Bernarr MacFadden


“A practical working knowledge of how to keep well is the best form of life insurance one can possess.”
—Bernarr MacFadden

Bernarr MacFadden was famous while alive, and although he is relatively unknown today his area of expertise is more popular than ever. He was known as the “Father of Physical Culture” and led the physical fitness movement. Many people of his day thought that his methods of getting in shape were a sure sign of insanity, but millions of others bought into his teachings as he inspired a generation of people to live healthier lives. He was often ignored by medical experts because of his unusual methods, but he would likely be a fitness icon if he were alive today.


Bernard Adolphus MacFadden was born on August 16, 1868, in Mill Spring.  He was a sickly child and was told that he wouldn’t live to be very old. His father was abusive, his mother was constantly sick, and neither parent was alive by the time he was twelve years old. He almost died at age seven from the treatment he received by a doctor, making him forever distrustful of the medical field.  He finally took his health into his own hands as a teen after a relative told him that just like his mother he would be dead soon.


MacFadden gained an interest in physical labor while he was still a teenager after noticing that working in an office made him lose muscle mass. He also realized that exercising and eating right helped him perform better at work and heal more quickly.  During this time, a flamboyant personality was developing alongside his body. He competed in wrestling competitions and was often the crowd favorite because of his physique and flair.  Fans wanted to know his secret for vitality, which gave him the realization that his mission was to teach the world how to reclaim their health.

McFadden was about eighteen years old when he moved to the St. Louis area and opened an exercise studio, calling himself a kinestherapist, or “teacher of physical fitness.” His slogan, “Weakness is a crime, don’t be a criminal,” got the attention of health enthusiasts, which made him a bigger celebrity than ever.


MacFadden knew that in order to reach more people with his message on health he had to move to a bigger city. He opened an exercise studio in New York City and soon had a large and influential clientele. Around this time, he changed his name to Bernarr, from Bernard, because it sounded stronger and more distinctive.

He gained nationwide attention when Time Magazine called him “Body Love.”  Oddly enough, at the same time the medical establishment was calling him a “kook.”  His claims that a proper diet and healthy living helped him improve his eyesight and regrow hair raised plenty of eyebrows. He shunned the medical establishment, ate only natural foods, walked hundreds of miles at a time, campaigned against white bread, married four times, and was flamboyant to a fault. He even got arrested on obscenity charges for some of his physical displays and writings.

He ultimately published numerous books, newspapers, and magazines under his own publishing label, opened hotels and  sanitariums in the name of natural health, and became a financial and business success. He even began his own bodybuilding competition in 1903 to crown the most physically fit person in America.  This competition was the springboard for more famous events, including the Mr. Universe contest and Mr. Olympia.

Bernarr MacFadden was now a bona fide star. He hung out with celebrities, the rich and famous, and even presidents. His books motivated millions to strive for better health, both physical and mental, which led the way for the fitness celebrities we know today. He developed entire communities devoted solely to physical health and even pioneered a form of solar energy in his healthy house.  He lived to be eighty-seven years old and was healthy to the very end, physically outperforming many people half his age.


*Whole wheat bread likely stemmed from MacFadden’s efforts against white bread.

*He shocked people by urging them to wear loose clothing. He said that wearing tight-fitting garments was barbaric.

*He always fasted when he was sick because he noticed that animals do not eat when they are ill.



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