Promoting Physical Fitness

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, May 1996

Drop in any afternoon or evening and try out your legs on the indoor running track or take a dip in the superb pool or better still, join one of the classes. The work is easy, safe and recreative, [and] accompanied with music, it adds rhythm and pleasure.” This invitation may sound like an advertisement for the newest spa facility in Utah, but it actually dates from World War I. It was included in a talk by B. S. Hinckley, general secretary of the Deseret Gymnasium, touting the value of physical fitness to members of the Utah Manufacturers Association.

“It isn’t any credit to a man to make a success of life up to thirty-five and then be ready for the junk pile at forty,” Hinckley wrote. He acknowledged that many men faced a high level of tension in their daily work, but rest and recreation were vital to continuing health and success. Everyone, Hinckley insisted, “from the strongest athlete down to the bedridden invalid” needed exercise, even if “one can do no more than practice deep breathing.” Those who spent their workday using their “mental machinery almost to the exclusion of the muscular . . . should aim to secure a little muscular exercise every day.” Without the safety valve of exercise, Hinckley predicted, they would become victims of “nervous prostration, sleeplessness and anemia.” In the 1990s the demons exorcised by exercise would be stress, overweight, stroke, and heart attack.

But it was not just the captains of industry and their mental burdens that exercise could help. “The man who works in the mill, the factory, the store or warehouse gets muscular exercise, but it is usually confined to a certain group of muscles,” Hinckley noted, and such a man needed exercise and diversion just as much as anyone. Recreation should be entirely different from anything associated with one’s occupation. Office workers should find some pleasurable activity such as walking, tennis, golf, gardening, “raising chickens, or going to a gymnasium.”

Hinckley concluded by inviting manufacturers to visit the Deseret Gymnasium, an institution that was already providing activities for some 500 “leading business men of the city and can easily take care of many more.” The gym was centrally located near the downtown business district and equipped with “most every known device for improving the health and increasing the happiness of man.”

When Hinckley addressed Utah manufacturers the Deseret Gymnasium was just seven years old. The LDS church had built it in 1910 in the middle of the block east of Temple Square. The three-story brick structure was 90 feet wide by 150 feet long. It was trimmed with stone and featured attractive friezes depicting sports. The facility contained a large swimming pool with an instructor always present, bowling alleys in the basement, a running track, all kinds of equipment for athletic exercise, and a special pool and hot air room for physical therapy. Tennis courts were next to the building. Locker rooms for men and women, a barber shop, and a beauty parlor completed the gym’s offerings. Hinckley’s claim that few cities had better gym facilities than Salt Lake City was probably true.

But physical fitness in Utah dates from before the building of the Deseret Gymnasium. The legendary Maud May Babcock, “Utah’s first lady of the theater and of physical education,” founded the University of Utah Departments of Speech and Physical Education. The New York native came to Utah in 1892, in response to a request from Susa Young Gates, to teach speech at the old Social Hall and at Brigham Young Academy. Before long she was teaching physical culture as well, and she helped to plan the Deseret Gymnasium.

Before Babcock’s arrival physical fitness came naturally with such muscular activities as plowing, washing and canning, chasing stray cows, berry picking in the mountains, chopping wood, walking to town, and dancing—the most popular aerobic activity of the pioneer era.

Sources: B. S. Hinckley, “A Talk to Manufacturers on Physical Fitness,” Utah Payroll Builder 5 (1917); Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, 1941); Allan Kent Powell, ed., Utah History Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994).