Walk Every Dayfor Health and Sanity

ELLEN GOODMAN

August 13, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- And to think that for so many years, I suffered from fitness inferiority.

I didn't measure up to the women in Spandex climbing the staircases-to-nowhere at the gym. I fell short of the people who pumped iron and maintained a complete sports wardrobe suitable for every event except the Iditarod.

I couldn't keep up with the Joneses who took jazzercize three days a week, aerobics two, and spent $2,000-a-week for vacations at health spas.

As a mere walker, I figured that I put too little sweat equity into my cardiovascular life to get a big payoff. Walking, I was told, barely counted in the hierarchy of healthists. Walking from one place to another was out of place in the world of leg lifts and bum burns.

But this summer, the latest in the checkups on the national health that regularly remind us that Americans don't exercise enough, has come up with the sort of twist you don't find on the gym mats.

The combined experts at the Centers for Disease Control and assorted institutes have concluded that there is gain without pain.

Contrary to all the miserable propaganda that has been directed at us from every infomercial and sports-medicine source, we don't have to be fully regimented, highly aerobic, and thigh-mastered athletes in order to be fit.

It appears that all we have to do is put one foot in front of the other. Up the stairs. Down the block. Around the corner. In the garden. To and from work.

Several short bouts of plain old-fashioned moving can have pretty much the same effect on health as one long, hard, exercycling, heavy-lifting, full court-pressing session of heart pumping. The news is enough to give anyone a walker's high. And it's enough to send the fitness industry into a depression.

Ever since fitness became a craze and the heart the primary organ of desire, exercise has moved into the realm of the entrepreneurs. In America, anything worth doing is worth marketing, and anything as valuable as health is sooner or later slated to become expensive.

At some point, exercise stopped being a matter of simple health and became a status symbol. What was once available to everybody became exclusive. You couldn't just do it, in the words of Nike, unless you had the Nikes to do it in.

Each year, fitness became more fully accessorized. Today there are bras for it, headbands for it, deodorants for it, vitamins for it, tapes for it, books for it.

You can get a B.A. in it, you can be an M.D. in it. You can buy a dog for it. You can also be very, very serious about it. The seriously fit couldn't just drink water, they had to take in fluids named PowerAde and Recharge. They didn't just eat dinner, they carbo-loaded.

Gradually but not subtly, aided and abetted by advertisers, fitness became another way to tell the haves from the have nots.

It's a little bit like food. When food was scarce, fat was a sign of wealth. Then it was reversed.

So, too, a bulging set of biceps and triceps were once a telltale sign that you worked with your hands for a living. Then they became a sign a that you work out to live.

Now the public health gurus have deconstructed the mythology of fitness. The benefits of exercise are not all that time-consuming or hard or expensive.

You don't need to dress for it, pay for it, shower after it. A half hour a day keeps the fitness freaks away.

This is not only welcome news in the overworked and underpaid 1990s. It's downright, deliciously, dangerously democratic.

Have you seen the Reebok ad with the woman on the Stairmaster? ''On Planet Earth, the steps lead to the second floor'' it reads, ''On Planet Reebok, they lead to sanity.'' How good it is to get back down to earth.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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