Bernarr MacFadden was an early 20th century entrepreneur, strongman and bodybuilder, fitness fanatic, and healthy living connoisseur. He was a physical culture mogul, and an early advocate for the health and fitness lifestyle. What lessons can we learn from the grandfather of American physical culture?
Read time: 6 minutes
I recently had the chance to read Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet [affiliate link], a biography of early physical culture (the precursor to physical fitness) entrepreneur Bernarr MacFadden.
I’m willing to bet that no one would recognize the name today, he was never really the strongest, or the biggest, or the most built, but back in the early 20th century MacFadden was a media mogul.
MacFadden had a knack for sensationalism and created several publications and “hotels” that had millions of loyal readers and residents.
The most popular and profitable of these ventures was Physical Culture, inspired by Eugen Sandow’s publication of the same name.
The most hilarious was certainly a failed publication in which he partnered with Eleanor Roosevelt aptly titled “Babies, Just Babies”.
He started the early form of retreats and spas, attempting to devote whole to cities to nothing but working out, sun-tanning, fasting, and “cleansing”.
With all of this withstanding, it still wasn’t enough. He set his eyes on politics and threw his hat into the political forum. He failed miserably.
At the height of his empire, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of FDR (and Eleanor), Benito Mussolini, Clark Gable, Jack Dempsey, Shirley Temple, and Rudolph Valentino.
His insistence on alternative therapies (including fasting, colon cleansing, low-fat diets, and plenty of milk), hatred of the (rapidly advancing) medical establishment, and love of voluptuous women and the human body, the same things that he rose to fame for, coincidentally were the same things that led to his downfall in the late 40’s and early 50’s.
While later proponents of physical fitness including Jack Lalanne, Charles Atlas, and even later bodybuilders including Steve Reeves, John Grimek, and Reg Park, all found greater notoriety and more lasting legacies, it was MacFadden who paved the way for these men, and forged a path that thrust fitness into the spotlight and changed it’s face forever.
Here are 5 Lessons from America’s Grandfather of Physical Culture.
1. Physical Activity is #1
The one thing that remained constant in MacFadden’s life, even given the incredibly fast changing times of the 1910’s, 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, bankruptcies, lawsuits, and failed marriages, was physical fitness.
It was the backbone of his life, and it served him well and made him a multi-millionaire.
He was a huge proponent of walking long distances, dumbbell routines, and working outside.
Much to his wife’s chagrin, he even had several rooms in his homes devoted to physical fitness equipment and apparatuses.
He created a media empire around physical fitness (then referred to as physical culture) and he showed us all that there is a way to do what you love, and get paid for it.
2. Hard Work Does Pay Off
In most ways, MacFadden symbolized the American dream of the 20th century, a rags to riches story that embodied what this country was and arguably still is, all about.
Growing up dirt poor in rural Missouri, an insanely difficult and meager childhood and early adulthood certainly instilled a certain set of values in MacFadden, including the dogged work ethic and a propensity for bootstrapping needed to build up an empire from scratch.
Indeed, MacFadden put in work building up his empire.
Often working at a breakneck pace, he built up a media empire that was unrivaled, even taking on huge media conglomerates.
His spa-like “physical culture cities”, where he preached working out naked in the sun, health food, and plenty of fasting, were mostly failures, but they had some years of success, and may have helped many stay physically active and healthy.
Often, he would put in 16 hour workdays, and even found the time to fit in workout sessions, including his whole staff for sessions of calisthenics.
He was a very savvy businessman, but was ultimately fueled by one thing: his love of physical culture and his agenda to push it out to the masses.
3. Don’t Listen to the Detractors
Nobody remembers the haters, they only remember the creators, the doers, the fixers, the game changers, the ones who had the balls to try to change the world.
It’s easy to sit there and try to pick apart what a creator does.
At least they’re trying.
Haters, naysayers, and detractors: what have you done to change the world?
MacFadden tried to help people.
Although at times his help was sometimes misguided (like promoting fasting to cure syphilis), medicine was not as advanced back then, and no one really knew that some alternative therapies were just a bunch of snake oil.
If MacFadden had listened to those that called him a quack, do you think he would have went on to start several successful publications, travel the world, met all the people he had, and had all the opportunities he had?
4. A Mastermind Group is Imperative
Macfadden had the who’s who of famous figures in his corner in the early 20th century, and no doubt these people helped him reach astronomical heights.
One of his most important partnerships was with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, along with his wife Eleanor, were frequent contributors to his publications.
He also had a rock star editor in Fulton Oursler who gave his publications the “umph” they needed to compete with the big dogs of the day.
Oursler went on to work at Reader’s Digest, and wrote “The Greatest Story Ever Told: A Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived” which is a religious classic.
He also had friends and associates in every corner of the world, often calling upon them to connect for insane business opportunities.
No doubt finding like-minded individuals played a huge role in MacFadden’s success.
5. Don’t Be Too Rigid in Your Ideas
This last one is somewhat of a cautionary point.
MacFadden’s downfall, and arguably the same thing that he rose to fame for in the early 20th century, was in fact his rigid adherence to his his own ideas of what worked and didn’t work for health, fitness, and curing disease.
His unwillingness and failure to accept the rapidly advancing medical field, which had progressed by leaps and bounds from the late 19th century to the 40’s, marked the end for his empire and denounced most of his theories to quackery.
No longer did people need to fast to cleanse the blood, or work naked in the sunshine to restore vitality and health, when a shot of Penicillin could cure a bacterial infection.
Although some of his ideas have been straight up debunked today, a few still hold plenty of water.
His suggestion of being out in the sun is still very much important to get adequate Vitamin D levels, controlled fasting can improve blood glucose levels and help some lose weight, and regular exercise, which was arguably MacFadden’s biggest crusade, has been shown to be somewhat of a panacea for good health and vitality.
If he had accepted modern medicine, as we do today, along with a healthy diet and physical fitness as a form of prevention, he may have avoided his nosedive into obscurity.
MacFadden was a man that tried to change the world, and you could argue that he did.
He inspired a whole generation of fitness buffs, and brought physical fitness and the healthy lifestyle to the American masses.
If Macfadden were alive today, I like to think he would be amazed at and even proud of the explosion of the fitness and health industry.
But of course, being the business man that he was, he would probably jump right in and get the whole nation fasting and colon cleansing like it’s 1925.