A Physician’s Look at Charlotte Mason’s Views on Air and Exercise

A Physician’s Look at Charlotte Mason’s Views on Air and Exercise

The goal of this article is to conclude my three-part series examining Charlotte Mason’s views on health. So far we’ve covered skin disease, food, and water consumption. The focus of today’s article will be fresh/night air and exercise. I have reviewed Mason’s comments on these topics and have attempted to interpret them from her cultural and temporal perspective as a late nineteenth, early twentieth century Englishwoman. The terms she uses are probably less mysterious than some of those that she uses to describe her food recommendations. Nevertheless, my conclusions are subjected not only to my own (possibly) inaccurate understanding of her words, but also to my own bias as a twenty-first century American dermatologist trained in functional medicine. For a more detailed description of my medical qualifications, please see my first article here.

Let’s start out with the topic of fresh air. I don’t think that there is any controversy about the fact that humans need air — good quality air. Lack of air (as compared to food or water) is the quickest way to die. But disease or death as the result of breathing poor quality air may be a very chronic process and difficult to measure since the air we breathe is constantly changing depending on our location. Evidence shows that poor air quality can lead to increased mortality (Schwartz 2017), particularly over long periods of time with chronic disease (To 2017). However, it would appear even acute exposure of poor air quality can lead to increased death. A recent study showed that there was an increase in overall deaths, and in particular cardiovascular and respiratory deaths, the day after a rise in Nitrous Dioxide (NO2) levels locally. Nitrous Dioxide is mainly generated by vehicle and power plant emissions. Ironically, the average NO2 levels in the cities evaluated in this study was 26.9 micrograms/m3 — the World Health Organization sets a safe target at 40 micrograms/m3 (Meng 2021). It’s comforting to know that organizations responsible for setting public health policy are looking out for our health, isn’t it?

Here’s what Mason says about air:

True, we must needs have houses for shelter from the weather by day and for rest at night; but in proportion as we cease to make our houses ‘comfortable’ as we regard them merely as necessary shelters when we cannot be out of doors, shall we enjoy to the full the vigorous vitality possible to us. (Home Education, p. 31)


at least an inch of window open at the top, day and night, renders a room tolerably safe … (Home Education, p. 34)

Mason clearly favors fresh outdoor air over indoor air. But is outdoor air always better? Perhaps the answer seems obvious, but as it is with so many scientific questions, there are several variables to take into account before we can answer this question.

Let’s consider the variables in Mason’s place and time and then we’ll consider the variables in our own place and time. Mason spent most of her non-vacationing time in Ambleside, England at the north side of Lake Windermere which is just about in the middle of the Lake District. The nearest major cities are Manchester and Leeds, about 80–90 miles away. However, even Ambleside, in its quaint, idyllic setting, was not untouched by the Industrial Revolution (lakedistrict.gov.uk 2021), which brings me to the first variable: pollution. Fresh outdoor air may not be so fresh in the setting of manufacturing complexes during the Industrial Revolution which utilized charcoal (made from wood) and coal (mined from the ground). During Mason’s time, there was little concern or regulation for pollution (although Mason’s mentor and conservationist John Ruskin was instrumental in the formation of England’s National Trust which plays a part in the preservation of the environment), and the poor efficiency of boilers no doubt resulted in large quantities of pollution being released into the outdoor air.

So outdoor air may not be healthful even in Ambleside, England, depending on your proximity to sources of pollution. But what about indoor air? There are several things to consider here. Not only do we need to consider the quality of the air coming from the outside (which is really the source of indoor air), but we also need to consider the pollutants generated from the inside of the house. Natural human activity will add to the chemical and particulate concentration in the air (Moreno-Rangel 2020). In Mason’s time, other pollutants were common which may not be present, or at least not to the same degree as today. For example, open fireplaces were common and the pollution from burning wood affects the indoor air quality. Cooking food was often done burning wood, once again adding to the pollution inside. Today, we have some similar and some different sources of indoor pollution. Most people don’t rely on open fireplaces for heating or cooking, but modern manufactured furniture and other man-made products, including mattresses, rugs, and paint, produce significant off-gassing resulting in an increase of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde, all of which could be detrimental to health.

Houses today are much “tighter” than they were in Mason’s day. The reason for this, of course, is energy efficiency. In the winter, tight (vs. drafty) houses retain the warmth inside the house better, and in the summer, they allow for air conditioners to keep the cold air in better. But this comes at a cost with respect to worsened indoor air quality (IAQ). The tightest houses are “Passivehaus” certified. These houses tend to have Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) systems that move in preheated fresh air, while expelling polluted air. But the ventilation systems themselves can have VOCs and other pollutants present in the ductwork, further degrading IAQ (Seppänen 2004). Are MVHRs superior to open windows? There is some evidence, at least with respect to particulate matter, that a MVHR system is no more effective at removing pollution than natural ventilation (e.g. windows open) (Szirtesi 2018). In the summer months, when windows are open more commonly, ventilation tends to be adequate in tight homes compared with wintertime when the windows are closed (Brunsgaar 2012). We do have one technological advantage to improve indoor air that wasn’t present in Mason’s time, namely High Efficiency Particulate Air Filters (HEPA filters). HEPA filters remove a significant amount of toxins that may have built up inside a home. However, they do not remove formaldehyde. Formaldehyde, released from modern manufactured furniture and other household items, is a challenge to remove from indoor air. But there is a novel (yet paradoxically old) method that has great potential in removing this carcinogenic compound, namely wool. Yes, the fabric I recommended for skin health in my first article — the very same substance that Mason herself praises for its superior qualities. Wool has been shown effective at trapping formaldehyde and may be an important component in future active air filtration systems! (Wang 2014)

Perhaps this is an academic question, but if you could only choose to have your windows open either in the daytime or nighttime, which would you choose? Here’s what Mason says:

Night air is … more wholesome … because there is a less exhaustive drain upon its vital gas. (Home Education, p. 34)

Mason favors night air as being more beneficial to health, and in so doing she also explains her reasoning. My inference is that Mason believes that all the human and animal activity during the day strips the outside air of oxygen, depleting it of its most important nutritious component, and that as human and animal activity slow down at night, there is more oxygen available in the air. The problem with this assumption is that it leaves out the activity of trees. How does oxygen get produced? The most important chemical reaction on our planet: photosynthesis! Photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide from the air and water to make glucose and oxygen. But it needs sunlight to do this. At nighttime, when the sun goes down, trees are no longer producing oxygen but in fact consume it (albeit at a much smaller scale than they produce O2 during the day) and release CO2. So at night, there is in fact a buildup of CO2. This is further complicated by a process called inversion. During the day, the heat from the earth causes gases to rise. At night, however, the cooling affect causes gases to sink, and since CO2 is heavier than other gases, CO2levels near the ground increase. But what about pollution during the day versus nighttime? It would also seem logical to conclude that as vehicles and factories are operating less at night, pollution would drop and air quality would be further improved at night. But, as is sometimes the case, logic leads us astray — pollution levels increase at night again due to the concept of inversion. Incidentally, it might not be surprising that pollution increases during the winter — also a time when trees are making less oxygen.

In conclusion, in general, outdoor air is usually better for health than indoor air, although the benefits of night air may be overstated. For those fortunate enough to live far from industrial pollution, Mason’s advice to leave windows open likely will result in improved indoor air quality which may have benefits on the long-term health of children and adults.


At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, let me reference my previous article on Mason’s health views:

One of the tenets of the Charlotte Mason philosophy of education is variety; in particular, variation in the subject matter presented to the students as a veritable feast of pabulum. In fact, the idea of the variation of knowledge is one of her twenty principles. Principle 13 says “the knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite.” She also says in principle 13 that the child “requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.” So it is not surprising that Mason says that food must be varied.

Just as Mason emphasized variety as an important element of education and diet, I believe she saw variety as an important element of exercise. Granted, I haven’t found a direct quote from Mason that explicitly states this point. Nevertheless, I believe it is implied, and it is consistent with her emphasis on variety as it pertains to gaining knowledge and eating food. Let’s examine the evidence.

He must stand and walk and run and jump with ease and grace. He must skate and swim and ride and drive, dance and row and sail a boat. He should be able to make free with his mother earth and to do whatever the principle of gravitation will allow. This is an elemental relationship for the lack of which nothing compensates. (School Education, pp. 79–80)

Hockey, tennis, cricket, long walks, football, rowing, skating,—all these help to give him the vigorous body to which it would be a bore to lie abed or lounge about. (Ourselves, Book I, p. 202)

The words “all these” activities, rather than “any one of these,” implies that boys and girls should participate in many activities, not just one.

Elsewhere she says:

Skipping-rope, shuttle-cock, rounders, cricket, tennis, archery, hockey, cannot be too much encouraged. (Formation of Character, p. 194)

When Mason says “cannot be too much encouraged,” I don’t think she is saying that these activities should be discouraged;rather, that there should be no limit to the encouragement of these activities. All of these lists quoted from Mason are activities that use a wide variety of muscles and coordination, supporting the variety theory in exercise.

There is, however, one statement from Mason that at first glance seems to go against the idea that she supports a wide variety of exercise in children:

… it is only by going on doing one thing steadily that we learn to do it well, whether it be cricket or algebra. (Ourselves, Book I, p. 18)

However, this statement seems to be more about mastery of a skill rather than promotion of a solitary exercise towards bodily health.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word exercise, I think about activities that increase the heart and respiration rate and that cause the sweat to flow. Is that how we should view exercise? Is that how Mason viewed exercise? Certainly the activities just mentioned involve increases of the heart and respiratory rate and sweating. But there is another specific named activity that Mason refers to as exercise:

For physical training nothing is so good as Ling’s Swedish Drill, and a few of the early exercises are within the reach of children under nine. (Home Education, p. 315)

Swedish Drill, which may also be referred to as just plain “drill,” is something mentioned by Mason frequently. What is Swedish Drill? According to physical therapist Dawn Duran:

Swedish Drill involves a series of movements designed to counteract the negative effects of sustained positions, such as sitting with rounded shoulders, engaged in over the course of our daily lives. When properly conducted, Swedish Drill fosters the habits of observation, attention, and perfect execution promoted by Charlotte Mason. (Duran, 2021)

In a 1902 Parent’s Review article entitled “Physical Culture,” Helen Douglas explains that Swedish Drill can be divided into nine groups of exercises. For example, Swedish Drill includes arch-flexions, heaving movements, balance movements, shoulder-blade movements, and vaulting/jumping (Douglas 1902). An important term when describing Swedish Drill is movement. Swedish Drillis not typically something that drastically increases your heart rate, or leaves you out of breath or with a pool of sweat on the floor beneath you (except perhaps for the jumping and vaulting category). And so, in general, while Mason refers to Swedish Drillas exercise, most of it doesn’t really meet the definition we typically think of when they think of exercise. Instead, this preferred exercise of Mason involves a variety of movements involving many of the body’s varied muscles. In reference to Swedish Drill, Douglas goes on to say:

…no one part is developed at the expense of, perhaps, more important parts; but each part is developed in its relation to the rest of the body. By this method we do not, of course, produce renowned athletes; we do not aim to do so, but merely to produce, as far as possible, an harmonious whole, and to enable our pupils to attain more perfect health than they otherwise would enjoy. (Douglas 1902, p. 181)

This idea that movement is exercise, rather than vigorous cardiovascular activity, goes against the conventional wisdom of most medical professionals and lay people. However, more recently, the medical community is starting to come around to this idea that being sedentary, or lacking movement, is what is really bad for our health — sitting is the new smoking, they say. The idea is that it’s not necessarily lack of cardiovascular exercise (increased heart rate, respiratory rate, and sweating for sustained periods) that is making us unhealthy, it is lack of movement. The difference may not be immediately apparent, so I will explain further.

Some experts argue that movement is actually nutritious and that just exercising for the sake of exercising (not taking into account the movements involved in the exercise) does not optimize a person’s health. Rather, what optimizes health is using as many of the muscles as possible and putting the body through its full range of motion with varying loads. Call it functional movement, if you will — movement that leads to improved function to carry out the tasks of life. Let me give you an example of dysfunctional movement to make my point. A popular home workout machine is the treadmill. Let’s consider the functionality (or lack thereof) of treadmill running by comparing it to the old-fashioned outdoors-in-the-woods running. On a treadmill, there is no variation in terrain — sure, you can raise and lower the angle of the running board on the treadmill, but the deck angle adjustment is very gradual and the surface is always flat. In woods running, the ground is almost never flat. Your ankle is having to bend and your foot conform to the shape of the rock or root that it strikes, and the stabilization muscles need to account for that quickly. One step might be uphill, while the next is downhill, or maybe hopping over a tree trunk, or at a sideways angle. In woods running, lower legs (and you could argue arms and core too) cannot rest and both your body and your mind have to be ready to adjust in a split second. On a treadmill, the ground is moving and you’re not going anywhere. That’s the opposite of reality where we move and the ground stays still. What does it do to your brain when the ground is what is moving instead of the body? Needless to say, it is confusing to the brain. It takes a special — and unnatural — knack to run on a treadmill without falling off. Much of what your body does on a treadmill is not functional and cannot be translated to real life.

Besides Swedish Drill, I’d like to give another example of functional exercise. I personally choose to participate in the increasingly popular CrossFit which is marketed as being functional fitness. An article that attempts to define fitness from a CrossFit perspective says the following:

Nature frequently provides largely unforeseeable challenges; train for that by striving to keep the training stimulus broad and constantly varied. (Glassman 2002)

“Broad and constantly varied” sounds like something Charlotte Mason would say. My choice to do CrossFit was with the goal that I would become stronger and fitter in a functional way, meaning that I could become better at the things I need to do in life by exercising this way. I set this goal in light of my ten-year-old son who has cerebral palsy and cannot walk — he is only getting heavier as time goes by and I need to be strong physically (and every other way for that matter) in order to keep up with him and his special needs. I would say that doing CrossFit has by and large accomplished that goal. However, I would argue that CrossFit doesn’t always achieve its stated goal of being constantly varied. For example, recently, I completed an exercise program (known as a WOD, or Work Out of the Day in the CrossFit world), that consisted of picking up a 44 lb. object from the ground and bringing it over my head. This movement is known as a unilateral power snatch. The movement itself is reasonably functional in nature, however the problem is that the WOD had me doing over 100 of these movements, over and over again. So CrossFit, while helpful and better than treadmill running or your typical gym fitness routine, can lead to overuse injuries when the same movement is repeated ad nauseum. I myself am subject to tendon injuries, which means I have to be very careful about repetitive movements in my fitness routine. Nevertheless, with careful selection of a broad and a constantly varied set of movements, functional fitness can be achieved.

This brings me to a book that I recommend entitled Move your DNA. The book is written by a biomechanist (who does not have any coveted titles such as MD, or PhD after her name, if that’s important to you) named Katy Bowman. Bowman eschews the idea of exercise as it is typically done by Americans, even “functional” type exercise such as CrossFit. Instead, she encourages people to incorporate constant movement throughout their everyday lives, which is about as functional as it gets. Walking almost everywhere, climbing, carrying children rather than pushing a stroller, carrying groceries while walking home from the store, sitting on the floor rather than a chair are just a few examples of what we could do to modify our everyday activities into movements that will provide nourishment to our bodies (her website is NutritiousMovement.com). Bowman talks about the importance of “loads” that our body experiences. Loads are more than just the weight that your body carries. Loads include the way, or configuration, that your body carries a given weight. I believe this is the idea that Mason had in mind when she used the phrase “whatever the principle of gravitation will allow” in describing the many things a child should be able to do. For example, you could hold a backpack on your right shoulder, or your left shoulder, or both shoulders. Although in all three cases the weight would be the same, the effect that the weight has on the body is different. Bowman explains it this way:

the physical expression that is your body is the sum total of loads experienced by your cells. (Bowman, pg 12)

 “Every load experienced by the body,” she writes, “is its own nutrient.” The more different kinds of loads your body experiences, the more nutrients it gets, and the better off it is. When we only do certain movements over and over again, the muscles involved in those movements may experience greater oxygen flow and get stronger, but other unused muscles will be less oxygenated and become weaker. I think Mason would agree with this:

The less he exerts himself, the less he is able to exert himself, because the muscles, which Restlessness keeps firm and in good order, Sloth relaxes and weakens until it becomes a labour to raise the hand to the head or to drag one foot after another. (Ourselves, Book I, p. 20)

Here the word restlessness is considered a good thing. Many parents have experienced the frustrating restlessness children display during the school day. We may prefer to have young boys and girls quietly sitting in a chair at a desk, plodding along dutifully at their work for hours on end. Maybe we’ve viewed restlessness as a bad thing, a trait that must be trained out of them. And I’m not implying that there isn’t value in teaching children to sit still for periods of time in which it would be inappropriate to move about. However, I believe God created boys and girls to move — for their own health and development —and this restlessness is a trait placed there by Him.

Let’s further relate these concepts of nutritious movement and the health of our children. One recent study looked at children who specialize in a sport (they spend most of their time participating in one particular sport to the exclusion of others) compared with those who participate in a wide variety of sports. What they found was that those who specialized were more likely to get injured. Their conclusion was similar to my experience — repetitive movement that is experienced when practicing the same sport constantly leads to overuse injuries (Bell 2018). While injuries are obviously not desirable, this study doesn’t necessarily answer our question about overall health among children who participate in a wide variety of movement. Unfortunately, I know of no study that specifically compares exercises involving a variety of movement with exercises involving poor variety of movement and how they relate to overall health. However, there are many studies on sitting or leading a sedentary lifestyle and mortality. What is interesting and appears to be consistent across many studies is that even if a person participates in significant “exercise” or physical activity, if they also participate in excessive amounts of sitting they are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes (Bailey 2019). What this means is that if we spend most of our day sitting in a chair (especially with poor posture), we cannot make up for the damage done simply by getting in our daily workout. The constant, unvaried load of sitting is like junk food for our bodies that cannot be entirely reversed. Instead, we should break up long periods of sitting to prevent further damage to our health. Perhaps this is why Mason inserted drill/dancing right in the middle of the school morning schedule.

Although it may be helpful to start the day with movement, perhaps as a physical warm-up to the following mental exercises, breaking up the morning with drill/dancing is vital to the health of the child. She also encouraged gardening (which like Swedish Drill isn’t usually considered to be a cardiovascular workout) that necessarily requires awkward positioning and movements that use muscles which may otherwise remain inactive. Like gardening, yoga is a stationary exercise involving a variety of awkward positioning that through studies has been demonstrated to provide health benefits such as improved muscular strength, body flexibility, cardiovascular and respiratory function, and overall well-being (Woodyard 2011). How else can we break up the monotony and damage that comes with prolonged sitting during the school (or work) day? How about moving from sitting to standing? This could be helpful, but it’s more complicated than simply investing in a sit-stand movable desk. Even though standing is not sitting, it can still be an “inactive” posture. And, by the same token, sitting can be an “active” posture (Kuster 2020) (think squatting, lunging, sitting on the floor with legs out, or to the side, etc). There is a paucity of studies that examine the many possible health outcomes and the physiology of sedentary behavior that leads to them. Indeed this is a recognized area of needed research (Thyfault 2015). However, what seems to be the trend is that our bodies need to move in order to optimize health and function.

In conclusion, although there is no hard evidence in the form of direct quotes that Mason believes variation in exercise (like food and knowledge) is what benefits children most, the evidence presented appears to support this position. Likewise, there is minimal hard evidence in the scientific literature that demonstrates a wide variety in movement (as compared to movement with little variety) leads to good health. I believe there is some good evidence, but the science is behind in this area and the topic has not been fully studied. My personal conclusion is that children (as well as adults) would benefit most by having as their exercise routine a variety of movements (such as Swedish Drill) and a variety of activities (multiple sports or games involving the use of many muscles), all of which should break up the day from what would otherwise be continuous, sedentary positioning.Such functional exercise will prepare us for the Lord’s service required of us in life and will likely extend our years and the quality of life enjoyed during those years.

He gives you the work of preserving this body in health, nourishing it in strength, and training it in fitness for whatever special work He may give you to do in His world (School Education, p. 103)

Author’s Caution

I have concluded my previous two articles with a warning about the mutability of science. What I presented today in this article is subject not only to the incompleteness of human science, but the errors (both unintentional errors and unfortunately intentional errors) that may be unknown or unclear within published science. I stated that instead of putting our faith in science as truth, the only truth we can fully know is Jesus Christ. This disclaimer of mine has been amplified by what we have all seen and heard coming from the scientific and medical communities during the past year (2020–2021). Those who claim to “believe in science” unfortunately have put their hope in something that is constantly changing and subject to the bias of the political and religious views of the scientists and those of the medical community. Science and medicine, like all man-made disciplines, have and will continue to let us down. Unfortunately, it would appear that this letdown may be caused by more than just human error, as disagreeable scientific discoveries have been hidden and the normal scientific inquiry towards truth has been suppressed (Milner, 2021). The result is that many physicians have been either willfully or unwilfully complicit in an intentional deception that supports a political agenda — an agenda of fear leading to control of the very people whom they swore upon graduation from medical school, to “do no harm.” If ever there was a time to be wary of “science,” it is now. If ever there was a time to embrace the hope that rests in Jesus Christ, it is also now.


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