Fit and Polished
Exercise means never having to say “Unstylish”
When archaeologists of the 22nd century want to learn how people survived the Great Obesity Epidemic of the 2000s they should look at my basement. It was there I fought the lonely fight for a proper Body Mass Index even as I watched the scourge of weight gain claim friends and family, who desperately sought to hide their victimhood with billowing A-line smocks or E-Z Fit elastic-waist pants.
Down in my subterranean workout space, at one time or another, I had a rowing machine, a weight bench and barbells, a collection of dumbbells of various avoirdupois, hand weights, ankle weights, wrist weights, a chest exerciser, hand exercisers, a pull-up bar, a jump rope, a heart monitor that I purchased to push myself to my (rarely achieved) target heart rate, a ThighMaster (my wife’s), and several exercise videos such as a Tai Chi DVD and a Jane Fonda tape, which I mostly watched because of the way the fetching Ms. Fonda flexed in her leotard.
And it was in my basement I discovered the secret to a successful workout: having a short attention span and the courage to follow it. I believe we can end the epidemic if we stop feeling guilty about adopting the next new fitness fad that comes along and instead wholly embrace it—which makes perfect sense. We change things in our lives all the time: our jobs, our houses, our clothes, our haircuts, even our spouses. Why not our workouts?
There are a few simple guidelines to selecting a proper workout. It has to have a catchy name. You will never hear anyone say, “I’m going to sweat in a windowless room with a bunch of strangers.” Rather they will declare, “I can’t meet you for latte this afternoon. That’s when I do Pilates.” I am convinced one reason this particular workout is so popular is because people like to say “Pilates.” Why, I’m not sure. Maybe its Latinate name gives it a vaguely gladiatorial aura.
Other workouts such as Tai Chi, Yoga, and Tae Bo are also excellent because they connote something a lot more mysterious and mystical than Bending and Stretching in Tights. I’m a big fan of regimens like Jazzercise or Zumba, which suggest fun, not perspiration. I don’t even know what a Zumba is, but merely from the sound of it, I’d like to try it—as long as it doesn’t require a unitard.
If your workout is led by a guru, he or she must look good in tight clothing. Lacking that, the guru should have a terrifyingly maniacal amount of enthusiasm, like Richard Simmons or Tony Little, that muscle-bound guy with the baseball hat and ponytail who screams at you during his exercise-machine infomercials.
And gear. Got to have gear—special mats, large rubber balls, little plastic stepstools, pastel-colored hand weights. And guys need machines—huge, hulking structures with pulleys, padded arms, and astronaut-style seats, where one pulls big, clanging weights up and down with arms and legs and neck and ears.
An important philosophical feature of many fitness programs is that they simulate an outdoor exercise that rarely, if ever, requires you to go outside. I have a friend who runs miles on her treadmill, not far from an actual running track. I once lived near a river and used to sit in my cellar on a perfectly lovely day and row my machine until I went mad from boredom. My brother-in-law, who owns three bicycles, prefers to go to a spinning class where he furiously rides nowhere.
The least important element of an exercise is its scientific legitimacy. Not long ago an article in the New York Times posed the intriguing question: “What’s the best single exercise?” Many physiologists nominated something called The Burpee. Basically it’s a sequence of movements—squat, pushup, jumping jack—done in rapid succession. I tried one. It was awful. It was at once so nauseating and exhausting that after a single Burpee, I needed Pepto-Bismol and a nap.
I found it wanting for other reasons, too. No guru (no one knows who Burpee was), no cute gear, and that name. I could never ever see myself saying, “Off to do my Burpees.”