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Sunday, July 22, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Breaking up (all that fat) is so very hard to do


While my stomach is not particularly gregarious, neither would one call it meek.

The flesh does not protrude, yet still molds as easily as margarine left in the sun. Poke me and your finger will slowly disappear into a malleable everafter, a description perhaps more appropriate for quicksand than a human being.

So it came as no surprise during a recent health check when my doctor razzed: "I estimate your body fat at about 90 percent."

"Only 90 percent?" smirked my wife, picking up the needle back home. "So . . . don't they count from the neck up, or what?"

A crack which led me to chase her around the room, swinging and missing at her own supply of body fat, most of which has slid to one spot.

Until, that is, I ran out of breath. A total of two revolutions.

Did someone say I need exercise?

Or did someone say all of Japan needs exercise? That this workaholic land is pinched between a surplus of responsibilities and an absence of time. Exercise usually being the second thing a busy person casts aside. Right after sleep.

Sure, the Japanese love sports. On any holiday, the pools and hiking trails jam up with avid enthusiasts -- so many, in fact, that often more time is spent waiting to exercise than actually doing it.

Then we have the renowned Roach Principle -- for every one you see, there are dozens you don't. In this case meaning that for each person you spy running on tennis court, there are oodles back at home napping on the tatami.

And who can blame them? For rest is as critical as exercise.

Yet, it doesn't do much for tub-o-pudding tummies like mine.

I used to lie to myself that I could get all the exercise I needed on my daily commute to work. That hoofing to the station, knifing up stairs, elbowing through crowds and lunging to reach my office on time would suffice to keep me trim and fit. Except I usually shuffle-foot to the station, ride the escalator whenever possible, let the crowds push me along and make a habit of showing up late. And -- as far as I can see -- most commuters do the same. With the only obvious exertion in the entire morning rush being that of young girls frenetically pressing the buttons on their cellphones.

Help from a health club

With my commute thus failing, I next sought help at one of Japan's abundant health clubs -- one that assigns each member a personal trainer, an exercise expert to guide pillow-types like me through the complex nuances of stretching, treadmill time and weight work.

My trainer turned out to be a slim girl who probably doubled as a bikini model. Interesting enough . . . except it was also a girl to whom I had taught English years before.

"Ah Dillon sensei!" She grinned at me with icepick teeth. "How nice to see you again!" Then she popped all her knuckles.

My mind raced. I did give her a passing grade, didn't I? Didn't I!?

First, during stretch time, she twisted my legs and arms into an assortment of nautical knots. Then she stuck me on the treadmill and notched the speed gauge to the Mo Greene setting. Next, she plucked up a 30 kg barbell -- with one hand -- and thrust it my way.

Flattened, I gazed from the floor right into those icepicks -- as she deftly lifted the weight from my chest.

"You're not in such good shape, are you?" A comment I can only assume was part of her expert evaluation.

Last came the sauna. Here my personal trainer left me alone and I determined to make up for my poor athletic showing. I would simply sweat out all my body fat.

Except the sauna room was more like a sauna booth. A very tight squeeze indeed, with six other naked men tucked inside. Boy, did I sweat.

My health club membership stated I could enjoy this entire delightful experience every day if I wanted. Instead I opted to do it twice the first week, once the next and the third week got wrapped up in a crossword puzzle book.

Then, in the fourth week -- since the membership cost an arm and a leg -- I opted to keep my bloblike body in one unit and quit.

Next, I tried jogging. But to avoid crowds and the snickers of passersby, I decided I would hit the streets after midnight and run in the cool of the night.

Yet that is also the same time I usually sleep -- with the decision of whether to hit the streets or hit the hay soon becoming a no-brainer.

On a treadmill

Next my wife bought me a contraption the Japanese call a "room-runner," a self-propelled treadmill. As long as you walk or jog, it moves. Stop, and it stops with you. One of the merits of this device is that it is collapsible and can be slid away into the most obscure corner. In our case, the corner I picked was so obscure I have now forgotten where I put it.

Therefore, I finally resorted to the most time-honored tummy tightener of all: sit-ups. My wife lends ballast by plopping on my knees. Then, while I struggle through my routine, she snips away at empty milk cartons. Our recycling efforts have thus improved -- though my stomach has not yet turned any firmer.

"Neither has your head," she notes.

Hence once again I chase her.

And why not? So far it's the best exercise I've found.



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