Saturday, July 07, 2007

Cyborgs Spotted at Glendale Y

I've been back in the gym and off swimming, biking, and running for a couple of weeks now, and I have to say it feels good, not only to get out of the globally-warmed temperatures of Southern California, but to bend cold, hard iron to my will, get a massive pump on, and feel like a huge, macho stud -- that is, until an actual huge, macho stud walks up and asks me to leave my maximum poundages on the bar so he can warm up with it. Sometimes going to the gym feels like a trip in Gulliver's footsteps: one moment you're towering over Lilliputians, the next, cowering at the feet of behemoths.

I work out at a YMCA, which I heartily enjoy, largely because I encounter a huge range of people: some who have been working out for longer than I've been alive; others who have been alive since about the last time I worked out. Some of them look great, others not so great; some of them are working hard, others are going through motions as familiar to them as breathing and just about as challenging. But there's history there, and camaraderie, and some good, honest sweat.

Lately, however, I've been noticing that a new breed has arrived: cyborgs.

The first one I saw was a kid who spent his entire workout speaking loudly to no one in particular: as he exercised, between sets, as he stretched. At first I really thought he might be schizophrenic -- until I realized that he was wearing an earpiece and talking on the phone. During his workout -- if you can call it that -- I also saw him retrieve a text-message and watch what must have been a pretty funny video on his phone-device, because he was laughing to beat the band. The weights stared at him, inert, disapproving. The boy couldn't stand to be unwired, offline, or out of the loop, for long enough to pound out his sorry program of a half-dozen sets of barbell curls and twenty minutes on the treadmill. I'm probably too young to grumble about "kids these days," but -- Jesus H. Macy, kids these days.

There's another cyborg that I've seen so often at the gym that I have a name for him: Elliptibot. Elliptibot's upright, mechanistic movements on the Elliptical trainer are what gave him his name, but his constant cell phone use confirms his cyborg status. His trainer -- or programmer, if you prefer -- waits patiently while Elliptibot receives his cell-phone orders from the mother ship, then reboots Elliptibot back into his workout. He only gets in about eight minutes of real exercise in the course of his hour appointment, but for a half-human, half-machine, that's actually not too bad.

When we first moved to Southern California I stumbled into the Bally's on El Centro, which turns out to be the Clockwork-Orange Central Programming Pod for gym cyborgs the world over. In the Initiation Room -- cleverly called "Cardio Theater" to entice recruits -- there are probably 200 pieces of cardio equipment lined up to face a bank of massive TV screens. Now I can't say for sure, but if I had a pair of special sunglasses like the ones Roddy Piper wore in "They Live," I bet those TV's are all broadcasting the same message: OBEY.

So it's great that these people are in the gym at all. Right there that puts them ahead of most of the population, who either don't work out and don't have gym memberships, or have them and don't go. Elliptibot may be doing his very best to squeeze in activity with his obviously stressful career, and this is all he can manage. And, admittedly, some people are way more likely to go to the gym if they can do so wired into their iPods so they can listen to the Beastie Boys, or with their cell phone handy so the babysitter can call them if little Suzy flushes her retainer down the toilet. So on one hand I should really cut the cyborgs some slack here.

Still, I think these people are doing themselves a pretty major disservice, and not just because the workouts they're getting in this spaced-out state are not challenging and not effective in getting them in better shape. I've recently started to think of a workout as a means not just of building muscle or burning fat, but also as a means of creating or reinforcing behaviors. Ideally, the behaviors you create are beneficial, and the body will positively adapt to them. Bench press a difficult weight, with good form, for instance, and your body becomes more adept at that behavior, and more willing and able to repeat it in the future.

But the body has no idea whether the information you are sending it is beneficial or detrimental. The dumb ol' nervous system just does what it's told by your smartypants brain, and so if you arch your back on that heavy bench press, or bounce the bar off your chest, or shorten your range of motion so you can have bragging rights to 274 pounds instead of just 270, well... you get "better" at doing that, too, meaning more willing and able to use bad form and endanger yourself in the future.

There's a scene "Starman" when alien Jeff Bridges learns to drive a car by simply by watching and imitating Karen Allen. When Allen nervously hands him the wheel, he drives beautifully until he comes to a yellow light, at which point he floors it and flys through the intersection. Panicked, Allen asks him why he was so reckless and Bridges replies that he was just doing what he had observed her do: "Green light means go. Red light means stop. Yellow light means 'drive really fast.'" You have to cut your body a break here, because it's just doing what it's told.

What am I driving at? Just this: the distraction devices that people use in the gym reinforce the "body-as-brain-transport-device" model. Most people spend the major part of every day using primarily their brains: at work, at a desk, parked in front of a computer; at home, in front of the TV. If we continue this disassociative process in our workouts, well, we reinforce that idea: my body may be thrashing around beneath me, but my head is elsewhere. My body is not really a part of me. After all, that call's coming in. I'm watching Montel on Cardio Theater. I'm literally talking on the phone right now, this moment, as I "work out."

I've spent lots of time studying Eastern arts of one kind or another, so forgive the woo-wooishness here, but I do think that the notion of focus, of full, body-and-mind engagement is one aspect of, say, martial arts or yoga training, that we miss in our chatty, blaring, stateside emporia of muscle. So wherever and however you work out, the challenge is to do so in a way that you remain engaged throughout the session and thereby strengthen, rather than undermine, the connection between the body and mind. If that means you've got to set a really high bar for yourself so that you have no choice but to focus, great. If that means taking an actual martial arts or yoga class, fantastic. Heck, if that means you have to actually put an iPod on to help keep Motormouth Mike from screwing up your rhythm, go for it. But if you see your workout as, in a sense, "programming" time for habits and behavior, the point is to try to program beneficial, useful code into your CPU rather than more nonsense that you'll have to go back and correct later. It really doesn't matter whether the movement is very basic and simple, like a warmup you might do every day, or very challenging, like going for a maximum-effort squat or a full-out 5K run: if you're present in the movement, trying to perfect it, make your form better, stretch more deeply, keep your body even more aligned, that movement will reinforce the mind-body link that our busy lives often seem bent on severing.

The good news is that cyborgs aren't the only clientele I see at the Y. My absolute favorite gym denizen is the frail-looking older guy who somehow performs feats of athleticism so unlikely that his movements appear computer-generated. These are guys who have practiced, worked hard, and stayed present with sport and exercise for so long that even as their bodies are starting to fail, they still have it where it counts. I don't play basketball, but I'll often catch a few minutes of a three-on-three game while I'm stretching beside the court to warm up. There's a guy who's probably around 70 who simply can't miss a three-pointer. He can't walk or dribble, either, and that weakens him as a player. Still, it's pretty amazing to watch. He just stands there, well clear of the mayhem under the hoop, waiting for his man to get distracted or held up so someone can pass him the ball. When they do, he shoots. And makes it. Every time.

Then there's the other guy, paunchy, lank-limbed, and roughly the same age, who, every few days, hobbles up to the chin-up bar, grabs it...and does about 30. Then he hobbles away, not even breathing heavy.

I don't know what these guys are eating, or how I can get some, but I do know one thing: I've never seen any of them with a cell phone. Coincidence?

1 comment:

Hal Johnson said...

I've wondered about the music/workout combination. I usually listen to music when lifting. I do it because I enjoy it, and because usually, I feel more able to tune out what's going on around me and focus on the lift. Sometimes, though, it's a distraction, and I end up pulling those funny looking white buttons out of my ears.

As for the cel phone, it stays in my pocket on vibrate, just in case my son's school calls. But to engage in a conversation while working out? Bizarre.