BODY WATCH : Getting Fit Isn't a Do-or-Die Proposition


My body aching from stepping, sliding and sculpting, I slip into the bathtub, pick up the cordless and check in with the parents.

"Boy, you're really getting into this," Dad said after hearing my daily report.

"She's been into this for a while," Mom said on the extension. "That's why she got her little certification a couple of years ago."

My "little certification." Yeeouch.

Is it any wonder that fitness professionals aren't taken seriously when the public is bombarded with images of drill-sergeant hard bodies who bark out orders like "Go for the burn" and "No pain, no gain"? Or, the other extreme, a certain curly haired fellow in a tank top and running shorts who alternates between shedding tears of joy and sprinkling magic endorphin dust wherever he travels.

What the public doesn't see are the hours of studying physiology, anatomy, kinesiology, the endless training, the 3 1/2-hour written exam with the 35% failure rate, the required continuing education. The "little certification."

More than 5,000 bodies, tanned, toned and occasionally tattooed, recently ascended here, most to keep current with their little certification. This was the annual convention of the International Assn. of Fitness Professionals (IDEA).

For four days, we executed moves on the step with soothing names like "cliff hanger," "spiral staircase" and "cyclone." For four days, we extended our gastrocnemii and contracted our glutei maximi. And for four days we walked around for 10 straight hours smelling like a goat.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The conference drew aerobics instructors and personal trainers from Argentina to Venezuela. More than 200 traveled from Japan, 68 from Germany, 33 from South Africa. Loners proudly represented their homelands of Aruba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Kenya, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and the Commonwealth of Independent States. And, for the first time in the conference's 12-year history, three attended from the People's Republic of China.

During the Olympics-patterned opening ceremony, Peter Davis, IDEA's big kahuna, recited the full roster of nations over a soundtrack of high-drama music like in those old NFL documentaries ("It was a bitter cold day at Lambeau Field. . . .") while in-line skaters, carrying the countries' flags, rolled down the aisles and up onto the stage. In the end, 65 flags were on stage, and one lump was in my throat.

Adrenaline flowing after seeing the in-liners strut their stuff, my buddy Robin and I raced to our first session: in-line skating for beginners. Upon our arrival, we were handed a waiver of liability. In summary: If any of you fall and crack open your skull, doy, what'd you expect? Sign here. (We learned it's pretty difficult to fall and crack open your skull, as long as you wear a helmet.)

Between sessions that challenged the body, we participated in sessions that challenged the mind. Drs. Peter and Lorna Francis, names synonymous with fitness education, depressed us with gloomy data about the state of Americans' health:

* 250,000 deaths are attributed annually to inactivity.

* 71% of adults are overweight.

* 24% of adults are sedentary.

* 54% of adults are inadequately inactive.

* Only 22% of adults exercise at levels recommended for good health.

Perhaps one reason we're not reaching those who would rather down a Dove bar than lift a barbell is because we're turning them off by an outdated do-or-die mentality. Aerobics animals in thong leotards beckoning to join the gym du jour do more to keep newcomers away than to make them feel welcome.

The '90s approach to well-being--gentler and wiser, like the population it caters to--is reflected in the new recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: A mere 30 minutes of moderate activity over the course of most days of the week. That's cumulative, folks. So take the stairs instead of the elevator. That counts. Or park in the spot farthest from the entrance and walk. It's that simple.

After all, it's not about heart rates and cholesterol levels. It's about feeling good. In the parting advice of Peter Francis: "It's more important to add life to your years than to add years to your life."

Put that in your gym bag and tote it.

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