Can these wellness tips from 1,800-year-old people help you live a better life?

IIt can be tempting, amid the chaos of modern life, to look back – to long for simpler times when smartphones didn’t exist and no one had ever uttered the word “microplastics.” Some turn to Freud, others to the Stoics. For a week I turned to one of the most famous physicians of the ancient world: Galen.

Galen, a second-century Greco-Roman physician and philosopher, served as court physician to Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius. He was also a prolific writer (his texts represent an estimated 10% of all extant Greek literature before 350 AD) whose theories shaped Western medicine for more than 1,000 years. Now some of his most important texts have been collected in the new book How to be healthy: an age-old guide to wellness.

His lyrics explore the connection between body and mind, exercise, nutrition and the definitions of health and disease. While some of his advice is suspect (he suggests that going to the gym makes a person “lazy, sleepy, and slow to judge”) and some is simply impractical (in one exercise he recommends holding four horses at once), there are pieces of timeless wisdom. For example, in one chapter he advises that to avoid sadness, you should practice gratitude for what you have and avoid comparing yourself to others.

If he was skilled enough to keep emperors and gladiators healthy, Galen can certainly help me, a 30-something journalist who spends most of her day hunched over a laptop.

Based on his recommendations, I am drawing up a four-point action plan. First, to identify my own unique flaws, Galen suggests I ask older men what they think is wrong with me. Then for fitness I have to do something that Galen calls ‘practice exercise with the small ball’. Finally, I need to determine my balance of the four humors – four bodily fluids that Galen saw as the key to one’s health – and eat according to my “humoral balance.”

But I’m no expert. To make sure I have interpreted Galen’s advice correctly, I contact Dr. Katherine D Van Schaik, an assistant professor of classical and Mediterranean studies at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and a practicing physician, who reviewed Galen’s writings for translated the book.

“I think your approach is good,” she says. “It includes the tripartite approach he describes, addressing the soul, but also nutrition and exercise,” she says. But she warns. “This is not formal medical advice,” says Van Schaik. Besides, she adds, my plan is “very literal” – I might also ask some women what they think is wrong with me.

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In fact, Schaik’s foreword warns that because much of Galen’s thinking is based on beliefs about human physiology that are now known to be false (the four humors, for example), “the medical reasoning, diagnostic categories, prognosis, and therapeutic recommendations that depending on these theories is bad. -advised at best and dangerous at worst. However, she adds that she was only trying to translate advice that “a modern Western doctor could reasonably give, or at least, with which she would (usually) not disagree.”


Ask older people what they think is wrong with me

To become a better person, Galen says, you must first figure out what’s wrong with you.

“Whoever wants to become a fine and good person, let him remember that one is necessarily unaware of many of one’s own faults,” he writes. Many of us, he argues, are simply too in love with ourselves to see all the ways we fall short.

To identify our unique set of shortcomings, Galen suggests asking for feedback from others. Specifically: “older men who have lived the best kind of lives.”

As a woman on the Internet, I have been the happy recipient of unsolicited feedback from older men for years. And as grateful as I am for that, I can’t be sure that they lived “the best kind of life” – no offense.

So I turn to the highest concentration of older men in my life—plus a few women, at Van Schaik’s suggestion: my parents’ weekly Zoom call with their friends from college.

After much back and forth, the group settles on one main problem. “You’re too into astrology,” my father reports.

I’m trying to improve myself, as these older Capricorn, Cancer, and Pisces men have suggested. For the next week, I will no longer check my three astrology apps in the morning. When I wish a former colleague a happy birthday, I don’t call him “Aquarius King”. One day I make a mistake and look up Truman Capote’s star chart (he was a Libra), but otherwise I remain steadfast.

Practice the exercise with the small ball

Galen believed that exercise was an essential part of a person’s health, but not all forms of it. For example, Galen disapproved of running because he believed that it “tends to weaken the fitness of the body and affords no training for courage,” which is great because I find it boring.

Central to Galen’s concept of health was the balance of each individual between the four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Photo: Wellcome Library, London

According to Galen, the ideal exercise is ‘the exercise with the small ball’. He calls this activity “convenient,” “accessible,” and “comprehensive,” and states that it “sharpens the mind.”

But Galen never gives instructions on how to do that. He says you throw the ball, and – alarmingly – there are “a lot of neck holds and a lot of wrestling holds.”

I ask Van Schaik if she can explain this.

“It’s a fun puzzle,” she says. “We’re not entirely sure what it looked like and what the rules were.”

She does indicate that the game involved multiple people and involved a sphere the size of a tennis ball, and likely included elements of staying away. “It’s like capturing the flag with high octane energy, but then you throw it,” she says.

Unfortunately, I can’t find a large group of people whose necks I can grab. I decide to play a catch/keeaway hybrid with my friend. I throw him a tennis ball and he holds it off me as I try ineffectively to grab it, and my dog ​​barks and races around us.

Although I never manage to win the ball back, this activity is extremely tiring and takes me a few minutes to catch my breath. I’m sure if I did this regularly I would suffer terrible injuries.

Determine my balance between the four humors

Central to Galen’s concept of health was each individual’s balance between what were then considered the four bodily fluids, also known as the four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Humorism, as this medicinal principle was known, stated that the unique blend of these fluids was different for each person; a predominance of one humor or another determined a person’s temperament. It was believed that an imbalance of these fluids could lead to disease.

Humorism was one pillar of western medicine until the 19th century, when germ theory emerged as the main explanation for diseases. But I follow Galen’s advice, so I embrace this defunct theory. Still, I need some help.

Angela He, a rare books librarian at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who has written about the four humors, outlines for me the humoral temperaments. Those with an abundance of blood were ‘optimistic’, presumably with a cheerful personality and rosy cheeks. ‘Cholerics’ had an abundance of yellow bile, which supposedly made them short-tempered. The creative and depressive were known as ‘melancholic’, and were believed to have an excess of black bile, while ‘phlegmatic’ were believed to be lazy.

I tell Him I’m cheerful and my cheeks are frustratingly pink, so I’m probably optimistic. But I’m afraid everyone thinks that, like saying you’re the Carrie Bradshaw of your friend group.

She asks some follow-up questions. Do I like spicy food? Yes. Do I sweat a lot? Unfortunately yes. She agrees that I sound optimistic. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, ‘blood equaled sweat’.

I wonder if this is why natural deodorant has never worked for me.

Eat according to my humoral balance

According to Galen, food can help correct imbalances in a person’s humoral mixture. Every body fluid was believed to have certain fundamental properties – for example, blood was thought to be hot and wet; yellow bile, hot and dry – and so was food. So it was thought that an optimistic person, who had an excess of hot, wet blood, would benefit from eating cold, dry food.

“You may want to add things to your diet like mushrooms, lentils and tea,” says He – foods that were considered cold and wet. Beef was seen as a cold, dry food that could balance my optimistic temperament. But I have to avoid foods like lamb, veal, turnips and anything spicy.

“So either wet, tasteless food or beef, I guess,” he concludes.

Over the next few days, I bravely stick to my diet by going to restaurants and ordering oysters and steak tartare. This feels great. Neither my finances nor my cholesterol allow me to eat this way all the time, but I wonder if old Galen was on to something.


Did Galen’s health advice make me feel better? Of course not. Humorism had long since been refuted, practicing with the small ball was confusing, and I hated taking advice from older men.

Yet Van Schaik says he has enormous respect for Galenus.

“He trained like any MD/PhD student in the United States would,” she says. “He has spent so much time on his medical training, and as a doctor myself, I respect that.”

Galen’s confident writing also serves as a reminder for modern physicians to temper their expertise with some humility, Van Schaik says. “Galen was so sure he was right, and he was wrong in so many ways,” she says. “It’s important for us as doctors today not to be like that. To be more reflective in thinking: what are we doing wrong? What can we do better?”

An important reminder for everyone. I think I’m right when I say that astrology is fun.