Archive for February 28th, 2008

If there’s one set of muscles that people obsess over at the exercise room that I frequent, it’s their abdominal muscles. At least that’s the one that they always talk about, regardless of gender or age. If everyone were to stop talking at once (which would never happen), I swear that the room would still echo for the next thirty seconds with “Abs, abs, abs . . .” in a dying fall.

The common attitude is summed up neatly in a cartoon over the water fountain captioned “Yoga Then and Now.” The first panel shows an expressionless Indian fakir in a loincloth with his thoughts focused squarely on the lotus. The second panel shows a woman who is probably wearing Lululemon workout gear with a vacant smile on her face and her limbs in a desperate tangle. She’s thinking, “This is so good for my abs!”

You have to frequent an exercise room to full appreciate the cartoon. However, take it from me: most of the people who use the gym would happily leave their cardio-vascular system in ruins and their legs and arms flapping with flab, if only they could have a washboard stomach – or at least a flatter one.

Given this widespread obsession, the reaction to the new abs machine is predictable. At one point or the other, almost everyone has tried it in the last couple of months. But they don’t simply read the instructions and try it out. Instead, they circle it for a week or two, like a parrot faced with something new and possibly dangerous. When someone else sits down to use it, they watch out of the corner of their eyes, as though they expect him or her to be consumed by the machine.

And, on the unconscious level, you can see the reason for their worry: with the pads for your arms and the metal frame behind you that you pull forward, the machine does look like something that might be used to interrogate prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Guantanmo Bay.

After witnessing a few people using the machine and emerging unscathed, eventually everyone braves the machine for themselves. Sitting in the saddle, they adjust it gingerly to their height. They shuffle, trying to find a comfortable position on an innately uncomfortable seat. They adjust the weight load. They shuffle again.

Then they have a moment of Nietzschean self-contemplation. No doubt they are muttering something about how that which does not kill them makes them stronger, or some other phrase they picked up while watching a Conan movie. Then they lean forward, pulling the metal frame with them, their heads up so that they can watch themselves in the mirror.

Five, ten repetitions, and most of them are done, rising to join the crowd around the wall-mounted television, or the one arguing about the latest hockey game.

So far, only a handful have returned, or started using the ab machine regularly. Having tried it myself, I’m not surprised . Put any sort of weight on the machine, and you can feel the reps straining muscles you never knew you had.

Of course, enduring the unusual strain for several months is how you get that six pack (and I do mean you; I never look like I’m fit no matter what exercises I do, not without taking off my clothes, and, while you can do that in public when you’re two, bystanders are considerably less tolerant of such behavior when you’re an adult).

But such a regime doesn’t fit in well with our cultural cult of instant gratification, or the widespread genteel belief that getting and staying fit is a social occasion that sweat shouldn’t enter into. Not detecting any significant increase in their sex appeal after their ordeal, most people are content to leave it alone. They don’t quite circle around it, but something in their walk suggests that they would like to.

Read Full Post »