Posted on October 27 2017 by Katie Prince, Class of 2019, and Mount Holyoke College Archives Summer Student Assistant 2017

Mary Lyon, Mount Holyoke founder and fitness enthusiast! (Or, The First Fifty Years of Physical Education)

Mount Holyoke’s founder Mary Lyon was a proponent of both academic education and physical exercise for her students. Despite popular opinion that women were too delicate for strenuous activity, she installed a program of vigorous outdoor walks and calisthenic exercises when the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary first opened in November 1837. Lyon’s belief in the importance of physical exercise for women’s well-being continued to be honored through every decade of the institution’s history.


Gymnastics Class, 1911 (Mount Holyoke College)
"Gymnastics Class, 1911" (Mount Holyoke College),


Calisthenics were implemented with the intention of improving overall health and grace of movement in students. The exercises involved many steps and arm motions that accompanied songs. Students noted in letters home that Mary Lyon would even join them in these morning routines.

However, calisthenics were criticized by many at the time for resembling dance which was considered sinful by puritanical Christian standards. To move away from outsiders’ concerns about calisthenics, Mount Holyoke’s teachers welcomed the introduction of gymnastics as a new form of exercise for their students. Pioneered by Dio Lewis in 1862, gymnastics incorporated weights, “Indian clubs,” and wooden poles.


Calisthenics class exercising with Indian clubs, 1876 (Mount Holyoke College)
"Calisthenics class exercising with Indian clubs, 1876" (Mount Holyoke College),

This new form of physical education was well-received by students and prompted the need for a gymnasium in 1865. Since the founding, physical education at Mount Holyoke has been considered essential to academic learning and student welfare.

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