University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Neurasthenia Cures for Men: Vigorous Exercise and Escape from Civilization

Image: “Tower Creek,” 1871, Thomas Moran.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.


To combat neurasthenia, physicians prescribed for men vigorous, even strenuous physical exercise in natural areas away from the pernicious influences of modern life.

Men were ordered to travel to remote areas and undertake rugged, outdoor life. Many were sent to the American West so they could live simpler lives on cattle ranches. They were to ride on strenuous treks through the western plains (the Dakotas) or in the mountains (the Rocky Mountains, the Tetons). Others were sent to Europe to hike the Alps. Those unwilling to travel so far were sent to the Maine woods or the Adirondack Mountains in the East, where they were to fish, hunt, and ride.

Rugged camps, such as William Muldoon‘s Hygienic Institute, the Olympia, in western Pennsylvania, were set up so that men diagnosed with neurasthenia could recuperate for a few weeks or months. There they undertook rigorous exercise regimens in gyms or in the outdoors.

Men in weaker health, in collapse from nervous exhaustion, were sometimes prescribed the rest cure – complete retreat and rest, away from the demands of social and business life. Once they regained their strength, they too were directed to undertake as much vigorous exercise as their health allowed. This world-famous rest cure was developed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell in the 1880s.

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