Thursday, April 20, 2006

DF Tip #14: What's Wrong with Gym Class

db4I'm twelve years old, sitting on a bench in my high school gym, head held tipped back, a bloodstained swatch of the brown, fine-grained sandpaper that passes for paper towel in public schools clutched over my nose, which bleeds profusely. Through swollen eyes, I see my classmates running frantically about, alternately grabbing for or running from a half-dozen dark red public-school-issue rubber balls flying furiously around the gym.

The game they're playing is called "Elimination" and it represents everything that's wrong with physical education in schools. Elimination is, if it is possible to imagine, an even less civilized version of Dodgeball. As I think back now, I realize that Elimination, or "Elimo," as the athletic types who, unimaginably, liked the game used to call it, was what the gym teacher would foist on us when he was tired of calling fouls in basketball or spotting the uncoordinated kids on the pommel horse.

db5In essence, Elimination was a free-for-all, every-man-for-himself shootout with those nasty rubber balls, which on contact felt roughly like getting hit with an anvil. If you managed to get hold of one of the rubber balls, you'd throw it at another kid as fast and as hard as you could. If it bounced off of any part of their body except their head, they were "out" and had to sit down. If they caught the ball, however, YOU were out. Anyone on the "out" bench stayed there until the kid who got them out was knocked out of play themselves, at which point all their victims were resurrected, usually to be knocked silly again by a flying rubber ball within a few seconds. There were no boundaries and no teams.

In the game's one nod to civility, if you beaned someone in the head, you were out. But if you threw a low-flying ball at another kid and they were hit in the head while unadvisedly trying to duck, well, then, tough luck -- they were morons for ducking into the path of the ball and were punished by having to sit down. Usually this was fine by them -- they generally wanted to take a breather anyway and shake off the concussion.

db3Which is how I found myself on the out bench. Brendan Cray, an enormous hulk of an early-blooming eighth-grader, had let fly with what must have been a 75 mph fastball right at my crotch. Though I had very little conscious awareness of the value of my family jewels at twelve, instinct took over, I buckled at the waist, grabbing myself in horror, presenting my face as a perfect target for Cray's fast-approaching missile.

Heard from a distance, those rubber balls make an unmistakable, forlorn "boing!" But it's very different when you hear that sound with your head inside the ball. The sweaty, rubber smell gave the impression of having my head run over by a dragster.

db2I staggered off. Brendan Cray continued his reign of terror. Patti DeFoe kindly fetched me my facial exfoliator. I peered to my left to take in my benchmates. There was Alex Tepper, the comic-book collector and severe asthmatic, catching his breath after being winged in some crossfire; Jon Weeks, who was known to most people knew as the fat kid but had recently gained some begrudging props for playing Tevye in the school musical; Lara Greene, who had intercepted a ball, bounced it off her chest, and sauntered over to the out bench for the rest of the class, having committed elimination Hari-Kari in protest. And then there was me, a slow-bloomer, 113 pounds, all skinny arms and legs, big feet and hands, braces, bloody nose, watching six or eight big guys do the 12-year old version of Ultimate Fighting.

Like so many games played in school gym classes, Elimination draws a clear, uncrossable line between athletes and non-athletes. Nowhere else in school is humiliation so rampant. Academic grades are kept carefully hidden away so that the smart and the not-so-smart can peacefully co-exist, but in gym class your coordination, balance, grace, and, it sometimes appears, worth as a kid, are right out there for all to see.

db11To be honest, I don't know what's happened to gym class since 1983. I've heard stories of yoga and other noncompetitive endeavors being taught in schools, but I'm skeptical. I have a hunch that the one-hour yoga class is dragged out for parents' day and then boom! Back to another four weeks of Elimination while the teacher sips coffee and checks his email.

Here's the thing about competitive sports in school. There's nothing wrong with them for people who want to play them. No one else should be forced to play such games any more than every kid should be required to be on the debate team or play for the chess club. Now, you'll remember that I spent much of last week encouraging people to participate in sports, and I stand by that. They're a great motivator and a great way to provide structure and focus for your workouts. But playing competitive sports in a context like a gym class isn't a good way to improve coordination, grace and balance unless you already happen to possess those skills. If you don't, Brendan Cray will just juke right by you in his drive to the net and you won't touch the ball the whole game.

That's what happened to me. I hated gym class with a passion. My inability to connect with or enjoy any of the games we played made me decide early on that I just wasn't an athlete. And that's ironic, of course, because however meager my accomplishments as an athlete to date, I now consider daily exertion a major part of my life. So clearly something was missing in my formal physical education all those years ago.

db12I'll say it again: sports are a terrific way to test your skill and coordination, but they are a lousy way to develop them. And development, not constant pressure to perform, should be the focus of any fitness program. Certainly, it should form the basis of any structured physical education program draws on our hard-earned tax dollars.

Perhaps if that were the case, I wouldn't encounter so many people in my line of work who somehow don't think they have the right to be physical. Who are scared half to death of being in the gym, of exerting themselves, or of working up a sweat, because of a gym-class-induced, sports-field run-in with their school's equivalent of Brendan Cray.

Am I contradicting my last tip? Perhaps a little. But it's worth underscoring, for those of you still sitting on the sidelines, that being physical doesn't have to be a retread of your worst gym class moments. Pushing your own limits, improving your own performance, making yourself feel better by getting fit is far more important -- and rewarding -- than being faster, stronger, or more enduring than the next guy.

Have a great week!


Sunday, April 02, 2006

DF Tip #13: Enough Form -- Try Function

dlI'm going to suggest something heretical here: stop training for your looks. Start training for performance.

That was hard to say, but I feel better.

Let's face it, fitness is the last guilt-free refuge of the vain. We can pump away day and night and justify it by saying it's for health reasons and how terrific it makes us feel, but what really keeps us coming back to the gym is how fabulous we look in our new Diesel jeans, baby!

...and there's nothing wrong with that, really. Truth be told, I wouldn't have gotten into weight training without my own preening teenage machismo to spur me on. If you've put in the work and you look good, you should be proud of it. So everyone out there who's carved a six-pack by sheer dint of sweat and self-denial should go ahead and flaunt it with my blessing.

There will come a time, however, when training that way will no longer feel quite right. You'll feel empty and hollow inside (cue violins). You may have lost some weight, built some muscle, ingrained the exercise habit, but whether you've made it to your target weight or not, the question will soon arise: Now what?

Ask any psychologist about goal-setting they will surely tell you two things: that a useful goal -- i.e., one that has real life-changing potential -- must be achievable and measurable. You must be able to reach it, and you must know when you've reached it.

From this goal-setting perspective, training for an aesthetic outcome fails on both counts. Generally speaking, it's almost impossible to achieve, and it's almost as hard to measure.

glamLet me explain, first, by way of one, quick, "the-media-feeds-us-unrealistic-images" story. A friend of mine works for a women's magazine, and has taped on her refrigerator a proof from a photo shoot for the magazine's cover. The shot is of Liz Hurley or some other, equally pulchritudinous creature. She looked fantastic, of course, but that's not what strikes your eye when you see the proof.

Every square inch of the photo is covered with instructions to the digital retoucher: take down the forehead shine, smooth out the touch of cellulite, add definition to the shoulders and arms, flatten and define the belly, curve this, straighten that. Taken as a whole, the notes read like something Frank Lloyd Wright might have left on the blueprints of some snot-nosed apprentice: nice try, kid, now lemme show you how it should look.

My friend keeps this photo on her refrigerator to remind her that no one looks like the people in the magazines -- not even those who have "hit the Pick Six in the genetic lottery," as Dennis Miller says. There isn't a square inch of Liz Hurley -- LIZ HURLEY! -- that's good enough for Glamour.

And these are the genetically, surgically and digitally-enhanced people to whom we compare ourselves.

All this is to say that the goals we set for ourselves vis-à-vis how we are "supposed" to look are very often just a micro-tad unrealistic.

fcSecond point: goals based on looks are very tough to measure. Just how do we know when we've achieved our goal to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club? When the paparazzi start trailing us at the beach? When Angelina Jolie text-messages us to pick up Maddox at aikido class? And once we look as much like Mr. Pitt as we possibly can, what do we do? Snap a photo? Gussy ourselves up and stare at the mirror for an entire week like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs?

Look, as a trainer I'm fully aware that everyone trains to look better. And again, there's nothing wrong with that. But always remember that it's something of a crapshoot: you might wind up looking like Brad Pitt. But you might not have those genetics. The guarantee is this, and only this: exercise, and you're going to look like a better version of you.

So here, as always, a few verbose paragraphs too late, is my suggestion: while you're waiting for the better version of you to emerge from the granite like Michelangelo's David, choose yourself a goal based on what your body can do instead of how it looks.

triI didn't really have a single performance goal that meant anything to me until about two years ago. That was when I decided, on a total lark, to join a weekend triathlon camp. I figured I'd go for a few months, do a race or two and then go back to the hardcore lifting-for-looks I'd been doing virtually my whole life. Instead, last weekend I kicked off my second season by shattering a couple of personal records in running and biking in my fifth competitive triathlon. Now, my personal records would send many triathletes into fits of cramp-inducing laughter, but that's not the point: becoming a triathlete has totally revitalized my training.

Instead of exercising to build up my pecs, I exercise to swim faster. To run smoother. To beat last year's time in the L.A. Triathlon. Are these goals reachable? Absolutely. Are they measurable? Sure as the numbers on my stopwatch.

And by the way? When I stopped watching the pot, it boiled at last: without even meaning to, I lost about six pounds. My bodyfat percentage went down. I lost a little muscle bulk here and there, but I don't miss it -- I actually prefer the way I look now.

I prefer it, in a way, because now my body's built do something, not just to look like it does something. It's built for a function, and the form has followed.

Now I'm not out to evangelize about triathlon, but I am going to suggest that everyone, soon, today even, find some kind of club, some kind of event, some kind of healthy, social, fun activity that will force you to exert yourself in a new way, that will get you engaged and involved in using your body regularly. Preferably something with an aspect of competition to it, with events or meets where you can measure your ever-improving performance. And believe me, if you commit to your new activity, you WILL improve.

bbIf you're already involved in something like that, set a new goal. Go for your black belt. Win the intramural championship with your basketball team. Sign up for a century bike ride. is a great place to start -- hey, you're online now, no time like the present.

You'll either be putting what you've built in the gym to good use or you'll be jump-starting your fitness program with a new, challenging activity you've probably been promising yourself you'd get to for months. Either way, everybody wins.

Good luck, and have a great week--