Wisdom From Muscle Beach

THE camera pans over an array of shiny chrome and black exercise machines, a few big brawny biceps and rippling tummy muscles flash across the screen, and the sound of clanging metal plates in the background is punctuated by not a few ominous grunts and groans. Dressed in some space-age lace leotard, Cher, lying in a sexy position on an exercise machine, comes into full view and tells you, "Face it, if a good body came in a bottle, everyone would have one!"

Or one of the Hans-and-Franz brothers appears on late night television in a pumped up muscle suit and tells you in an Arnold Schwarzenneger-like accent that "You look to me a little bit like cottage cheese. You better go out and get yourself some muscle."

Sadly, these little blurbs are just popular examples of much of the prevailing wisdom of our now full-blown American fitness craze. Our mentality has been geared to consider bowling ball biceps, wash-board abdomens and slender hips as the be-all and end-all of what it means to be truly healthy. And amid all the bang and blab a partial view of reality, and real fitness, has been allowed to take hold, one that neglects that there is an internal side to good fitness as well.

There are in short inherent ironies that have fostered a series of unrealistic notions: the emphasis on external appearance undermines emphasis on good dietary habits, just as the desire for immediate results undermines the reality that fitness is a life-time endeavor.

A body builder myself, I don't mean to disparage the muscle beach culture. Except when it begins to obscure the reality of true fitness. Any body builder will point out that diet is about 70 percent of intensive training.

EVEN the most basic apsects of a healthy lifestyle have been drawn into a parasitical relationship with modern, quick-fix culture. Notions of good health are governed by a misdirected philosophy of immediate gratification and a hell-bent emphasis on current notions of good looks, while advertisers and the growing health industry invest millions in glamour and gloss to see that we never forget our waist lines.

In some measure the effects of this attitude have been beneficial. Sedentary lifestyles are a thing of the past. Today more people of every age exercise than ever before. The benefits of good, consistent exercise for body, heart and head are, undoubtedly, well documented.

But this is not the whole picture. There is a downside to the wholesale emphasis on being "in good shape" that may have far reaching and damaging consequences.

WALK into any so-called health food store and you'll soon see that most are like franchised versions of the old side-show huckster who promises love with his magic potions and elixirs. Somewhere in front of the legumes you'll confront some of the ever-present, catchy slogans that infiltrate our fitness mentality : CRASH WEIGHT GAIN, RIPPED 'ABS' IN FIVE SECONDS, LOSE WEIGHT WHILE YOU SLEEP, BIG BICEPS WHILE YOU DO NOTHING BUT SPEND MONEY ON THIS PRODUCT.

Testament to this evasive style in both diet as well as exercise is the newly developed and increasingly popular Electrical Muscular Stimulation devices. You go into some high tech chamber of fitness, lie down on a table and let some person in a white oufit slap rubber pads on vital muscular areas. Your muscles are then contracted by force of electrical impulses--no work, no sweat, only modern technology.

While bulging biceps are the most readily available and even highly valued symbol of external fitness, the true path to total fitness lies in the heart.

No matter what your goals are, cardiovascular fitness must be the vital foundation. The importance of fitness of the heart cannot in any way be overestimated. The American Heart Association continually reminds us that coronary heart disease is still the number one killer in America--the picture cannot be painted in bolder hues.

To even begin such a serious approach to total fitness, we have to shake many of the often-empty symbols of the fitness craze, as well as a lot of our traditional dietary habits. Statistics reveal that most American diets consist of nearly 30 to 40 percent fat, and are loaded with high cholesterol foods.

There is no quick solution to this genuine health concern. Once you understand fitness in the broader context of true health, it becomes apparent that "being in shape" must be a lifetime process.