IT IS ANOTHER of the distinctive peculiarities of modern life: Meaningful physical labor has become so scarce people actually pay for the thrill of lifting, pulling, pushing and tugging at shiny bars appended to weights, springs and hydraulic device
Many an ancestor who felled trees with an ax, pushed a plow through rocky soil or washed clothes in a black cast-iron pot would chuckle at the sweat streaming off the tightened brow of the stylishly clad jogger. And our forefathers would laugh aloud at the designer runner who punches time and distance into a computer tabulating a monthly summary of “aerobic points.”
But what’s a body to do (besides grow fat) when a sedentary lifestyle makes anything more trying than an occasional jog up the steps of the office or apartment building an anomaly? For many, physical fitness is a fetish and the obsessed must work feverishly to offset the 1,353 pounds of food that each of them, if they are average Americans, consumes in a year.
We have not lacked for advice in this new pursuit. Articles in popular magazines explain how we can exercise in the office, in the car, in the shower-even in bed. Alternately they urge us to slim down and get fit for swimming or for snow skiing.
We have been instructed and informed regarding the many benefits of exercise. The improvements to general health – both mental and physical -top the list, as well they should. Fatigue will actually be reduced at the end of the day after regular exercise becomes routine. Athletic skillsgolf, tennis or racquetball -will become keener. And weight loss, a universal goal, will also be speeded if exercise is combined with diet modification.
Those who have studied the fitness fad observe the necessary narcissism, the personal vanity that underlies many more frequently expressed reasons for exercise. (How long would you exercise if a pill were developed that would forever keep fat off the mid-section?) The truth is that many of us do care less about having a healthy mind in a healthy body than we do about staving off the signs of aging: sagging muscles and flab. But for whatever combination of motives, the fitness and exercise movement has unquestionably become a cultural trait of America in the Eighties.
The lack of safe neighborhoods for running and room for home gymnasiums has provided the marketplace for health clubs and fitness centers of all descriptions (at least 120 in Dallas). Most people who seek out these centers want the encouragement and camaraderie of fellow sufferers as they seek to overcome inertia.
Consumer Report found there were 3,000 fitness centers in the United States in 1978. Three years later, the number of various fitness centers on the mailing list of the Association of Physical Fitness is 54,00
Many of these are “omnibus clubs,” offering indoor and outdoor tennis and swimming, racquetball, exercise equipment, sauna, steam rooms and whirlpools. We’ve come a long way from the Saturday afternoons at Joe’s Gym where muscle builders slugged it out.
The key piece of equipment -even in the smaller centers -is the “universal gym,” which offers 10 to 12 stations for various types of exercise. The centers build their programs around these machines (which are nothing more than mechanical means of lifting weights without the risk of having them come crashing down should you misjudge your abilities).
But the “free weights” – the dumbbells and barbells – offer some unique advantages (they require the development of the smaller muscles that are involved in balancing the weights overhead), and they will be available in a well-equipped center. Stationary bicycles, adjustable abdominal boards (which make situps a real challenge) and motorized treadmills are also popular items.
There is, of course, a wide variety of both the facilities offered and the prices charged by the fitness centers. Like any other business, fitness centers have their share of charlatans; you don’t have to bring the subject up many times before you hear a story about someone who took the bait for a super-duper pre-opening discount on a lifetime membership in a club that never opened. But with a little bit of savvy, it’s not hard to make a good selection from the reputable clubs.
The most important fact to keep in mind is that fitness centers exist for one principal reason -to make money for their owners. Equipment costs are high (about $75,000 for a complete set of Nautilus equipment); and every extra service, piece of equipment or instructor adds to the owner’s cost. He will try to cover those costs by factoring the number of memberships (as high as possible) with the cost of membership (as high as possible); sales is the name of the game for all but a prestigious few. (The Cooper Aerobics Activity Center is one of the few centers to limit membership sales and has a waiting list of nearly 200.)
A prospective health club customer faces a task little different from that of a stereo shopper. The same principles apply: Decide what you need, what you want (but don’t need) and what is the best price available, considering the variables.
Start with your interests and goals. Do you already enjoy racquetball or is tennis your only love? Do you need a facility with a track? A swimming pool? How important are the creature comforts -the decor of the dressing room, the availability of a sauna or whirlpool, the encouragement of friendly technicians? Is child care a necessity?
Do you want to build or firm up muscles with exercise equipment? Lose weight? Enjoy a little friendly competition? Are you looking for a place convenient to your work or to your home? Are you a loner or do you value the company of a particular type of fellow-sufferer? Does it matter whether or not the place has a snack bar or whether you’ll be able to order your favorite drink?
Once you have an idea of what is important to you in a fitness center, examine your checkbook. How much can and are you willing to pay? Some clubs want more up front in the form of membership fees; some minimize the initial cost in favor of higher monthly rates. Try to calculate the cost per year and avoid the extra-long-term contracts; you may see things differently after a year. Monthly rates will climb as long as other costs increase.
Some – not many – clubs limit the number of visits you can make during a week; it’s better to check this point and be sure. If you travel a lot, ask about exchange plans; many centers offer wide-ranging guest privileges in a network of clubs. It’s a good idea to visit the top two or three places on your list at the time of day you expect to exercise to see if any of them are overcrowded. Best of all, talk with someone who has been a member there for a while.
On the health side of the ledger, be alert to what is said about required medical examinations-or, beware what is not said. If you have not been exercising regularly and strenuously, you should get clearance from your physician before beginning an exercise program. You’ll know that your physician takes the matter seriously if he requires a stress electrocardiogram, a look at your heart’s response to a workload that at least doubles its normal rate.
Some clubs choose to ignore the need for this and avoid giving -or even mentioning-the need for any test, hoping to stay clear of legal liability. But everyone has heard at least one story about a 30-year-old executive who dropped dead while jogging. You can run for your life or to your death; the stakes are too high to guess.
Also, be sure and ask what provisions are made for emergencies in the fitness center. Attendants should be certified in CPR and first aid. A doctor on call who is 20 minutes away wouldn’t be of much help in a cardiac emergency.
Take a close look at who’s running the show. There should be at least one trainer and two technicians on duty at all times. Does the trainer have a college degree in physical education? Are the attendants spending their time working or lolling about visiting with each other, looking trim and healthy? They may have been hired more for their appearance than for their ability
A serious, comprehensive exercise program should benefit you in three essential ways: It should increase your aerobic endurance-develop your heart and lung capacity; it should develop strength – that’s where the stress work with weight equipment comes in; and it should increase flexibility. Add to this a sensible approach to diet, and you’ll be replacing fat with muscle, generally toning your body toward its best composition and appearance. Keep all these needs in mind while you are making your choice; don’t shortchange yourself and get only half the package.
Consumer Report has warned that if you are not a careful shopper in selecting a fitness center or club, the only thing that ends up trim may be your wallet. “Many fitness centers employ a wide variety of unfair and deceptive practices at every stage from advertising to debt collections,” the magazine cautions.
When you begin to inquire about a membership, it will become obvious if the sales staff has been challenged to push for a sale without giving you time to go home and think about it. In such a case, there will be pressure because of “the last remaining opening,” “a special reduced rate for signing immediately” or “imminent price increases.” There will be resistance even to taking the application out to study over a cup of coffee or to calling a friend about the decision
Some clubs offer two sets of prices -a standard rate and a “VIP” rate, which turns out to be simply a higher price for the same benefits. Sales personnel offer the VIP rate when they think the customer can afford the higher rate and isn’t looking for a bargain.
Typical bait-and-switch advertising may offer an unbelievably low rate on a short-term membership, but the bargain will be followed by a high-pressure push for a “special price” on a lifetime membership – available “only today,” of course.
Chances are, you’ll never get quite so much attention as on the day you ask about a membership. As one embittered sales victim put it, “Until you pay, you’re royalty; then they don’t know your name.”
But even in the best of clubs, don’t expect anyone to push you toward your goals. The regularity of your visits and the amount of effort you put forth are strictly up to you
Joe Galindo, director of operations at the Aerobics Activity Center, described what a new member at the center could expect:
“When you sign up, if you’re over 30, you go first to the Cooper Clinic [on the grounds], where you are given a stress test. Our new members get a discounted price of $125 for the test, which is regularly $175. Then you sit down and set up a program with the director. We’ll ask if you want to work toward a minimal or high level of fitness. The decision is strictly up to the individual. There’s a real variety. Some of our members run as far as 100 miles and earn from 700 to 1500 aerobic points a week. Some are content to settle for about 17 points, or the equivalent of about three hours of racquetball.
“It comes down to the desires of the people. We’re not going to push them into something they’re not interested in. Some just want to swim; some like the exercise classes; some work out on the equipment and maybe run. We try to encourage them, if they want it; but nobody gets pushed.”
The health clubs, remember, are in business to make money, so no smart businessman is going to hassle customers. Some of the clubs will even provide the junk food and liquid refreshment with which you can quickly undo the benefits of a good workout. It’s up to you to do it right.
Doing it right means realizing that physical fitness is a long-term, in fact, lifelong, pursuit. That’s a reality that conflicts with our national propensity to look for instant solutions to our problems. The “miracle” 21-day diet will always draw more attention than the sober, eat sensibly, exercise regularly approach. But no one has yet succeeded in fooling the human body with “instant conditioning.”
The failure rate for the short-term approach is awesome. Ninety percent of the individuals who shed weight significantly will regain it with interest within six months. That’s what gives rise to the fat person’s quip about losing a thousand pounds (and putting them back on) over a lifetim.
Fitness experts suggest that when you begin a conditioning program, you should keep a journal, noting every day what you have (or haven’t) done to burn up calories and strengthen your body, and recording what you have eaten. That puts the evidence in black and white.
There are sometimes, of course, deep-seated psychological reasons why an individual doesn’t succeed in fitness or weight loss, and these require assistance by professionals skilled in unraveling such complexities.
Gaining prominence as proponents for a rational, lifelong approach to physical fitness are Ralph and Valerie Carnes of Chicago, who recently visited Dallas to promote their latest book, Bodypower, The complete guide to the use of health club exercise machines and home gym equipment.
The Carneses defy the now-dying but persistent dichotomy that a person is divided into two rather noncompatible parts -mind and body. Both Ralph and Valerie are superb physical specimens (they posed for the exercise how-to shots in their book), and have high academic credentials and spent a number of years as university professors. Valerie has a Ph.D. in literary criticism, and Ralph, her husband of 14 years, has a doctorate in philosophy and humanities. He served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt University from 1972 until a decisive day in January 1977, when he and Valerie left the academic world to strike out on their own. They formed their own communications company, Words Unlimited, and started to write full time.
Their first book on physical fitness, Body sculpture, Weight Training for Women, was published in 1978. That book set out to destroy the familiar myths about weight training -that it is only for men, and that working with weights produces bulging, unattractive muscles in women. (One glimpse of Valerie’s body deals those myths a death blow.)
Valerie is 5 feet 6’/2 inches tall, weighs 110 pounds, and wears a size 4 dress. She once weighed 175 pounds and wore a size 16. The difference is Bodysculpture, she says.
“I had plump arms, a round little protruding tummy, a veritable shelf of derrière, bulging thighs and piano legs with thick ankles. What’s more, I had them from age 12 until the magic day in 1973 when I hauled out the weights and started on the Bodysculpture routine that finally led to the new me.
“I was a cuddly baby, an adorably chubby toddler, a plump little girl, a chunky pre-teen, a stocky adolescent and finally a self-loathing graduate student who starved herself down to 135 pounds on a balanced diet of black coffee and No-Doz. One year, one marriage and one Ph.D. dissertation later, I ballooned back up to 175.”
With humor Valerie tells that from age 12 she was literally obsessed with being thin, sighing over the slenderness of the wraithlike fictional heroines in the romantic novels she read.
“Inspired by these literary archetypes, I embarked on an austere diet that horrified my mother and grandmother. One egg, one small salad, one scoop of cottage cheese and one hamburger patty per day was it.
“In addition to mortifying the flesh with diet, I also rolled on the floor, bumped, ground, skipped rope, walked and ran. Finally, in the last stages of my madness, I clipped exercises from the Ladies’ Home Journal and performed them like a demented whirling dervish in pitch darkness on my bedroom rug at night.”
She lost three pounds, then nothing happened -a plateau, we’d recognize today. But she accepted it as an indication of the way things were going to be and settled in for an almost lifelong battle with the fat demon.
She lied her way out of P.E. in high school, feigning all sorts of allergies; she was ashamed of the way her legs looked when she wore shorts. She bundled up in heavy coats in the winter and hid out in the summer. Visits to doctors usually brought the advice that she accept her body type as hereditary.
“Luckily for me,” she says, “I met Ralph during a winter when dark stockings, overblouse sweaters and ski pants with boots were fashionable, so his memory of the lower part of my anatomy was reasonably vague when he proposed marriage.”
Her search for a wedding trousseau brought such frustration (miniskirts, miniskirts, miniskirts) that she went on “the diet of all diets.” She had a brief preview period of success using some very light weights in a simple routine of exercises for six weeks
“I was so weak by this time from constant dieting, and so totally unathletic as a result of my nonswimming, nonrunning, nondancing adolescence, that I could barely lift one leg off the floor and hold it to a count of five,” she recalls. She began to lose a few inches and tire less easily when she exercised, but a new job and a move to Chicago wiped out her weak beginning.
“I ballooned back to 155 pounds and acquired a protruding tummy, a hipline that measured 47 inches and a definite spare tire around the middle,” she said.
The final turning point for Valerie came, strangely enough, when she stumbled across a copy of Luciana Pignatelli’s The Beautiful People’s Beauty Book and was astonished to see in the book photos of Luciana in leotard and ankle weights, exercising and pounding away her unwanted fat.
“I was immediately encouraged,” Valerie recalls. “If this sun-tanned darling of the idle rich would do weightlifting, then so would I.”
She took it slowly this time. Instead of taking off on another radical diet, she reduced her carbohydrate intake, cutting out all breads, pastries, pastas, cereals and syrup-packed fruits. She continued to eat eggs, yogurt, berries, melon, chicken, fish, lean beef, salads and raw vegetables.
The big difference this time was that, with Ralph’s help, she began serious weight training. “Between the two of us, we discovered Bodysculpture, the feminine version of bodybuilding,” she says. “And I learned that I could, at last, have the body I’d always wanted.”
From that point, the results were dramatic. In four months her hips had shrunk from 47 to 38 inches. In another month, Ralph photographed her in a new size 10 bikini-her first real bathing suit A year from the time she began serious weightlifting, her waist was down to 26 inches and her hips to 36. She was buying clothes from a 5-7-9 Shop.
The final step came as Valerie began to concentrate on a specialized leg routine, using exercises recommended by leading bodybuilders. “By now we had realized the basic principle of Bodysculpture: Women respond to bodybuilding in a different way than do men. The results of my exercises were amazing. I soon discovered two kneecaps, assorted muscular patterns in my thighs, and best of all, two ankle bones.” She added running to her routine, with more pleasant results.
In 1978 she wrote in Bodysculpture: “It’s not just that I feel like a new person; I am, quite literally, a new person. High school and college acquaintances don’t recognize me. I’m nearly invisible in my home town. Distant relatives stare in disbelief (’You were always such a plump little thing.’). Department store clerks call me ’Miss’ instead of ’Ma’am’ and try to mother me. Hard hats whistle when I walk down the street.”
Valerie insists that her own story is too long, too full of ups and downs, mainly because she was traveling unexplored territory for women: weight training for slimming. Her book, written with Ralph, is, she explains, an attempt to share the benefit of her experience so that other women’s fights against fat can be shorter, more successful and, above all, more fun.
Ralph’s personal story is recounted in the first chapter of Bodypower. As a 7-year-old he contracted whooping cough followed by rheumatic fever, which left him with crippling aftereffects. Two years (and a heart attack) later, the rheumatic fever was correctly diagnosed.
At that time he was told that he would be an invalid for the rest of his life. He had a damaged valve in his heart, a heart murmur and a dangerously enlarged left ventricle.
He made some slow progress over the next six years. “By 1946 I had been out of bed for five years. I was 15 years old, 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 84 pounds. I hated those Charles Atlas ads in the back pages of the comic books: I was 13 pounds skinnier than the guy with the sand in his face.
“My physician, an eminent Atlanta cardiologist [who died of a heart attack], told me that I should not even sweep a floor, else the movement of my arms might trigger another heart attack.”
The instructions he was given by his doctor:
No walking for more than 10 minutes without rest.
No fast walking.
No climbing stairs.
No bicycle riding.
No swimming or diving.
No scary books.
No scary movies.
“The doctor was quite frank. He told me to be brave and face the fact that it was unlikely that I would survive into my 40s, and that if I did, I would have to be reconciled to the life of a semi-invalid.
“Well, he scared the hell out of me. I retreated as far into my shell as I could. I was three years older than my classmates, but I was the school sissy…. I dreaded recess time each day because I knew that several of my classmates would make me run a daily gauntlet as they punched my shoulders. It was a game they played, and I had no defense against it. Every day I would go home with fresh bruises. I hated it, I hated them and I hated the supercilious wimp I had become.”
At that point in his life he went to spend a year with his father, who was working as a communications technician for the Civil Aeronautics Administration at the Guan-tanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. His father suggested that he get a checkup from a Navy cardiologist, who turned out to be young, bright and fresh from a cardiology residency at Johns Hopkins.
“He gave me the most thorough going-over I had ever had and then told me something I had never heard before. My new orders:
Get some exercise.
Learn to swim, and swim every day.
Be active; get out of the house.
Take long walks.
Get some sun.
Get a bicycle, learn to ride it and ride it every day.
Learn to do calisthenics.
Eat more; get off the light diet you’re on.
Stop being such a little snot and try to find more constructive ways to get along with your peers.
Come out of that shell and don’t get back in it.
“That was my first day in Guantanamo. I was scared to death. My father told me that I should give it a try; if I died in six months, at least I would have lived a little. Later that week, he had to return to the States for an operation, and I was alone for the first time in my life. That was when one of the kids decided to take on the new boy. He beat the hell out of me.
“I decided to take the doctor’s advice,” Ralph recalls.
That year he developed remarkably, gaining 40 pounds while working out with weights and learning how to box. The last day he was on the island he looked up the kid who had whipped him a year earlier, thanked him for the inspiration and flattened him with one punch
Back home in Atlanta, he bought his first barbells; within two years he was lifting his body weight of 160 pounds with the military press -an achievement that placed him in the population’s 10 percent who could press their own weight overhead. When he graduated from high school that year he had to pay extra for his rented tuxedo fitting -he had a 44-inch chest and a 26-inch waist.
Perhaps his story would have moved forward smoothly had he not injured a disc on his lower back while diving a couple of years later. It was eight years before he could again lift weights without pain.
“But by that time,” Ralph recalls, “I was a graduate student at Emory University, working full time, attending classes full time and spending my weekends doing what all the hip, intellectual, philosophy grad students did in 1960: I drank a lot of cheap mountain red, smoked bushels of Mixture 79 and stayed up all night listening to folk singers on the hi-fi. Weight training sort of got lost in the shuffle between booze and smoke, Russell and Whitehead, folk singing and existentialism.
“There was almost a commitment to poor health, inspired by the mistaken notion that you couldn’t be an intellectual and a jock at the same time, and also sustained by a subconscious reconstruction of what we all thought the bohemian life must have been.
“As a consequence, in 1965, when I started taking karate lessons, I couldn’t do 10 sit-ups.”
Then Ralph moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he taught philosophy and humanities at the University of North Dakota and continued to work out at karate, eventually founding a karate club at UND. Then he moved to Chicago and the job at Roosevelt University.
Valerie tells the story from that point: “For some time before his 40th birthday, he had been thinking about resuming an exercise routine. The pressures of a new job, writing a book and moving to a new city had taken their toll. He was trying to build himself up to the point where he would make a commitment to getting back in shape, but he wasn’t quite there yet.
“A series of events pushed him over the edge to decision. He couldn’t get into last year’s suit; when the elevator broke down and he had to climb two flights of stairs, he was out of breath. At lunch he realized that he had eaten 13 patties of butter and all the rolls in the basket, and he almost fell asleep at his desk during the afternoon.
“The last straw came one day on the way home. He worked seven blocks from our apartment. Halfway home, he was out of breath again, and he realized something that had been nagging at his mind all along: He walked like an old man. His belly sagged, his feet pointed outward and he had none of the grace he had developed years before when he taught karate.
“He was completely out of shape, and his body no longer moved the way he wanted it to move. It moved in the way that it had to move, given a redistribution of body fat and his woeful condition.
“When he got home, he took his usual shower and automatically headed for the refrigerator. He stopped for a moment and remembered what he had realized on the way home
“It took another couple of days for him to admit to himself that he simply had to do something. He dragged out his barbell plates that he had saved all those years and tried to go through a workout. It was laughable. He could barely work with 60 pounds (now he uses 350). But he persisted and went through the rest of the workout. With only a few exceptions, he has been on a regular workout routine ever since.”
That was 10 years ago.
Ralph adds that he didn’t do it without help. Valerie began her weight training program shortly thereafter, and they reinforced each other’s resolve. Together they began their long period of experimentation into the best methods for achieving success
“We joined a health club for the first time in 1977,” Ralph says, “and we haven’t missed over a dozen workouts since then. We’ve also spent the last three years experimenting with various types of exercise equipment and especially with modern exercise machines.”
Their books are the result of that experimentation.
“I think,” Valerie says, “that when people join a health club they think someone will go around and instruct them on the equipment every time they come in. If they ask for help, they’ll probably get it the first time or two, but there’s too much to remember
“In our books we have tried to explain the proper and safe way to work out on the various pieces of equipment.”
On a brief tour of a well-equipped club in North Dallas, Ralph pointed out a couple of individuals who were using equipment incorrectl
“See that man over there at the overhead pulley machine,” he said. “He’s kneeling on one knee while pulling the bar down in front of him. He ought to be on both knees, or even sitting. The way he’s doing that exercise, he’s putting uneven pressure on his back.
“And that woman on the Roman chair [a padded stool to support the abdomen while the feet are hooked beneath a bar behind].. .she’s letting her upper body bend down to the floor. That’s the way most people use the bench, and it’s the wrong way. The upper body should never go lower than parallel to the floor. The proper movement is up from parallel as far as you can go. What she is doing places tremendous strain on the lumbar muscles and the discs in the back and actually separates the lower vertebrae. There is a possibility of serious injury; the Roman chair should always be used with caution.”
Ralph also points out the need for balanced goals in an exercise program. He and Valerie both laughed as he recalled a friend of theirs, a law professor, who can bench press more than 300 pounds but who does absolutely no exercises for his back. “You can imagine what he looks like; all of his muscle development is in his chest and arms,” Ralph said.
It’s important to have balanced and sensible goals, he says. He even admitted to falling victim to a silly whim himself. He decided to set an arbitrary goal of pressing 300 pounds by his 50th birthday (this year). “I got in a hurry to reach that goal -which meant nothing to anyone but me -and I hurt my elbow. You’d think I’d know better.”
The Carneses believe in exercise; they believe in health clubs, but their books explain how inexpensive it is to get the necessary equipment to work out at home. (“Barbells are usually a good bargain to find in the classified ads,” Valerie says. “Nobody wants to pay to move them.”) Mostly, they believe in feeling good and feeling good about oneself
They offer a final word of caution to the individual who decides to get serious about getting fit
“Try to make the changes in your lifestyle gradual. If, in a six-month period, you lose 30 pounds, pitch your entire old wardrobe, change hairstyles, change jobs, start running 10 miles every morning at dawn, become a vegetarian, take up yoga and start training with weights, it can prove disconcerting to your near and dear ones
“Your family and friends want desperately to hang onto a shred of the old,
familiar you. Try to find some middle ground between your radicalism and their conservatism, and you’ll both be a good deal happier
And if you don’t find yourself moti vated to a serious commitment to physical fitness and strength, you can always take Steve Allen’s approach. Go out and climb a low mountain.