Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/December 1894/Athletics for City Girls
|ATHLETICS FOR CITY GIRLS.|
By MARY TAYLOR BISSELL, M. D.
IF any of my readers should chance to belong to a hardy boat crew or to a college ball team, or if in days past they have ever been numbered in such a muscular community, they will doubtless feel that the title of my paper is its own executioner. For so long as baseball and football and the boat race stand for the national expression of athletics, the experiences of girls in any similar department will seem like comparing moonlight unto sunlight, and water unto wine. In speaking of athletics for city girls, however, we shall use the phrase in a liberal sense, including not only out-of-door sports but also the general feats and training of the gymnasium. The spirit for physical recreation has invaded the atmosphere of the girl's life as well as that of the boy, and demands consideration from her standpoint.
Before we consider the influence of athletics, we may well inquire into the physical status of the girl. What is the type of the city girl, and is there any reason to believe that she is in need of any new influence to further her development? In age she is presumably under twenty; at all events, she has not yet reached that period of stable womanly development which physiology places at about the age of twenty-five. She is presumably well housed, well fed, and more or less well clothed, according to the intelligence of her guardians. She spends at least half of her young life in the schoolroom, most of that time at a desk in more or less cramped and unfavorable positions. The average city schoolgirl spends from two to four hours daily in study, according to her ambition, takes a music, drawing, or dancing lesson in addition twice or thrice weekly, and ends her day with her books or in society, depending upon her environment.
These engagements leave her about one hour's time for outdoor life and exercise, and this consists for the most part in a walk on the avenue, or a shopping expedition which often ends in a crowded, ill-ventilated store. Riding and driving are recreations, as a rule, only indulged in by the favored few. Her summer may be a season for physical freedom, but is often one of social dissipation spent in the atmosphere of a fashionable resort.
The product of these various influences is intellectually more or less successful; certainly the American girl, clever, versatile, accomplished, is an interesting type of our civilization. If we analyze her physically we shall find that she possesses the first qualification of a fine physique—viz., height. Bowditch's measurements of ten thousand public-school children in and about Boston show that in stature they surpass their English neighbors, who are popularly supposed to be superior in that respect. The writer has measured between eight and nine hundred New York city girls and women, and has found the average stature with them equal to Bowditch's measurements, sometimes surpassing them, many exhibiting unusual height. In breadth of shoulders, waist, and hips the measurements show them to be fairly well developed, although the American type appears to be less generous in this respect than the English or the German. Happily, the tendency of the day to out-of-door sports has thrown the slim-waisted girl into the shadow of unfashionableness, so that this species of deformity does not necessarily constitute part of the type. In these and certain other respects Nature has evidently intended by her original drawing to give the girls what we may call a fair chance.
But the average city girl of our experience has two or three marked physical deficiencies that are worth considering. The first of these is a shallow chest, the second is a lack of symmetry in the body, and the third is a deficiency in muscular development. The relation of the depth of the chest to the development of the vital organs is a highly important one. The "deep-chested Juno" is given us as a type of noble physical development, and we rightly associate such a conformation with what is known as the staying power. A deep chest offers a generous cage for a robust heart and expanded lungs, and is almost invariably found in athletes, who must have endurance, as well as in singers, whose efforts likewise must be long sustained. It has been found that persons most susceptible to the infection of phthisis commonly have a conformation which has been called the phthisical habitus—viz., a long, rather narrow, and especially a shallow chest, flattened from before backward. Whether Americans exhibit this conformation oftener than those of other nations is not precisely proved, but we are inclined to think that such is the fact. Certainly the shallow chest is present in the case of many girls examined by the writer.
The second noticeable feature, the lack of bodily symmetry, is a patent fact to all physicians who have been called upon to make physical examinations of the bodies of children, and the art of the dressmaker is continually required to conceal defects of this nature. They arise partly from habits of faulty postures in school or at home during the plastic period of growth, and largely from the coincident lack of muscular vigor which is due to the absence of proper training. From twenty-five to thirty per cent of all cases examined by the writer exhibit some degree of unsymmetrical development of the body, many of these cases showing a degree of lateral curvature of the spine, more or less marked, according to the influences which have been at work. It is a noteworthy fact that children are not born deformed, and therefore most of these minor asymmetries assume special importance as being acquired mainly through faulty hygienic conditions of environment which obviously call for every counteracting influence at our command.
The third deficiency we noted in the development of our city girl is the lack of muscle. With this we are also concerned—first, because a girl who has small muscular strength is continually living below her capacity for usefulness as well as pleasure; and second, because the external muscles of the body are the natural outlets for excessive nervous energy, as well as the great stimulators of the functions of circulation, digestion, and respiration, while the internal muscles are so widely distributed in the great organs of the body that their vigorous condition is absolutely necessary for its health. We have physiological reasons for believing that internal muscular structures often partake of the same flaccidity and nervelessness as is sometimes exhibited by the external muscles; the softened heart muscle following certain diseases or a relaxed condition of the muscular coats of the stomach is capable of working serious ill, as every practitioner can testify.
That the muscle of girls is weaker than it need be we have ample proof in the statistics of our gymnasiums, which record the physical tests of strength taken at the beginning and the end of a course of physical exercise. These tests are taken with various dynamometers, and with these we find that a short course of two or three hours weekly, extending over six months, will often double the strength of the principal muscles of the body in girls from fifteen to twenty-five years of age.
Such improvement indicates that these girls were previously much below their own possibilities of development, and suggests what might have been done for them in this respect years before, had similar advantages been offered them earlier in life. The tests taken of "lung capacity" on the spirometer before and after the course, as well as measurements of the chest circumference, tell by their marked improvement the same story.
Apropos of the lack of muscular vigor in city-bred subjects, we may note that oculists believe that the very marked increase in myopia among Americans during the past few years, which is especially noticeable in city life, is partly due to muscular relaxation, which deprives the tissues of the eye of their proper support and permits the degree of bulging of the globe which is an essential condition of this disease.
But granting the fact that her physical development is not perfect, what can we say of her general health? Passing by serious diseases, it is evident that our city girl has a variety of functional complaints which should have no place in the physical history of young people. Headaches, backache, dyspepsias, neuralgias are far more common than they should be. Nervously she is not stable, as the increasing number of nervous difficulties, neurasthenias, etc., would indicate. The emotional strain of conventional city life, which is felt more by the society girl than by the schoolgirl, is not an ideal atmosphere in which to cultivate the perfect flower of a stable character, and those who apparently bear it well do so at some expense of strength and nerve.
This hasty glance at the features of our city girl would lead us to believe that she requires not necessarily less attention for her brain, but more for her body than has hitherto fallen to her lot. She shows the lack of influences that will grow muscle and sedate nerve and promote functional health—in a word, some definite physical training. Her functional complaints are such as the experienced physician treats with exercise and pure air, and her narrow chest and unsymmetrical body will find their only rectifiers in these same influences.
Given the limitations of a town environment, where and how shall she gain these things? All intelligent persons agree upon the necessity for exercise, the manner of taking it being perhaps the possible point of controversy. As for the amount required, physiologists have agreed that in general terms a man requires exercise equal to a walk of nine to ten miles daily, and we may therefore estimate that a woman should have not less than an equivalent of five miles to maintain her in good health. Our city girl can not run wild in the fields to obtain this exercise, or live the life of a gypsy. She must be educated mentally as well as physically, and the problem evidently resolves itself into providing some means which will give in our rather limited winter session the maximum of properly arranged exercise in the minimum of time.
First of all, every out-of-door sport that she can suitably undertake should be open to her, both in the sense of opportunity and also in that of consenting public opinion. The only two sports that are practicable during any considerable part of the city season are tennis and bicycling, for rowing is limited to too short a season to be considered, and riding is by reason of expense not open to the general public. As regards tennis, she is already possessor of the game so far as knowledge and public opinion are concerned, and, although objections have been raised to it on the score of its being too violent exercise, there appears to be nothing essential to the game which a healthy young woman may not engage in, if she is properly dressed. A girl who is delicate or who has any organic disorder should certainly consult her medical adviser before playing any very active game, but these exceptions should not be allowed to rule the game out for the large class of girls who are physically qualified to enjoy and profit by it. The old rule of moderation in all things must obtain in this exercise as elsewhere.
The mention of the bicycle for women opens a field of mild controversy which is only important because some of the objections to its use are taken from the hygienic standpoint as well as from the social. Many objectors contend that the wheel is as undesirable for women as the sewing machine, while the majority of parents seriously object to what they feel to be the unpleasant publicity of the exercise. As a matter of health, which is of the first importance, the writer has made many inquiries among women who use the wheel regarding the effects of the exercise upon them, and has failed to discover a single case of injury or poor health resulting from its use. On the contrary, the testimony to its exhilarating and healthful effect is universal. Several other American physicians, qualified to speak from experience in their practice among women, have warmly commended its use. From the standpoint of a symmetrical exercise, the position is preferable to that on a horse. The movement is unlike that of the sewing machine in several important respects: Instead of being bowed over in a cramped position which restricts the action of lungs, digestive and pelvic organs alike, the woman rider sits erect, with full opportunity for chest expansion, while the difference between the environment of the sewing woman and the riding woman as regards indoor and out-of-door life is most important.
The bicycle is one of the few out-of-door sports open to the average woman by reason of its convenience, comparative inexpensiveness, and pleasure; and if it need not be ruled out from hygienic, reasons, I believe that we owe it to our girls to allow no others to interfere with its introduction. It is already used extensively in some of our largest cities, while in England it is popular with many whose word is fashion's law. It can not be contended that it is essentially unwomanly. It is only at present, in cities like New York, unusual, peculiar, and therefore unfashionable. In the interests of sound health and physical recreation for the city girl the social objection may well be set aside, with the expectation that the introduction of the wheel for women will be followed by the best of results.
But with tennis practicable only in the spring and autumn, and cycling still a matter of the future, athletics for our city girls would seem to be narrowed to slender resources. What means can they employ during the long winter months for keeping muscle, nerve, and brain in good physical order? The well-ordered, properly equipped gymnasium would appear to be the only practicable substitute in the winter months for the invigorating sports possible only to the favored few, or necessarily limited to the summer season. In such a gymnasium some definite system is important. Whether it shall be Swedish or German, class work or individual practice, will be a question to be decided separately for each place. A good teacher can arouse interest with or without apparatus, in classes or individualizing her work, as required. The requirements for the building itself are abundance of fresh air and sunshine, space, and exacting cleanliness. A physician should direct the work of each pupil, endeavoring by special prescription to overcome existing deficiencies, to stimulate the will and energy in the sluggish, and to limit nervous expenditure in those of a nervous temperament.
A young girl entering such an institution will have every safeguard against harm thrown around her. Her age, strength, previous and Y)resent health will be inquired into, and heart and lungs tested to ascertain their soundness for exertion. Any lack of symmetry, as shown in the condition of the spine, shoulders, or chest, will be noted. Her inspiratory power and muscular strength will be recorded, and the individual equation will have due weight. She will be placed in a class where the general average of strength is equal to hers, but she will be advised to avoid or increase certain exercises, according to her personal needs, and to report to the director at certain intervals for further advice.
Is there any place where the quantity and quality of a girl's exercise is as carefully supervised as in this ideal gymnasium? In such an institution the system is a progressive one, and in the hands of a good instructor always remains interesting. By easy steps the pupils are led from simple to intricate exercises, reaching the most advanced work in the course of two years' training. always provided that by preliminary exercises they have gained sufficient strength and skill.
Our young pupil at the close of her hour's exercise takes a sponge or a spray bath or none at all, according to her prescription; always a brisk rub and a complete change of underclothing are advised. The general benefits to her of such training lie in the fact, first, that it exercises the entire body in a systematic, practicable manner, as no other city exercise can do. A horse, the bicycle, or a long walk, all admirable, require fair weather for their enjoyment. The gymnasium, dry, clean, cheerful, invigorating, offers variety, companionship, and physical recreation equally in storm or shine, and this is no small consideration in arranging a programme for the physical improvement of the city girl during the winter months. The regularity of the exercise is not the least of its benefits. When one has made a financial sacrifice for the pleasure of keeping a regular engagement, she has an excellent guarantee that the engagement will be met. We are all creatures of habit, and advantage should be taken of the fact in the physical as well as in the intellectual realm, and Nature's rewards are most generous to the child of system.
The particular benefits of gymnastic and athletic work for girls have been demonstrated by exact methods more palpably than is generally known. A system of measurements and tests has been introduced in many gymnasiums, as already noted, whereby the physical proportions of the individual are taken upon entering and also at the expiration of the term of exercise, and the resulting evidence has become not only highly interesting but conclusive as to the influence of such systematic exercise upon health and development. It is not unusual for girls to gain in six months' time several pounds in weight, two inches in chest circumference, and from twenty to fifty cubic inches in inspiratory power, while the dynamometers may show an increase in muscular strength of from fifty to one hundred per cent over the original tests.
The constitutional benefits are not less marked and are by far the most important. To general inquiries regarding health the common reply is, "I feel so much better than I did in every way." In one, the chronic headache is relieved; the tendency to colds in another has been arrested; in the third, functional pain has disappeared. The body is more ready for work and more capable for it in every sense. The stimulus of muscular activity has had a profound influence upon the functioning of the whole economy. What is it, after all, that most of us need for health but better functioning? The majority of these young women have not any disease; they have simply been curtailed in their opportunities for generous lung and limb development, and they are still young enough to respond to the stimulus of well-directed exercise in this gratifying and substantial manner.
The training of the nervous system, which is the immediate result of a systematic practice of gymnastics, is recognized as one of the greatest benefits of such exercise. It is known to physiologists that every group of muscles is controlled by certain nerve centers in the brain, and it is believed that in cases where the life and habits of the individual do not call out the activity of all the muscles, the brain areas which govern those muscles to that extent fail of development. In certain lower animals, for instance, that have been born blind, it is found that the visual area in the brain has wasted away; there being no occupation for its energy. Nature has permitted it to disappear.
As illustrating the value of physical training in stimulating brain function, we have a series of observations made by Dr. Wey, Medical Director of the Elmira Reformatory, showing how dullards who took the lowest standard in scholarship, and in morals as well, became by simple but regular physical drill first more attentive, then more intelligent as to orders, less awkward (i. e., with better co-ordination of the body), and gradually, as the stimulation of the will and energy proceeded, actually better scholars, rising in some cases from the third to the first grade, and improving not only in physical appearance but in moral character. These results were entirely attributed to the awakening of mental energy through the reflex stimulation of muscular exercise.
To these benefits we may oppose the only objections we have known. The first is on the score of danger. As a matter of fact, there is little or no testimony to put upon this side that does not equally apply to many forms of exercise practiced by women, walking included. The theory that girls should not run or climb is long since exploded. Sick girls should not run or climb until they are well, but every physician knows that there would be fewer sick girls if running and climbing had always been part of a girl's early life.
Girls who have organic disease are not fit subjects for a gymnasium—there being a very few exceptions to this rule. Girls with serious spinal curvature require special exercises in the physician's office. Almost all other girls can only be benefited in a well-ordered gymnasium if they obey the rules and follow the advice offered. Any harm that can come from the so-called feats of the gymnasium arises mainly from the possibility that the pupil will not have prepared herself sufficiently for the exercises by previous preliminary training. Oversight and prescription on the part of the director obviate these difficulties. It should be understood that the special value in many of these exercises lies in their educational influence upon the nervous system. They call for a quick co-ordination of muscles, for pluck, perseverance, and sel-fpossession, far more than for mere strength, and are legitimate training, therefore, for girls, so far as they are qualified to undertake them.
A more valid objection to the gymnasium is that the exercise must be taken indoors, but this is largely overbalanced by the advantages of system and purpose in the course, and is reduced to its minimum by the fact that a well-ordered gymnasium is cool, clean, and well ventilated. The suggestion often proffered that domestic work offers as good a field f-or exercise for girls is not, in the writer's opinion, tenable. An atmosphere of dust is not an ideal one for physical training, and the elements of system as well as of physical recreation are lost in this scheme, for few households could arrange their economy so as to combine the schoolgirl's leisure with their own convenience, while the drudgery of the employment would cause it to be abandoned whenever possible.
It is not our intention to claim that the gymnasium is the permanently ideal place for every sort of physical training or athletic sport for girls, but only that it does at present offer the greatest good to the greatest number of our city girls in the direction of their physical development and recreation. An out-of-door inclosure for games and sports in pleasant weather would prove a great addition to its advantages. It does not seem an impossible plan for the private schools of our city to co-operate in establishing such an out-of-door playground as this, with an instructor in games and sports, and hours arranged for each school department. Such a ground would prove a practical and useful extension of our too limited park life.