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Half the resolution is optimism

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AS WILL BE reported ad nauseum over the next few days, one of the most common New Year's resolutions is "get in shape." Exercise demands many things — patience, discomfort, the ability to ignore people who make weird humming sounds on the StairMaster — but the main requirement is time. So, needless to say, I was elated when my boyfriend showed me an ad for the ROM (Range of Motion) cross-training machine that he'd torn from an in-flight magazine.

No mere gimmick of the Thigh Master variety, the ROM machine promises to provide the equivalent of 20 to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise plus 45 minutes of weight training plus 20 minutes of stretching in … four minutes per day. This thing is so great that, according to a press release, "luminaries such as Spielberg, Travolta, Stallone and Cruise" own it, as do Navy SEALs and the Phoenix Fire Department. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has one not just in his home but in "each of his homes." The cost: $14,615.

Naturally, I thought my boyfriend would be giving me a ROM machine for the holidays. I was mistaken. This led to tears and fighting. I told him that if I didn't have one within six months, I was done with the relationship, or at least I'd be a lot less available because of all the time I'd be wasting by exercising the old-fashioned way. Having been put on notice, he agreed to accompany me to the factory showroom in North Hollywood, where we could try out the ROM machine for free. We were told to wear comfortable clothing and not eat a big meal ahead of time.

The ROM machine looks like the love child of a rowing machine and some kind of harness and pulley contraption you might find in the back room of an S&M club. It's made mostly of solid stainless steel and weighs 405 pounds. If you buy one, it's shipped to you in a giant wooden crate; the crate alone costs $185. These details were explained to us by Tom, a trim salesman who wore jeans and cowboy boots and ended nearly every sentence by saying "OK?"

Tom told us that the ROM machine, which has been around since 1990, was designed with the help of an actual artist, "a Leonardo da Vinci type." He showed me the artist's book, which contained pastel-colored paintings of unicorns, dolphins and naked women rising from cloudbursts. "We wanted to make a piece of equipment like a Rolex, not a Timex, OK?" he said. "What it really comes down to is time management. There are studies coming out of Canada saying that if you do it a certain way, you can reduce the time to six minutes a week, OK?"

I climbed on the machine and listened as Tom instructed me to keep my arms locked while I pushed the handles forward using my abs and pulled them back using what I guess would be my upper body strength if I had any. For four minutes, I rowed. I'm pretty sure I did it wrong. (Tom seemed to be insinuating this but was too diplomatic to say it.) By the end, I was only slightly winded and not terribly fatigued.

But as it turned out, this was only half of the workout. You're supposed to do it on alternate days with the four-minute lower body portion, the sensation of which is something akin to reaching for a high shelf in the kitchen and having to hoist yourself onto the countertop over and over again for four minutes. This part was tough, but I think I did it right. Meanwhile, my boyfriend, who'd grunted his way through the upper body portion (a sign of proper usage) was either way too advanced for the lower body exercise or cheating. He didn't break a sweat, which somehow he saw as a negative thing. I saw it as a way to cut down on showering.

Americans have always been easily seduced by the notion of a quick fix (remember the Ab Energizer, which zapped the belly with electric currents?) and seem happy to invest not in logic but in ideas that defy logic. One word for this is naivete. But such madness also speaks to our ability to remain optimistic even when the evidence suggests otherwise. Of course, this can lead us into intractable wars (is it possible the president has a ROM machine?), but for most of us, especially when it comes to keeping New Year's resolutions, optimism is half the battle. Even if we don't get in shape, we should at least get credit for believing we can.

Speaking of optimism, I couldn't help but notice that the workers at the ROM machine factory — there were 18 or so, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants — seemed like a relatively healthy and happy bunch. Because anyone on the staff can use the thing, I wondered if they too were believers in the ROM workout. "We test them out after we make them," a worker told us. "But we'd rather play soccer. We kick the ball around in the parking lot every day at lunchtime." They usually play for about 45 minutes.


mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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