Our generation is often accused of refusing to face the facts of aging. Whether it’s knee replacements, Botox or testosterone creams, we are said to be willing to pay any price and bear any burden in order to retain at least the illusion of youth.
But just as it’s glib to generalize about 76 million boomer men and women in the U.S., it’s wrong to assume that we are the first human beings to hope that we might stop the clock — or even turn it back.
Meet Sanford Bennett, once known as “the man who grew young at 70.” He described how he claimed to have accomplished that feat in his popular 1912 book, Old Age: Its Cause and Prevention, likely to have been in the bookcases of many of our great grandparents.
A Peculiar Regimen
By his own account, Bennett was an old man at 50, worn out by the “hurry and worry of business life.” He began to experiment with exercises and changes to his diet, with the result that, as he wrote, “at over ‘three score and ten’ I am a young man again, and look it. Really, I am now a younger man physically than I was in the best period of my early manhood, say at 35.”
In the book, he proceeded to outline, and demonstrate through photographs, his peculiar fitness regimen: 30 exercises, all performed in bed. Other, presumably out-of-bed exercises, promised to firm up the aging face and neck, strengthen the eyes and even prevent hair loss. Bennett reported that he was experimenting with one to restore hair color, but that it was too early to claim success.
While much of Bennett’s advice would strike the modern reader as wacky (for instance: avoid hats, because they cause baldness) or a tad obsessive (page after page on the importance of chewing one’s food), much of it is surprisingly sound in 2014:
- Drink plenty of water
- Get out in the sunlight and fresh air
- And, of course, exercise
If Bennett’s gentle exercises failed to make his readers young again, they probably did them no harm.
Bennett’s Rise to Popularity
So, just who was this guy?
The historical record is sparse, but as Bennett told it, he was born in Philadelphia in 1841, served in The Civil War and then began a career as an accountant. Eventually he wound up in San Francisco, Calif., where, by middle age, he had become the treasurer of a cutlery company.
He began to write about his rejuvenation in 1906, starting with a series of articles for The San Francisco Chronicle. Soon, he fell into the orbit of Bernarr Macfadden, a famous bodybuilder, food faddist, sometime presidential candidate and, most importantly for Bennett, publishing genius. It was Macfadden’s company that published his book.
Mary Macfadden, Bernarr’s ex-wife, offered what may be the most vivid portrait of Bennett in her 1953 memoir, Dumbbells and Carrot Strips, providing at least one detail of his regimen that he seems to have skipped over in his writing.
“One unforgettable gentleman, named Sanford Bennett, preached the ‘Roman Method’ of eating,” she wrote. “He filled his stomach with food, platter after platter, and then, when he had enjoyed it, went into a thicket and regurgitated all of it. That, he said, was the secret of Roman vitality.”
Bennett believed he might easily reach the age of 100, but unfortunately that was not to be. He reportedly died in the mid-1920s, when he was in his early 80s. It wasn’t age that did him in, but choking on a chicken bone. Whether it was coming or going at the time seems not to have been recorded.
Bennett was survived by his wife, 30 years his junior. And unlike her husband, she actually lived to celebrate her 100th birthday, in 1973. Her secret? Good genes, perhaps, but probably not her husband’s exercises, which she was said to have shunned.
Greg Daugherty is a personal finance writer specializing in retirement who has written frequently for Next Avenue. He was formerly editor-in-chief at Reader’s Digest New Choices and senior editor at Money.