For seven years, at least two or three times a week, Lydia J. has toted her work-out gear to a popular midtown exercise class to spend an hour crunching, flexing, squeezing, marching, jumping, and squatting. Beginners at the class can’t believe it’s possible for a human to finish the demanding routine. Lydia loves it, and it shows. She’s got sparkling eyes, luminous skin, taut muscles, and is in superb cardiovascular condition, and guess what? She’s not a size 6. She probably couldn’t even fit into a size 12. Like millions of other Americans, Linda is a normal-to-large-size person for whom fitness hasn’t necessarily translated into swimsuit-issue material.
If you formed your ideas of fitness in the ’70s or ’80s, you took for granted that if you exercised often enough and long enough, you’d look like Twiggy in a year’s time. That has not happened, as many rigorous exercisers will tell you. Instead, people are choosing fitness because it feels good. Most of the time, they learn to live with their looks. Or not.
Nashville’s gyms, fitness centers, and exercise classes are full of people who are in excellent condition, but who won’t be sashaying down a runway anytime soon.
”Everyone who knows how much I work out asks, ‘Why aren’t you thinner?’ “ says Vanderbilt University research coordinator Kate Bermingham. Jazzercise instructor Kathy Campbell, who has taught classes in the Murfreesboro Road area for 17 years, says, ”I thought if I worked out long enough, I would have long, lean legs; if I worked out on a regular basis, I would be thin.“
”It would have been a nice goal to have lost some weight,“ says entertainment company executive Carolyn Lowen, a plus-size 50-year-old who has worked out three or four times a week for nine years without dropping any significant weight.
After nearly two decades of physical conditioning, John Freer, a bigger-than-average 62-year-old Kentucky psychiatrist, says he’s discovered that fitness is a state, not a shape. ”Some things we’re born to and some we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be Charles Atlas.“ Campbell, who says of her size, ”I weigh a lot but I have a lot of muscle,“ realized that skinny wasn’t her destiny, even with frequent exercise and reasonable eating habits. ”We used to have this sign, maybe it was a refrigerator magnet, [that said] ‘Thinner thighs if you Jazzercise.’ I told someone, ‘That’s not true,’ “ she says.
Exercise physiologist Kathy Alexander would like to personally apologize on behalf of all fitness professionals for giving the exercising public a distorted idea of what we could expect at the beginning of our fitness journeys. ”We are sorry as professionals that we contributed to that illusion,“ she says. Over the ensuing years, research has proved that only 2 percent of society is genetically predisposed to look like the models we see on television and in magazines, she says.
That’s right: If you’re looking to blame your life on your parents, your weight and body shape are good places to start. ”Depending on who is doing the research, between 40 and 80 percent of your size is hereditary,“ says Dr. Irv Rubenstein, Alexander’s partner in S.T.E.P.S. Inc., a personal fitness training and consulting facility. People are born with a propensity for how and where they deposit fat. Your first big weight gain occurs during the month before you are born, since underweight babies have a high risk of disease. Your second fat-depositing period is the first year of life. The third period is during puberty for women, and pre-adolescence for men. The results: ”We only have control (of our fat deposits) after a certain age. Even then we can’t fully control where it goes,“ says Rubenstein.
Which is where body type comes in to play. Your shape seems to be hereditary also. Remember the old guide that ranked body shapes as ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph? Turns out it was right, and now it has a scientific name: somatotype. When told about lovely Lydia, Kathy Alexander states unhesitatingly, ”Lydia inherited her body structure.“ She adds, ”You’re going to be a bigger or small version“ of your body type, whether it be a ”Pillsbury Doughboy“ endomorph, a tall and skinny ectomorph, or a squatty and muscular mesomorph. (One exception is world-class athletes, who develop specialized physiques: think of the buttless profile and massive quadriceps of a cyclist, or the overdeveloped latissimus dorsi on swimmers.)
Millions of people wake up in the morning, get on the scale, and have their day ruined. That’s because they have only extrinsic weight goals. For that reason, Alexander won’t let her clients get near a scale. ”I’m more interested in getting them to focus on the food and being more active. Weight is a result of those two plus your genetic makeup.“
Kate Bermingham is training for a triathlon. She says of herself, ”I’m a big girl, but I’m very fit.“ She says she comes from ”hearty peasant stock.“ She doesn’t really know what she weighs, though, because she refuses to get on a scale. ”I just don’t do it,“ she says. ”I go by how I feel and how fit I am. I look at the scale and think it’s wrong.“ Part of her wants to be a size 10 or 12, but she says she feels better than she did when she weighed 138 and was several sizes smaller.
What keeps them going? Rubenstein says that when the goals become intrinsic rather than extrinsic, people are more likely to pursue fitness. For instance, during her nine-year journey, Lowen found that working out and eating right were good for stress management.
”I would have liked to have been a size 12 instead of the fat sizes,“ Lowen says. But somewhere along the way, choosing healthy foods and working out became ends in themselves. ”It’s good for me. I don’t even think about the rest of it.“
”I just want to stay up and mobile, to keep average physical functioning,“ says Freer of his commitment to fitness. He also finds exercise helps combat high blood pressure and depression.
Bermingham’s goal is more concrete: she’s training for the aforementioned triathlon in August with her daughter. ”My goal is to do it and not feel wiped out,“ she says. She thinks she can finish in less than four hours. (There’s a special division for athletes over 130 pounds, since they have more to carry than the 100-pounders. It’s called the ”Clydesdale“ division.)
But some people decide that feeling great and looking good is not enough. They feel trim but the mirror does not reflect that. That person is apparently in line to see a plastic surgeon. ”The most common person I see is a typical person who does a moderate or appropriate amount of exercise to stay in shape, and who, even with trying to lead as healthy a life as possible, just has some areas of fat they can’t get rid of,“ says Dr. Alexander Nein, a cosmetic plastic surgeon with a busy Nashville practice.
”I have toyed with that idea of, after this triathlon, if I have still have this (abdominal) pooch, I might want to have that done,“ muses Bermingham.
Dr. Stephen Pratt, another plastic surgeon, says the majority of his patients ”are the ones who work out and eat right and can’t get where they want to be.“ By the time patients get to him, they already know what he does, that ”it’s a misconception, if you’re over 30 or post-partum, that you can get back to the body you had when you were 25.“
The old Billy Crystal line, ”It’s better to look good than to feel good,“ is really only half a joke. Lowen asked her friends whether they would take the cancer-fighting tamoxifen, which guarantees a 40 to 60-pound weight gain, if they were diagnosed with breast cancer. ”Four of them said no,“ she says, aghast.
In this culture, where most of the inter-viewees wouldn’t disclose their weight or size, it’s hard to imagine that feeling good is good enough. But it must be, because the fit go on, knowing there’s no finish line. It just takes some people longer to figure that out.
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