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Hippocrates on Obesity and the Sedentary Life

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Hippocrates recommended healthy eating and exercise to fight obesity. Ancient Greek statue of Hermes by Praxiteles. Credit: Paolo Villa/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 4.0

Hippocrate of Kos (c. 460 – c. 370 BC), a physician of ancient Greece’s Classical era, is considered to be the Father of Medicine. Hippocrates surprisingly suggested rather contemporary remedies for obesity, namely diet and exercise.

In addition to recognizing that disease is not caused by supernatural forces, Hippocrates invented clinical medicine and what we know today as the doctor-patient relationship.

He was the first to believe that diseases are caused naturally and not by the gods.

Perhaps most amazingly of all, he was the first known physician to recognize that thoughts and emotions arise in the brain rather than the heart.

The ancient physician also believed that a good diet could have medicinal qualities, placing great importance on what types of foods a patient consumes or avoids.

He often used lifestyle modifications, such as diet and exercise, to treat diseases, including diabetes—part of what is today called lifestyle medicine.

Hippocrates on obesity in ancient Greece

Hippocrates placed special emphasis on the issue of obesity, as in ancient Greece a person’s weight was considered to be the result of a lazy lifestyle.

Hippocrates was aware that several sudden deaths were associated with obesity. “Dieting which causes excessive loss of weight, as well as the feeding-up of an emaciated person, is beset with difficulties,” he wrote.

The Greek physician also advised his patients to adopt a more active life and exercise more. He is quoted as saying that “Walking is man’s best medicine.”

“Their bodies grow relaxed and squat…through their sedentary lives. For the boys, until they can ride, sit the greatest part of the time in the wagon, and because of the migrations and wanderings rarely walk on foot; while the girls are wonderfully flabby and torpid in physique,” Hippocrates wrote.

The physician also observed that obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have a negative impact on women’s reproductive health.

To that end, there is an anecdote about Hippocrates and a gluttonous man who had approached him and asked him how he could get rid of all the excessive weight.

“My advice is simple,” the physician replied. “Live on a piece of celery a day. And earn with much effort and sweat the money you need to buy it.”

The Father of Medicine was first to name cancer

There are about seventy books attributed to Hippocrates. These books are considered to be the oldest known books on medicine. Known as the Hippocratic Corpus, his body of work was written for physicians and pharmacists while others were written for the layman.

In some of the great physician’s books, each of the subjects was written with a particular audience in mind.

In his writings and advice to patients, the ancient Greek doctor recommended diet and physical exercise as a cure for certain ailments. For those who could not follow the particular advice, however, he recommended medicine.

Hippocrates was the first physician to name cancer (karkinos, Greek for crab). The word came from the appearance of the surface of a solid malignant tumor with the veins stretched on all sides much like crab’s feet.

Hippocrates’ conception of cancer was the humoral theory, as he believed that the body contained four humors (body fluids), namely blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.

Any imbalance of these fluids would result in disease, and an excess of black bile in a particular organ site was thought to cause cancer.

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