About 12 years ago, my boss at GQ magazine awarded me an unwanted promotion. I had been a staff writer who interviewed TV starlets; I was now the health editor. The advancement came as a surprise, not only because I enjoyed chatting with the Rebecca Gayhearts of the world, but because I knew almost nothing about diet and exercise. I was fairly certain that America's love-hate relationship with fitness somehow wound backward through the neon and spandex step-aerobics era of Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda, past the jogging craze and health clubs and shiny Nautilus machines. Beyond that? Ummm … hadn’t President Eisenhower deputized Jack LaLanne to invent exercise in the 1950s? And what were these diets all the women I knew were talking about: Atkins and the Zone?
Faced with the prospect of acting as a professional health expert, I did what most magazine editors do in a pinch: I hunted up old magazines to steal ideas from. Fortuitously, I spotted a stack of crumbling issues of a publication named Physical Culture in a junk shop in Ithaca, New York. I flipped open the topmost copy, dated September 1925. The table of contents, printed during the heyday of flappers and speakeasies, read like a health bulletin beamed back from a more salubrious future:
Raw Foods Cured My T.B.
Fresh Air + Diet + Exercise = a Good Job
My Fat Is Going Away and I'm Coming Back
The Havoc Wrought by Beauty Doctors
75 Billion Cigarettes a Year Sapping the Nation's Strength
Other issues contained stor...