A book about silly exercises started me off

Adele Carroll, 34, is a freelance television producer who is doing a PhD on the physical culture movement, 1896-1939, at Brighton University

Fifteen years ago my tutor at Brighton Polytechnic, Dr Chris Mullen, gave me a very funny 1931 book by the Women's League of Health and Beauty, full of women doing absurd exercises. Then I discovered that during the period there were a lot of books like this, with so-called experts developing their own exercise systems as part of the physical culture movement, a cult of the pursuit of health, beauty and fitness that reached its peak in Europe and the US in the 1930s.

The teaching of repetitive movement in coordinated groups was supposed to improve the health, strength and fitness of the human body in an industrialised society. It was all about getting the nation fit - and about sending people to war.

The Women's League began in Britain in 1930, founded by Mrs Bagot Stack. She was ill as a child and was sent for exercises to improve her health.

As an adult she became interested in exercise for women and the idea that perhaps women didn't need corsets, that muscles alone could hold you up. At that time middle-class women might play tennis, but for women in factories and office jobs there were no exercise clubs.

At first it was frowned upon because the women wore shorts and exposed their legs, but the league really took off, with evening classes held all over the country as well as public displays in London. By 1936 there were 100,000 members worldwide. There was a similar movement in the rest of Europe; in Nazi Germany mass-exercise displays became a show of nationalist might and an element of Hitler Youth.

My PhD involves making six films and writing a thesis. I've made a documentary on the Women's League - This is the League that Jane Joined - as well as a spoof documentary. I've also been examining the language used and questioning whether it's possible to learn exercises from a book. The text is very long-winded with instructions like: "With trunk firm, place the tips of the fingers behind the ears, hold your buttocks and shoot out the legs." I also wanted to see who bought these books and why. I now have a collection of 300 - and my dream is to exhibit them.

After the Second World War the books became more sophisticated, there was more respect for bodies because of the war, and people had tired of hearing propaganda. But the Women's League still exists today. It's now called the Fitness League and there are women in their eighties who are still doing the same basic exercises.