The topic of health and fitness has long been a popular one for magazines, and in most recent times, for blogs and Instagram accounts. But what these modern publishers and influencers probably don’t realize is that they’re standing on the shoulders of an ambitious eccentric who laid the foundation for much of modern American media: Bernarr Macfadden.
My guest today is Mark Adams, who wrote a biography of this proto fitness guru called Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet. Mark and I begin our conversation with how Macfadden discovered a passion for health and fitness as a young man and failed at his attempt to become a personal trainer, despite coining the motto “Weakness is a crime; don’t be a criminal.” We then discuss how Macfadden went on to start the highly successful magazine, Physical Culture, and then an entire publishing empire, which pioneered many of the confessional, first-person, personal branding techniques still used today. Mark shares the tenets of Macfadden’s sometimes sound, sometimes wacky health philosophy, including his advocacy of fasting, and what happened when Mark tried out some of Macfadden’s protocols on himself. Mark and I then delve into how Macfadden founded a utopian community in the New Jersey suburbs, was convicted of obscenity charges, trained fascist cadets for Mussolini, and ran for U.S. senator on a physical fitness platform. We end our conversation with why Macfadden was forgotten, and yet had a lasting effect on the world of health and fitness, as well as media as a whole.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Bernarr’s tough early childhood
- How Bernarr was then exposed to innovative ideas about health and medicine
- Bernarr’s marketing genius
- The old-time strongmen of Macfadden’s time
- The success of Physical Culture magazine
- Bernarr’s bizarro health ideas
- How he ushered in a few modern popular health ideas
- What happened when Mark tried a few of Bernarr’s protocols
- How Macfadden jumpstarted America’s sex ed
- Macfadden’s publishing empire
- His foray into politics and his new political party (and his strange connection to the Roosevelts)
- Why was Bernarr forgotten? What’s his influence on modern fitness culture?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Modern “Neurasthenia”: Curing Your Restlessness
- The History of Physical Fitness
- Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman
- The Ultimate Guide to Oldtime Strongman Fitness
- Odd Exercises for Physical Vigor
- Macfadden’s Encyclopedia of Physical Culture
- The Pros and Cons of Intermittent Fasting
- Joe Weider
Connect With Mark
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript