks, bikes, boxes, lifts, sweats, and downward-dogs his way through the origins of different forms of exercise, chronicling how they have evolved over time, and dissecting the dynamics of human movement.

Hippocrates, Plato, Galen, Susan B. Anthony, Jack LaLanne, and Jane Fonda, among many others, make appearances in Sweat, but chief among the historical figures is Girolamo Mercuriale, a Renaissance-era Italian physician who aimed singlehandedly to revive the ancient Greek “art of exercising” through his 1569 book De arte gymnastica. In the pages of Sweat, Mercuriale and his illustrated treatise are vividly brought back to life. As Hayes ties his own personal experience to the cultural and scientific history of exercise, from ancient times to the present day, he gives us a new way to understand its place in our lives in the 21st century.


Bill Hayes is deeply fascinated by the human body. A writer and photographer best known for his generously moving memoir Insomniac City, Hayes has built a career in weaving history, science, literature and details from his own life into compelling, informative narrative nonfiction. His previous books have covered everything from the history of blood (Five Quarts), to the story of the classic medical text Gray’s Anatomy (The Anatomist) and the science of insomnia (Sleep Demons). These titles may sound a little dry – rest assured, they’re anything but. Hayes has proven time and time again that he can tackle just about any subject with lucid prose, compassionate humour and fascinating insight.

Now Hayes combines his interests in working out and research in Sweat: A History of Exercise. While exercise may seem like a 21st-century obsession, fitness fads are a tale as old as time. An avid exercise enthusiast, Hayes traces the history of the practice across the globe, from Renaissance-era Girolamo Mercuriale’s 1569 text De arte gymnastica, to Greco-Roman wrestling, to forms of yoga first practiced in India over five thousand years ago and Jane Fonda’s workout revolution. Hayes considers the philosophy behind the practice, as well as the distinctions between exercise, sport, play, art and labour.

As he steers the reader through the history of sports, Hayes shares his own exercise journey, including experiments in running, swimming, boxing, cycling, lifting and stretching. In these stand-out sections, Hayes reflects on how his exercise routines have shifted throughout his life, even pausing for many years after the death of his partner Oliver Sacks.

With Sweat, Hayes offers the reader a lovely weave of history and science, lively characters and personal anecdote. This is an engaging, intelligent look at why we want (and need) to move and sweat from a master storyteller.

Stella Charls is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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