STS.041: Exercise is Medicine: From Ancient Civilizations to Modern Healthcare Systems


STS.041 Exercise is Medicine: From Ancient Civilizations to Modern Healthcare Systems 

Spring 2024: Tues/Thurs 11-12:30pm

Instructors: Professors Jennifer S. Light and Carrie Sampson Moore

*Enrollment limited*

Course description: 

From efforts by the American Medical Association to encourage doctors to write exercise prescriptions to discounts offered by health insurers for subscribers who join gyms, recent years have witnessed a surge of interest across the American healthcare system in exercise for preventing and curing a range of physical and mental illnesses. In fact, the idea that “exercise is medicine” is thousands of years old—with roots in ancient civilizations and substantial influence within early American medicine that subsequently dwindled but never disappeared. Although explanatory frameworks have changed over the centuries, the conclusions have remained largely the same: no other intervention is associated with so many positive health outcomes, and with so few negative side effects.

STS.041 explores the place of exercise within the medical systems of varied times and places, considering it in relation to other treatment modalities—from leeches and electroshock therapy to pills and surgery. We use experiential learning as a route to deepen our understanding of medical history. In early weeks of the semester, doing Yoga and Qigong alongside readings on Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine will enable students to experience unfamiliar concepts such as Prana and Chi. In the middle weeks of the class, movement helps us explore primary sources in novel ways. In later weeks, the experiential introduction to activities including Aerobics and Adventure Therapy will help students appreciate the challenges—at both individual and societal levels–of integrating scientific discovery into everyday life.

Recognizing the contradiction between thousands of years of observations about the health benefits of exercise and its relative absence from the American healthcare system today—as well as what might be needed to change this–offers a compelling entry point to conversations on classic themes in Science, Technology and Society. These include the sociology of expertise in the STEM professions; the status of non-Western ideas in Western medicine; the construction of public problems and solutions including disease and healthcare; military needs as catalysts for innovation; how social, cultural, and economic factors influence the impacts of ideas and innovations from STEM fields; and the value of historical perspectives as a tool for thinking through contemporary challenges in STEM.

Students who enroll in STS.041 may receive both HASS-S credit and two Physical Education and Wellness (PE&W) points. This is an introductory-level course that does not require previous study in STS. The experiential learning component can be adapted to varying physical capacities. Students with disabilities or access needs are welcome and should consult with the instructor prior to the class about appropriate accommodations.


Course objectives: 

At the end of the semester students will

  1. Recognize how the history of exercise is part of the history of medicine
  2. Understand how STS provides an intellectual toolkit for thinking about how to have social impact as a STEM practitioner
  3. Experience how their bodies can play a role in the learning process
  4. Be familiar with a diverse array of movement traditions and their wide-ranging health benefits