THE CURRENT VOGUE for exercise and nutrition is widely believed to be a new thing, a recent discovery by the middle class of virtues previously unknown to less fortunate generations; as we pump iron and munch whole grains, we imagine ourselves to be pioneers on the cutting edge of fitness, charting terra incognita of body and soul. But as Harvey Green amply demonstrates in Fit for America, we are merely deluding ourselves. The quest for physical fitness dates back to well before the Civil War and has been pursued without significant interruption ever since, involving a rich variety of fads and fancies that, though in hindsight they may seem quaint and even bizarre, are merely precursors of Nautilus machines and Perrierthe more things change, the more they remain the same.

Fit for America covers more than a century, from 1830 to 1940: from the 19th-century association of physical well-being with a spiritual and political "state of grace and perfection" to the 20th-century development of breakfast cereals and, with that, the beginnings of the health-food movement. Our reasons for wanting to be healthy have varied from the religious to the narcissistic, but we have pursued that goal through means that have been strikingly similar over the years. Our knowledge of the human body has multiplied many times over, but now as in the 19th century we persist in the conviction that the consumption of certain substances -- elixirs then, bran now -- will make us both healthier and more virtuous, and that exercise in one form or another will make us look better and live longer. Then as now, we have always believed that within the temple of the body, we can find escape from the excesses and disappointments of the world. Writing about the physical culturists of the 1830s, Green observes:

"In their support of gymnastics and calisthenics these critics combined the most powerful and popular metaphors available. Their critique of urban areas and of the life of a civilization that had discovered 'luxury' rang in unison with extraordinarily powerful cries of ministers for a republic of virtuous, pious men, women and children who would not only carry forward the promise of the generation of 1776 but would also rescue their civilization from the debility and degeneration that seemed to be everywhere. This critique -- a secular one with decidedly religious overtones -- was the intellectual framework from which the movements for the physical and moral reform of Americans would arise for the next century."

Those movements have been led by zealots, true believers and odd ducks, among whom one of the oddest was Sylvester Graham. He was an ardent proponent of whole grains -- hence Graham flour -- who flourished in the 1830s and '40s, principally in Massachusetts. Anticipating Californian food crazes by more than a century, he urged the consumption of "Indian meal gruel, or rice-water, or coarse, unboiled wheat-meal gruel, or wheat-bran tea," and provoked one Boston newspaper to ask, "What can surpass that which finds long life in starvation, sees 'moral reform' in bran and cabbage . . . and promises to revolutionize the world with johnny-cake and boiled beans . . .? Reader, if you wish to preserve your health . . . eat your victuals and go about your business." A younger townsman later recalled seeing Graham "as he grew infirm, seated in a wheelbarrow, and clothed in a long dressing gown of bedticking, wheeled through the streets to the post office by a man-servant."

The principal distinction between Graham and other reformers was the degree of his zeal and the eccentricity with which he conducted himself. But the health-reform movement invariably attracts those with an exaggerated belief in the nutritive powers of certain regimens: patent medicines, mineral waters, laxatives, bitters, tonics, elixirs, whole grains, vitamins, vegetables -- you name it, and it's a good bet that at one time or another Americans have been urged to eat it. With similar zeal, they have been counseled to pursue physical exercise in almost every imaginable form: gymnastics, calisthenics, bicycle-riding, rowing, team sports, weight-lifting, running, swimming. Jane Fonda can scarcely hold a candle to Eugene Sandow, who a century ago was glorified by a Harvard professor as "the most wonderful specimen of man I have ever seen." Sandow "marketed photographs of himself (sometimes clad only in a leaf) and wrote or had ghostwritten a number of body- building guides"; if only the Victorians could have had videotapes, Sandow would have been at the top of the charts -- a profitable symbol, like Fonda, of physical culture and sex.

But the connction of health and sex is relatively new; Sandow was one of the first to exploit it. Previously exercise had been regarded as if anything an alternative to sex, especially for youngsters who, it was feared, might resort to "self-abuse" if they had nothing better to do with their restless bodies. Not until the turn of the century, when Bernard Macfadden came along, was the connection between physical health and sexual activity made public. This "ceaseless crusader for fitness, 'clean living' and an end to sexual prudery" was a canny businessman who knew how to turn a profit on the health-sex connection; his magazine Physical Culture usually "had as its cover a painting or a photograph of a healthy, nubile young woman engaged in some sort of athletic activity and clad in a revealing costume."

IF THE EMERGENCE of sex as a health-connected question is one major change in the physical-fitness movement over the past century and a half, the other is the radically altered attitude toward women. In the 19th century women of the middle class wore girdles, corsets and similar undergarments that prohibited free bodily movement and and often did actual physical damage; they restricted women to mild and decorous forms of exercise, if any. As styles changed these garments gradually became less fashionable, but Green argues that the great liberator was the bicycle, which enjoyed enormous popularity beginning in the 1890s and "received support from physicians and health reformers because it made dress reform for women almost a necessity." Green further notes that the bicycle was a liberator for men as well, since it permitted people to travel independently at considerable distance in relatively little time.

This is consistent with the history of the fitness movement, which has tended to emphasize individual rather than collective aspirations. But good health has also been connected with a considerable range of causes. The 19th-century reformers were often of a religious cast of mind, believing that man must seek perfection in order to be ready for the Second Coming. Later in the century another religious twist was provided by the advocates of "muscular Christianity," who believed that physical culture produced moral improvement. Still later, as white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America became threatened by alien cultures, muscular Christianity faded into a racial nationalism that believed, as one enthusiast put it, that "white bread, red meat and blue blood make the tricolor flag of conquest."

For now, at least, such concerns are in the past. Physical culture in the late 20th century is very much a matter of individual fulfillment and vanity; the weight room has replaced the corner tavern as the spot for flirtations and trysts. But it is useful to bear in mind, as Harvey Green most informatively and entertainingly asks us to do, that there is rarely anything new under theun. The machines may be more sophisticated and the vocabulary more pop-psychological, but the fitness movement of the 1980s is a direct descendant of the health-reform crusade of the 1830s; we're still trying to get a leg up on mortality, and we're still ending up in the same place.