Archive for March 25th, 2007

In the past few weeks, my increasingly creaky knees have forced me to replace much of my running with an exercise bike. Since our townhouse doesn’t have room for a bike, the change means jogging over to the recreation center about half a mile away. More importantly, it means that exercise, which for years been solitary and meditative for me is now a public activity, a fact emphasized by all the mirrors placed on the wall in an effort to disguise how crowded and dingy the exercise room actually is. I’m not comfortable with the change yet, but it has allowed me to observe the two main approaches to exercise.

No matter what time of day I go to the exercise room, most of its inhabitants are one of two kinds of people: bodybuilders and aerobic trainers. The bodybuilders are mostly teenage boys or men in their early twenties, with a scattering of middle-aged men. The aerobic trainers include women of any age and middle-aged and elderly men — more or less everyone else.

The bodybuilders know that the exercise room is meant for them, and the number of weight machines compared to the bicycles and treadmills reinforces the idea. They hang around in the aisle, so you have to be arrogant to push through them, and they don’t put their weights away. Worst, few of them ever wipe the equipment after using it — a habit that makes everyone else grimace in disgust.

The bodybuilders aren’t in the room to exercise, although occasionally some will do a few reps with too many weights for a sensible program. They’re there to talk sports, and to make sure everyone is aware of exactly what weights they are working with by talking as loudly as possible about their progress. When they actually start lifting, they sound like a class of actors warming up with basic emoting, grunting and yelling as if they are in pain. If using loose weights, they are apt to let them clatter to the floor — ignoring the signs requesting that they don’t — with grimaces and exclamations of pain (some of which turn real, as the weights bounce on to their feet).

The reps finished, the bodybuilders turn to their real purposes. For a few, especially the older ones, that purpose is striking a brooding pose on the bench, often with loose weights on the floor, looking like each of them is imagining himself to be Conan the Barbarian in melancholy contemplation of his sword and the mayhem it is about to cause. This mayhem inevitably involves a half dozen reps on another weight machine before they strike their favorite poses again.

However, for most of them, the real purpose is preening in front of the mirror. If you’re a woman and you don’t think that some men enjoy seeing themselves in a mirror, then the bodybuilders will be a revelation to you. Making muscles, strutting up and down with rolledup sleeves while coyly glancing sideways at their reflections, they look more like adolescent girls who have just discovered their sexuality more than the macho strongmen they seem to be imagining. Occasionally, one or two will compare muscles, a process that inevitably turns into a wrestling match in which the goal is for one bodybuilder to get the other in a headlock.

By now, you should have guessed that I am using the word “bodybuilder” facetiously. Once or twice, true bodybuilders have stopped by, and they have all the quiet dedication of any other athlete.

But what I enjoy about the usual run of so-called bodybuilders, with their self-assurance and all their lordly ignoring of everyone else, is the fact that they never notice that it’s the aerobic exercisers who, stepping around the bodybuilders — in women’s case with a hint of nervousness — who are doing the serious exercise. They do long, hard slogs on the treadmills and stair climbers or low weight, high rep routines on the weight machines. Many of them cool off with calisthenics afterwards. They’re in the room long after the bodybuilders have clustered around the TV mounted near the ceiling that always seemed tuned to a hockey game, or gone home. And, unlike the bodybuilders, by the time they’re finished, they need their towels to wipe themselves down afterwards. Yet I doubt that the bodybuilders have ever noticed that the people whom they dismiss have a better claim to being hardbodies then they do.

I still miss the quiet contemplation of solo exercise. But I’m thinking the amusement value of comparing the toughness of a tiny Asian woman going about her exercise routine to the slackness of the steroid-addled bodybuilders who get in her way might almost compensate.

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