1924 report: “Cars are healthy and make you travel less”

My advisor, Thomas Sick Nielsen, dug this lovely piece out of the annals from the early 1920s. Apparently, back in the day, some people argued that car driving was in fact ‘healthy’- more so than walking even.

U. S. Senator Royal S. Copeland, former Health Commissioner of New York City cited in Motor,  July, 1922:

Of course motoring bestows its greatest benefits on the person who drives the car. Not only does the driver get the full benefit of open road and fresh air, but he gets actual physical exercise in a form best calculated to repair the damages wrought by our modern existence. The slight physical effort needed in moving the steering wheel reacts on the muscles of the arms and abdomen. Most of us get enough exercise in the walking necessary, even to the most confined life, to keep the leg muscles fairly fit. It is from the waist upward that flabbiness usually sets in. The slight, but purposeful effort demanded in swinging the steering wheel, reacts exactly where we need it most. Frankly I believe that steering a motor car is actually better exercise than walking, becauseit does react on the parts of the body least used in the ordinary man’s routine existence.

They could never imagine just how sedentary one could be. This sounds like an argument that mousing and typing is sufficient daily exercise as is getting up from the sofa to get a beer from the refrigerator.

Here is also a physician describing the difference between working with a car as compared with the horse and buggy days. It is quite interesting to note that the modern communication and transportation technologies of the car and telephone made people travel less, not more. What I have found has always seemed to suggest the opposite but it would be interesting to do more detailed studies.

There were two doctors when I came here [rural Connecticut- my home area!]. At times there have been three. But now that I have an automobile I can readily cover the region. But the strange part of it is that I have fewer calls to make on the same people. The fact is that the automobile and the telephone have set people’s minds at rest. They don’t send for me in the middle ofthe night the way they used to. If it is only a slight matter they wait until morning. If a little more serious, they telephone. Only in emergencies do they ask me to come to the house at night.  In the past they wanted me to come anyway, in case there might be critical developments; but now they know I can get there in no time if needed, and they do not worry.

From John C. Long Source: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 116, TheAutomobile: Its Province and Its Problems (Nov., 1924), pp. 18-21


4 responses to “1924 report: “Cars are healthy and make you travel less”

  1. Thanks Ezra. Very sweet stuff. I shared with our several related focus groups. And I guess I need to take up driving. Should be good for the obliques if I got the message right. ALways a trouble spot for males. Eric

  2. Perhaps drivers actually got a bit more of a workout before the advent of power steering, so this observation might not have been as ridiculous as we find it today. Could we get a better upper-body workout while biking by tightening up the headset so it requires more effort to turn the handlebars? On the other hand, there might be safety implications of making a bike hard to steer…

  3. The US Senator wrote in the days of the Model T Ford, a truly nasty automobile, apparently quite exhausting by almost any remotely modern standard.

    Both the Senator and the Physician wrote in the halcyon days of motoring, when the ‘open road’ really was open, instead of being clogged by myriads of other people in their cars.

    The trouble is that most people still plan their journeys as if the road really still are empty and consequently drive impatiently and too fast when they have the opportunity.

  4. Thomas Sick Nielsen

    One of the arguments for building the German autobahn network that was popularized in the late 1930 was actually the reduced physical effort from the better road conditions and the lesser need to turn the steering wheel. No voice to physical excercise at this point.

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