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SEATTLE - A note to the well-meaning preachers of public health, who have doggedly explained to us, with the help of tables, charts and apocalyptic statistical forecasts, that exercise is good and being a slothful bum is, if not exactly a deadly sin, then certainly a bad move: We get the picture.
If there is someone who hasn't yet heard that getting off our duffs would make us a healthier, happier and longer-living bunch, that person surely lives among an undiscovered tribe of hunter-gatherers who don't need this information anyway because they get plenty of exercise hauling buckets from the watering hole.
So why, then, the disconnect? Why do most Americans get far too little exercise? Easy. Because there are plenty of reasons (or excuses, depending on your bent) not to. Namely, and most intractably, because exercise sucks. It's a time-consuming, mind-numbing, never-ending, sweaty, painful siege, that's why.
If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were admonishing us to eat more chocolate-covered bananas, there's no doubt many more of us would rise to the challenge. We'd display the fortitude, the willpower; we'd just do it.
But exercise is such a distasteful notion that the people trying to get us to do it have dispensed with the term in favor of the blander, less sweaty-sounding physical activity. It's not even a verb.
There are exceptions, of course, people who enjoy, even crave, exercise. If you have ever experienced a runner's "high" or a thrill from maxing out on bench presses, you are - like a Victoria's Secret model - one lucky genetic freak. Go count your blessings or read Runner's World or whatever you people do.
As for the rest of us, those who wore jelly sandals in P.E. class, who will run only if chased by a knife-wielding maniac, who are responsible for making the E word a dirty one, we've just about worn the push-up pushers down. For 50 years now, health officials have been badgering us to exercise - er, physically activate? When they told us to move fast, hard and often, we blew them off. When they caved, subbed walking for jogging, and said you only have to do a little bit, not even all at once, we blinked. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to boost activity rates, they're allowing us to count vacuuming, potting plants, even putting away groceries as daily exercise. Dust bunnies are no doubt proliferating as a result.
The only clue to what goes on in Bailine, a nondescript storefront, is the small curlicue letters on the window, promising "Lose Inches" and "Firm Up" with a Scandinavian "Workout Simulator."
Inside, Angela Cadavid lies on a cushioned table, her head propped up reading Fitness magazine as electrodes send jolts through her "problem areas." It's not exactly painful; it's more like that prickly feeling when your foot falls asleep. Once you get used to it, it's actually quite relaxing, Cadavid says during her fifth session, her legs jerking up and down involuntarily as if an invisible doctor is testing her reflexes.
At 35, she's naturally trim, but she wants "what everybody wants: Janet Jackson abs and Jennifer Aniston arms." She weighed two options: Hiring a personal trainer to whip her into shape or, for about the same money - $375 for 10 sessions - she could try the Bailine "No-Sweat Workout for Women" that a ropy-armed friend told her about. It was a no-brainer because "a personal trainer doesn't do the work for you and the Bailine machine does." Plus, when she's done, she's not all sweaty.
On a recent convertible-weather Thursday, 41 women were zapped in the salon; untold numbers were treated at eight other Bailine (pronounced BY-line) locations.
Cadavid claims her pants already fit better. Still, exercise scientists are doubtful. Electrical muscle stimulation is used in physical therapy to help remind injured muscles how to fire, says Gene Peterson, a physical therapist at the University of Washington Sports Medicine Clinic, but there's little evidence it does much for healthy muscles.
In any case, it's not much of a shortcut. If you spent the same 30 minutes, twice a week, lifting weights instead, he says, you'd see more noticeable results.
Now that's the rub, isn't it? That's what separates us into our respective camps. If it takes the same amount of time and money, and let's just hypothetically say the benefits are the same, would you choose to a) exercise or b) endure mild electrocution?
Bring on the volts, says Cadavid. "I hate, hate running, and I don't want to go do yoga in a 100-degree room. My God, what have people done so wrong in their life to deserve that!" So what's wrong with trying to do anything to avoid it? "After all, if this doesn't work, there's always the gym - or liposuction."
It turns out, a good number of seemingly unpleasant tasks beat out exercise regularly. Gym-avoiders may even resort to cleaning the bathroom, working late, grocery shopping and vacuuming. (Oh wait, that's exercise, right?) Even dieting is preferable. When people try to lose weight, exercise is generally the last resort.
The beauty about the excuses we pull out is that there are lots of them, and they're all true. When we say, I'm too tired, too busy, too sore, too poor, too intimidated, we're not lying.
A recent survey of 1,500 YMCA members revealed the No. 1 excuse for not exercising is, shock of all shocks, "lack of time." As long as people have been exhorting us to exercise, we have responded, so sorry, love to, but I'm just too busy.
The inherent flaw in that excuse is that there's always some overachiever who's busier than we are, and yet finds - or rather makes - the time to exercise. Take Joanie Robertson. In order to wedge in exercise between the demands of her job as a program manager and her 1-year-old daughter, Fiona, she rides her bike 6.5 miles to work. The ride adds only about 10 minutes to her commute time and means that she doesn't have to keep Fiona in day care much longer than if she weren't exercising.
In 1909, the Seattle YMCA's physical director, A.G. Douthitt, took on the common alibi in a newsletter: "The 'lack of time' excuse is a poor one, as most men find time to do things they think important; and if they don't exercise it is because they think something else more important." To skirt this excuse, the Y created the Busy Men's Class - a quick calisthenic workout for office workers too busy to even take off their ties.
Still, back in those days, most people weren't sporting particularly buffed bods, and with the petticoats and all, that wouldn't have done them much good anyway. But they were getting a reasonable amount of activity just living their daily lives - scrubbing those petticoats on washboards, walking to school uphill both ways, you know, that old-fashioned kind of exercise.
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Jack Berryman, an exercise historian at the University of Washington, recalls a more easygoing time back in the 1960s, when his friend tried to go jogging while on a trip in Texas. "Almost as soon as he ran out of the hotel, he was stopped by the police. They thought the only reason a person would be running is if they had stolen something."
In a relatively short time, he says, "we've gone from having to justify why you were exercising to now, having to justify why you aren't exercising."
That's because we've been beaten over the head with study after study saying if only we would move we'd sleep sounder, live longer, have heartier hearts, less cancer, clearer minds, better sex and a bottom that can fit into a jetliner seat. So now what are supposed to say? "Why didn't I work out today? Well, because I'm lazy and don't give a rat about my health and well-being."
The thing about excuses is that they are solely for our own protection. Nobody else believes them, and nobody else cares. And whether you are too busy, too tired, too unmotivated, what you are saying really comes down to this: I don't wanna.
If nonexercisers ever decided to organize into a lobbying force, they have a spokesperson in Andrew Krueger. The stocky, 34-year-old marketing director has a way of making "don't wanna" sound much more rational than picking up a weight, putting it down, picking it up, putting it down.
Over an Amstel Light, he explained: "When I think about all the things I could be doing with my time, like maintaining friendships, reading a book, calling a relative, a relaxed evening cooking dinner with my girlfriend, then I weigh all those options up against, say, squats - it's just not looking good for the squats."
Seattle is no easy place to be an avid exercise-eschewer. It's home to a whole breed of people who hike, bike and kayak for the sheer joy of it. Magazines like Men's Fitness consistently rank Seattle among the fittest cities.
Then again, nearly half the people in Washington don't get the recommended amount of exercise, and 17 percent of us get zilch.
"The difference I see is that for them, it seems to be a priority, a part of who they are and what they want to be doing," Krueger says. "For me, exercising feels like an added responsibility."
Eleven-year-old Brittany Carroll-Watts knows exactly the feeling. Her mother nudges her to go ride her bike, but she'd rather curl up with a book or surf the Web. Besides, there are no kids to play with outside, she says.
Our notion of ruddy-faced kiddies scampering around the cul-de-sac is suburban legend. Brittany now exercises after school at the Garfield Teen Life Center for adult-sounding reasons: to fit into the trendy outfits her classmates wear and get strong enough to join the swim team.
Krueger doesn't know what it would take to get him moving, but he does know that another headline or study isn't likely to do the trick. "I guess public-health messages are a bit wasted on me," he says, stubbing out his fifth cigarette.
By now we're all deft in the art of excuse-making and looking for ways to outsmart ourselves into exercising. But it's like playing chess against yourself: You always win.
Pat Gentino is a corporate-retreat planner who often goes out of town for weeks at a time. Hey, that's a pretty good excuse. Has anyone really ever used one of those hotel gyms?
Even when she's home, for every good intention, there's always a more pressing reason not to exercise. Dinner to make. Laundry to fold. An errand to run. The nagging feeling that she ought to get in better shape before she joins a gym.
Those bullet-item tips from magazines or "Oprah" or the CDC have done little to help. She dispatches them one by one.
- Take the stairs. "I got locked in a stairwell at a hotel. Turns out those things are for emergency only."
- Find a workout buddy. "Great, I can't find a workout buddy; now I've got another excuse not to exercise."
- Walk to errands. "I didn't get much of a workout because I was stopping in all the stores."
- Sign up for a race. "I signed up three years ago for the Danskin triathlon; as it got closer, it became easier to kiss that money goodbye."
At 47, Gentino thought she was utterly uninspirable. She's joined gyms and crew teams, jumped on the Curves bandwagon, but nothing took. "I know I will never be one of those people where a light bulb goes on and next thing you know I'm training for a marathon," she says, "but I wish I could catch just enough of that spark that would make me not hate it so much."
For now, at least, enjoyment isn't what gets her going. It's money. She forked out $660 for 12 once-a-week sessions with Sean Fordham, a personal trainer at Game Plan, a private studio.
"If I wasn't paying him, there's no way I'd be here," she grimaces as she slides down the mirrored wall into a squat.
It's 5:50 a.m., it's dark, and when Kristina Koser opens the door to her mini-van, it's an icebox.
"This is the worst part; I'm shocked every time I don't just head back into the house and crawl back into bed," she says, slinging a giant gym duffel and a briefcase into the van.
Koser, a 32-year-old business analyst, never thought she'd see her name in a fitness article. "I'm not a stick, I don't have marathon aspirations, and I certainly don't have that thing you'd call willpower."
But that's exactly why she's worth talking to, because she couldn't understand the struggle to exercise more, yet for some reason, she's at the athletic club by 6 a.m. five days a week.
For years, after using every excuse, too embarrassed, too afraid of the equipment, too tired, it hurts too much, her weight ballooned. She knew the alarm clock alone wouldn't be enough to get her out the door, so she devised a plan that left her no choice. She stashed her treasured primping products, including a nifty hair-dryer/curling-iron-in-one tool, in her locker, so that if she wanted to look presentable at the office, she had to go to the gym first.
"I'm not saying there weren't times when I didn't go to work with ratty hair, but for the most part it worked."
After about a year, this became just the way a day unfolded. There was no light bulb, no epiphany, just a habit entrenched over time. And day by day, over three years, she lost more than 60 pounds.
Now, let's say congratulations are in order. You've shelved the excuses and you're exercising. One of the biggest pitfalls is still ahead. It's what Rod Dishman, exercise science professor at the University of Georgia, calls "the paradox."
When the government and various health groups advise us on exercise, they set the bar pretty low. The most widely touted recommendation these days is 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days a week. That's asking us to spend 1/48 of our day in motion. They set the bar low for two reasons: first, because they are interested in improving our health and cutting health-care costs (and studies show the biggest health gains come when you go from being totally sedentary to getting even a slight bit of exercise), and second, because they know people are more likely to do what you ask of them if you don't ask much.
The problem is, there's a discrepancy between their goals and our goals. When most healthy people exercise, they aren't doing it to gain some invisible boon to their cardiovascular system. They are doing it to lose weight or change the shape of their body or grow stronger. But when such people heed the standard "physical activity" guidelines, they get nowhere. That's the paradox: You're more likely to commit to a level of exercise that, while doable, will never propel you to your goal. That is unless your goal is weight maintenance, for which the government's prescription is well-suited, or you are seriously overweight, in which case walking may be such an effort that it can shed pounds.
"For many people, in the long run this is self-defeating," Dishman says. "After three months, when they aren't seeing the results they want, it's not surprising they'll quit."
We've all seen the women walking our neighborhoods or malls 30 minutes a day. Have you noticed they never seem to look any different?
That's the rut Cal Campbell found himself in. The retired news anchor was walking or leisurely biking 30 minutes or so a day, and for years saw no results. In fact, his spare tire was just growing bigger.
"Heck, I wasn't doing it for my health," he jokes. He was exercising because he wanted to lose the middle and not come in dead last in races.
So he ratcheted up his routine, and is now working out at the gym, biking, swimming, taking long, brisk walks every day and dieting. As soon as he started to see results, he was hooked.
If Andrew Krueger is the fitness movement's nonbeliever, Campbell is the born-again zealot, and he is spreading the word. Literally. He sends a daily e-mail newsletter called "Cal's Corner" to dozens of friends and acquaintances detailing his "less-Cal diet" and workout regimen.
A line trailing across several taped-together pieces of graph paper posted on his bedroom wall shows that he has lost more than 30 pounds in two months.
He doesn't know how much longer his newfound zeal will last, but he knows one thing: Exercise no longer feels like such a pill.
You have to be honest with yourself about what you want out of exercise, emphasizes trainer Fordham. If you say improved health, because that's the politically correct answer, but you are secretly wishing to shed your saddle bags, you're likely to be disappointed and quit.
If you really want the famed Jennifer Aniston arms, you'll need to have a heart-to-heart with yourself about the cost-benefit ratio of pursuing said arms. First, what your best-case-scenario body looks like is largely a matter of genetics, and for most of us, we'll never get that lean, sculpted look even if we make a career of trying.
For a typical person to start getting lean and toned, a one-hour session of weight-lifting and cardio five times a week is in order, Fordham says.
But no matter what reason you start exercising, whether you stick with it is largely a matter of which category you fell into back at the beginning: Would you rather exercise or be electrocuted?
When public-health folks sift through all the barriers to exercising in this culture, they bemoan the lack of sidewalks, our car fetish, our sedentary pleasures. All those things are true - and they're not going to change anytime soon.
Whether we like it or not, exercising has become something we have to go out of our way to do in our free time, and whether we choose to or not comes down simply to the question of wanna or don't wanna. When Dishman compares yo-yo exercisers to the folks who stay active for the long haul, the fundamental difference isn't who has the most free time or best personal trainer or most willpower or clever tricks from a fitness magazine. It comes down to whether or not they like it.
"People don't usually voluntarily do anything for long unless it gives them pleasure," he says. For the most part, those people hiking, kayaking, cycling or roller-blading do so not to burn calories or tone muscles but because they enjoy it.
So what does that mean for the until-now-unreformed exercise-haters? Will we always just be sad sacks on sidelines? Not necessarily, Dishman says. "You'll probably never get the gut-tingling pleasure from exercise you do from chocolate, but it can be an acquired taste. You can learn to like it at some level." It's not usually something you can force, he says, but it can sneak up on you after you exercise for a while.
Kristina Koser no longer has to leave her hair dryer at the gym, and it's not because she suddenly has the willpower to get up in the morning.
"Now the reason I go has nothing to do with the reason I started. I used to go to be thinner; now, it's weird, my goal is just to go, to exercise tomorrow, and the next day," she says. "You're never going to get me to say I like exercise, but I will say that I don't mind it so much anymore."
(c) 2004, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.