Old research offers laughs, secret of life

Efficiency and precision are hallmarks of successful athletes and teams. In fact, efficiency is probably one of the only terms that can be applied as a gold standard throughout sports.

Pitchers do their best to eliminate wasteful motion in their delivery. Football offenses of all varieties strive to march down the field as quickly and economically as possible. Tennis players prefer to win their service games as effortlessly as they can. Sprinters aim to maximize the value of every step. Even NASCAR drivers try to cut close corners and to make timely pit stops.

And the study of the importance of efficiency to athletes has a long history. At the turn of the 20th century, American physiologists sought to uncover the key to the body’s efficiency. Hoping to master the human diet in the same way that they thought they had mastered machines, these scientists experimented with different models of nutritional consumption.

Yale — its students, graduates, faculty and facilities — was at the center of this initiative. The history of Yale’s role in the discussion of nutrition, diet and health is not only humorous but also puts our current — often inefficient — habits under scrutiny.

First, it’s important to realize that, despite current criticism of America’s overwhelming gluttony, Americans 100 years ago ate more than we do today, lots more. The advised daily calorie intake at the end of the 19th century was 4,000 calories.

Irving Fisher, Class of 1888, and Russell Chittenden, former Yale professor of Linsly-Chittenden Hall fame, both set out to reassess the average American’s protein intake. Fisher put Yale students and professors through a series of endurance tests, judging separately those who ate meat and those who were “flesh-abstainers.”

His results would make most meat-lovers cringe: Non-sedentary “flesh-abstainers,” also known as Yale student-athletes with a relatively low daily intake of protein, could hold their arms out to their sides longer and perform greater numbers of “deep knee bends” than could those Yale athletes who consumed meat.

Chittenden had one particularly noteworthy, and amusing, test subject — a 58-year-young man named Horace Fletcher, who was dedicated to the practice of extreme mastication. Fletcher himself was not a Yalie, but rather a businessman who had stumbled over what he considered the key to good health: laboriously and methodically chewing his food.

Fletcher was convinced that this new method of eating, which he conceitedly called “Fletcherizing,” was at the root of his own self-proclaimed rejuvenation. And he set out to prove his point. So somewhere in Payne Whitney, in front of a congregation of Yale students and faculty led by Chittenden, Fletcher performed feats of physical strength.

He lifted 300 pounds a total of 350 times with “the muscles of [his] right leg below the knee,” thereby doubling the record that had been set by a Yale athlete. After completion, he was neither fatigued nor unstable. In fact, he satisfactorily held out a glass of water with a straight arm, never spilling a drop (the true test of stability). What’s more, the next morning, he showed no signs of stiffness or soreness.

Later that year, at a YMCA in Springfield, Mass., Fletcher “lifted seven hundred and seventy pounds with the muscles of the back and legs.” From the sounds of it, he squatted more than 750 pounds, which is truly remarkable, if it can be believed at all. Consider that the strongest Yale football players today squat just about 500 pounds.

And Fletcher did all of this on a diet of two meals per day, one at noon and the other at 6 p.m. He evacuated his bowels only twice every nine days. And each time, his evacuation was odorless. That’s right, his stuff didn’t stink but instead provided evidence of the complete digestion and assimilation of all foods entering his body. Now that’s efficient.

The Yale varsity athletic program could probably use more Horace Fletchers, and so could Yale College. We as Yale students should all try to examine our personal efficiency. While greater efficiency and precision have always been the goals of athletes, they should also be a student’s priorities.

What if, as Fletcher would suggest, people could change their bodies just by eating differently and taking more time to chew? Could paying more attention to those seemingly inconsequential cards in the dining halls allow us to divide our time more effectively between the gym, the dining hall and the library?

As far as my reasoning goes: What’s good for athletic performance is good for academic performance. So if eating less and chewing more is the key to success, then I’ve just unlocked the door. Now all anyone else has to do is step through it. As an added bonus, according to these early 20th century scientists, you can also rely on an inverse relationship between your efficiency as a human being and the stench of your excrement.

Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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