Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Fitness Flâneur

Recently, an unnamed European and I were discussing how it used to be the case that Americans looked upon Europeans as the epitome of unhealthiness - favoring cigarettes over advances in dentistry, wine over Aspartame, meandering from café to café rather than jogging in place in treadmill... and yet now, Americans look to Europe (and not only France, with its famous Paradox) as the health capital of the developed world. Europe! Where food is always local (except when it isn't), and where no one ever has to worry about weight.

While I mock Europhilia, I share in it to some extent. The great flaw of the American approach to health-consciousness is that it is all-or-nothing: you either Care, or you've Given Up. Once an American admits that he does drink/smoke/eat sugar-coated fried dough, these activities might as well be engaged in as continuously as one's job and need for sleep allow. If we Americans don't go for moderation, it's not because we're gleeful, guiltless over-consumers, but because we believe once the line has been crossed, there's no difference between one glass of wine and eight. That is, until New Years, the unofficial start of a Gwyneth Paltrow-inspired regimen of soy-kale smoothies and over-exercising, one that will last for a week at most, except when it succeeds, culminating in one or another of the various eating disorders. But in most cases, it's back to the couch and the sleeve-having blanket.

This is what struck me about Tara Parker-Pope's "Well" post, which reads like just that sort of New Years Resolution. She intends to get herself from completely out-of-shape to running a marathon in under five months. Although her goal is no doubt realistic, in the sense that someone with legs or equivalent can, history has shown, make it 26-plus miles without vehicular assistance, it's unclear what about the plan is a good idea. (Obviously, people should do what they want, but she's explicitly offering her own choice as a model for others looking to get in shape.) If Parker-Pope's goal is fitness, not a tearful 'I did it!' followed by decades on the couch (a bit like 'training' for one's wedding photos), wouldn't a better approach be to, say, run 2 miles at a time, several times a week, and, if this seems to easy, to keep increasing mileage until reaching a reasonable distance for a near-daily run?

While 'marathon' sounds more noble as a goal than 'Gwyneth Paltrow's thighs', both amount to the same thing: possible with sufficient time/money/obsessiveness, but not worth the bother, and detrimental to the goal of getting from where you're at to a similar but improved place. Which is what I like about Mark Bittman's approach to veganism. (Yes, still starstruck.) He acknowledges that for most of us, swearing off animal products is too radical a move, and so suggests simply cutting back on meat and the like. Along those lines, why not run rather than sit, without claiming that that run will take you some epic length we've arbitrarily decided is worthwhile?

All of this interests me as an on-again, off-again runner myself, a former member in good-enough standing of my high school and middle school track teams, who's in an on-again phase since the end of the semester and of an endless winter, and whose longest run ever was 8 or 9 miles, ending where all runs of that length should. It doesn't exactly qualify me to give fitness advice, but they say anything's better than our current national fitness level, so now, without further ado, the tips! (Not medical advice, obvs, lest some poor soul think an MA in French Studies has anything remotely in common with an MD, or confuses me with one of the many Drs. Maltz.)

-A big iced coffee before, a big iced coffee (pastry optional) after. This is key.

-All that advice to run on soft surfaces? Forget it. Soft surfaces are more tiring to run on, and, more importantly, tend to be more boring to run on, because they tend not to correlate with window-shopping, people-watching, and other activities cherished by the fitness flâneur. Whatever marginal benefit on your knees running through a great open field might have, the boredom of running through a great open field surely cancels out.

-However interesting your surroundings (and you want interesting, but not, as I learned today the hard way, a Canal Street level of congestion), you will need a good podcast, preferably one that goes a good hour, but if you're not one of those crazed runners who refuses to stop for two seconds because that will ruin who knows what, you can always stop or slow down a moment to move to a new one. I highly recommend the Savage Love podcast, and guarantee that you will not be thinking about running while a caller is defending pig fetishes or whatever the one I just listened to was about.

-For those who think of running as a time for quiet contemplation in nature, not cable TV if at the gym or podcasts and urban life if outside, you are people I fundamentally don't understand, at least on this issue. Quiet contemplation of paper topics and whatnot is for the shower after the run. The run itself is about not thinking about the run, which is what you will be thinking about if running alone, podcast-free, through an open field.

-Accept that running will not make you lose weight, and may well do the opposite. Just as they say that living in France makes Americans lose weight, yet I spent three months in Paris and left the heaviest I'd ever been thanks to flan with a side order of flan, I have found that running makes food more appealing, and causes me to eat more of it. Running will get your body more 'fit' (whatever that means - varies person to person), and is, within reason, good for your health, but it is primarily a socially-acceptable way to take time off from more productive activities. Accept that, and enjoy.


PG said...

I need to acquire an enjoyment of running. I love walking and it is the proper way to enjoy both nature and urbanity (I can't really inspect stuff in a window properly if I'm going faster than 4mph), but running combines all sorts of bad things: hard on the knees, requires appropriate shoes and sports bra, etc. However, I have been given to understand that walking is very nearly worthless as a method of exercise, thus reaffirming my belief that Exercise = Pain.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The "hard on the knees" bit is true for some people, but not all. I have never experienced it. But I'd imagine it all comes down to proper training (as in, not doing 10 miles your first day), reasonable running shoes, and how prone your knees were to injury before starting to run.

As for sports gear, running is as low-key as it gets - you don't need a gym or equipment. Century 21 is great for sports bras - you can pick one up for not much money after browsing the many and far more interesting non-sports bras in the same section. Running sneakers... unless you're planning to run tons, I find they last just about forever. (I've had mine 4 years, and don't plan on replacing them soon.) They are, however, uniformly hideous.

And... Exercise does = Pain, but never underestimate the podcast. (I'm presuming ownership of an iPod or similar, and not suggesting those without buy one just to go running - then the activity does start to get high-maintenance.) But be sure to go with something slightly racy or otherwise interesting - a political podcast that allows a crowded subway commute to be an educational experience won't make you (or me, at least) get up that final hill.

Dana said...

What does "flaneur" mean?

I used to run a lot (up to 10 miles), and then my knees and ankles really started hurting. I then switched to walking more miles/week, and actually lost more weight that way (and kept up the muscle). But I'm adding running back, slowly, 2 miles at a time, just for the fun, the increased heart rate, and endorphin high (although you have to go for longer to get that). But it's nice being outdoors, even if you have to wrap up to stay warm or get super sweaty running in warm weather. I much prefer it to being indoors in a gym. But modest goals are the key. I never set my sights on marathon running at all, even when I was seriously getting up the miles. I love charity 5/10Ks though. Less pressure, still the fun of communal running for a cause. Half marathons aren't bad if you can train to the double digits, but running should be the goal in itself, not some other false metric of "to be serious you must be hard core!"

Dave H said...

I don't know if your alternative (running a few times a week and increasing the distance until reaching some 'reasonable' distance for a daily run) is really all that different from marathon training, except without a clear goal in mind beyond general fitness. And it's that goal that I think helps get a lot of people from unfit to fit.

Most people who do couch-to-marathon charity programs like Team In Training start off running a few miles a week and increase their mileage very gradually over the course of the 5 months. And with the exception of the weekly long run they are generally not running more than 5-8 miles per day. It's often possible to adequately train for a marathon by running only 3-4 times a week and doing cross-training for the rest.

Whether it's the marathon or the half-marathon, I think picking one of these arbitrary distances functions as a motivator and pushes you to go out and complete a run when you might have otherwise sat on the couch or done 30 minutes of minimum effort on an elliptical.

I also don't know how training for a marathon amounts to being not worth the bother or detrimental to one's fitness goals. Sure, lots of people have bad joints or asthma or whatever and can't possibly run that far, but many people find the process of setting out to do something that's possible but kind of crazy an inspiring journey, and among people I know who've trained for one, many of those found that they now enjoy an activity that functioned as punishment in the 'real' sports they played in high school and college.

asg said...

I just started doing Crossfit a couple of weeks ago (the Krav Maga place I train at introduced it for the conditioning program), and the 2nd workout I did involved a 2.5 mile run among other things. Since I'd never run more than a mile before in my life, and that not easily, seeing this on the sheet filled me with dread. As it happens, I had been (over?)-exercising since December, so was pleasantly surprised to make the run without much difficulty at all.

I tend to overeat, especially after overdoing it exercise-wise, but I shall hearken to your experience and never settle for less than flan with a side of flan after three hours of mat burn and choking.

Dana said...

Dave has a good point: I was much more on it when I was training for a goal, than when I was merely setting some vague "I should get some exercise X times a week" mentality. The latter, however, may be healthier for those prone to any type of disordered eating/exercise behavior (exercise bulimia). I am a little over-cautious as to that, but I figure "be active" is a good start. But Dave is right about the inspiration marathons can give you--a good cause, running with lots of people and getting a collective runner's high, having a running partner to train with--man, I miss that. I am apparently not enough of an inspiration to myself, and am insufficiently motivated to do more than say, 10 miles a week of walking or running.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Flâneur, the easy answer.

"running should be the goal in itself, not some other false metric of "to be serious you must be hard core!""

I agree with the second part of this, but not the first. I guess I'm not sure what it means for "running" to be the goal. I think it's fine to have arbitrary and silly-sounding goals when choosing to run - aesthetic and not health-related improvements in physique (again, this doesn't have to mean weight loss), arbitrary mileage goals - and that few enjoy the experience for itself, independent of any health or other benefits, real or perceived. (I should point out that just as I've never had a running-related injury, I've never, to my knowledge, experienced the "runners' high." Not that this doesn't exist, it's just I've never felt anything beyond being pleased the run is over and that I am, in some imperceptible way, in better shape than before.)

"am insufficiently motivated to do more than say, 10 miles a week of walking or running"

Isn't 10 miles enough? I guess I can't be accused of over-exercising, because to me that sounds like plenty.


While I agree that increasing mileage over time could lead to marathon-level distances, I seriously doubt that five months is enough to get someone comfortably from not fit to marathon-runner. And while I agree that a marathon can motivate, so can Gwyneth Paltrow in a short skirt talking about the exercise regimen that got her there. And while arbitrary mileage and toned legs are both innocuous enough reasons to run, 26.2 and Gwynethdom are overshooting the mark, in such a way that those not already nearly there who try to get there are as likely to make themselves less healthy as more, and, self-injury aside, are likely to lose steam when the final goal is either met or reveals itself to be too much fuss to meet.


The flan was in France, where I was not running at all. Running more usually just means more pasta, back in the US.

asg said...

So I gathered; the mere fact of the flan's presence in Paris but not here (except at the pastry counter at Wegmans, which I now avoid like the plague) will make it easier not to settle for less.

Dave H said...


I hear you on the negative effects of burnout/injury while training for long race. While more of my friends that have run marathons have kept at it and remained in better shape than they were before their first marathon, some also picked up some nagging injuries and/or couldn't run the race for whatever reason and ended up back on the couch for months afterwards. But on balance I think the increased popularity of marathons among amateurs is a great thing.


As a Rochester native, it's always nice to see Wegmans get a reference. While the pastry counter may be your downfall, the Chinese food buffet is mine. I tend to eat about 4 pounds of lo mein at once and then become nearly catatonic in front of the TV. Worse things have happened, I suppose.

Dave H said...

One more point being that many/most women of drinking age and older are genetically unable to have legs that look like Gwenyth's*, but a surprisingly large number of people can run 26.2 miles if they prepare properly.

* I don't actually know that she has particularly nice legs, although I'm willing to take it on faith. Unlike other celebrities I've seen in person, when I saw her on a college visit to Williams I was astonished by how attractive she was. Lindsay Lohan not so much.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

By Gwyneth legs, I mean those so toned that cellulite/bulge either cease to exist, or cease to be evident in a mini-skirt. (As in, not exact resemblance to Paltrow, just like the marathon novice, however optimistic, doesn't expect to beat Kenya's best.) Most girls/women under drinking age don't even look like this - and just about no one will look Gwyneth-like all around, no matter what they do - but a good number of thin or average-sized women could, in theory, with enough time, money and effort put in, have the sort of legs I'm describing. There are whole neighborhoods of NY and LA where it's all you see - I'll grant that some might be surgery, but not all, and it's certainly not all genetics. It's more than anything else having a lifestyle that not only allows but encourages time/money/effort spent on body maintenance. Meaning, it's impossibility for many - I'd even say most - women lies not so much in genetics as in a (quite accurate) assessment that devoting one's life to one's legs isn't worth it if you're not a movie star (or, I suppose, trophy wife) getting paid to do so.

"But on balance I think the increased popularity of marathons among amateurs is a great thing."

I don't feel prepared to answer without having a sense of how many people stay fit post-run, how many go overboard with exercise after, how many get too injured/bored of running and give up, etc. But in the general sense of, Americans need to get off the couch, I agree that there's a value in anything, within reason, that contributes to this goal.

Withywindle said...

Europeans (especially the French) do have a tendency to denounce as loathsome any American trend, then to adopt it more fanatically than we ever did a generation later. Doubtless in 2020 they will look down on Americans for not tweeting enough.

Lisa said...

"I would never have believed that the New York marathon could move you to tears. It really is the end-of-the-world show. Can we speak of suffering freely entered into as we might speak of a state of servitude freely entered into? In driving rain, with helicopters circling overhead and the crowd cheering, wearing aluminum foil capes and squinting at their stop-watches, or bare-chested, their eyes rolling skywards, they are all seeking death, that death by exhaustion that was the fate of the first Marathon man some two thousand years ago. And he, let us not forget, was carrying a message of victory to Athens. They also dream no doubt of bringing a victory message, but there are too many of them and their message has lost all meaning: it is merely the message of their arrival, at the end of their exertions, the twilight message of a futile, superhuman effort. Collectively, they might rather seem to be bringing the message of a catastrophe for the human race, which you can see becoming more and more decrepit by the hour as the runners come in, from the competitive, athletic types who arrive first to the wrecks who are literally carried to the finishing line by their friends, or the handicapped who do the race in their wheelchairs. There are 17,000 runners and you can't help thinking back to the Battle of Marathon, where there weren't even 17,000 soldiers in the field. There are 17,000 of them and each one runs alone, without even a thought for victory, but simply in order to feel alive. "We won," gasped the man from Marathon as he expired. "I did it!" sighs the exhausted marathon runner of New York, as he collapses on the grass in Central Park."

- Jean Baudrillard, "America"
pg 20

Matt said...

Do you think that French "8 minute workout" (or whatever it is) book works? I ask because I'd like to work out only about 8 minutes a day.

"Just one glass" of wine is fine, if it's this glass:

As for the everything or nothing bit, I don't know if that's true. It certainly isn't for me and most of the people I know.

The damage done by running varies, of course, due to all sorts of factors- some that can be changed and some that can't. But it is, over time, hard on most people's knees and feet, so should at least be mixed with other methods.

On the gaining weight w/ exercise- this mostly happens at first. People who don't exercise much do a bit of it and then feel hungrier. They then eat more, and more than they burned (because it take a long time to burn weight.) They then like to tell themselves that their weight gain is due to "muscle weighing more than fat", which is true, but is mostly wishful thinking as far as explanations go for most people.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I've yet to hear of the fitness trend taking off in France, and that's been going strong in the US since the early 1980s, no?


An interesting take, but he seems not to mention (at least in that passage) that the individual runners are motivated not merely by miles, but by Fitness, weight loss, whatever else.


"As for the everything or nothing bit, I don't know if that's true. It certainly isn't for me and most of the people I know."

I wasn't precise enough in explaining what I meant by all-or-nothing. It's an attitude, sometimes but not always a description of actual behavior. Meaning, an individual might sometimes go for a vice, and sometimes not, but will tend to have a notion of purity that influences all thinking on the matter.

The obvious example is the divide between a Smoker, who, to be 'count' (as with runners, 'hardcore' status is at stake) must reach a pack a day, or a Non-Smoker, who has never smoked a cigarette, ever. (Along with the Ex-Smoker, once hardcore one way, now hardcore the other.) The occasional smoker is thus despised by the 'real' smokers and the non-smokers alike, for failing to fit into either the Care or Given-up category. While with tobacco, there's some health- and addiction-related good reason for this, the same attitude carries over to other products where cutting back really would be enough in most cases - red meat, white flour, sugar, alcohol (assuming a person who isn't prone to alcoholism)... Thus the popularity of diets that altogether eliminate things not because they're so inherently addictive that just one bite would set forth disaster, but because we as a society (or perhaps as a species?) like the idea of purity, more, even, than we like thinness/fitness/health.

As for weight gain at the beginning and not later... not my experience. I've simply weighed more over extended periods (months, years) of running than of not doing so.

PG said...

The extent to which running is hard on the knees probably has something to do with age and the amount of weight those knees have to bear, both of which are probably greater for me than for you :-)

"Thus the popularity of diets that altogether eliminate things not because they're so inherently addictive that just one bite would set forth disaster, but because we as a society (or perhaps as a species?) like the idea of purity, more, even, than we like thinness/fitness/health."

I think we also like the idea of simplicity. Instead of having to think through whether I'm achieving the proper balance of various things, it's so much easier to cut out one thing and have seemingly unlimited access to another. Hence the onetime popularity of the Atkins diet, reportedly enough to severely damage the Krispy Kreme empire.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I don't know what goes on with knees. I've known many slim, young, athletic women (and girls, back in the track-team days) who got injured all the time. I always assumed I didn't because I didn't push myself that hard - I was content not to finish last, which tended to leave me in the middle of the pack. When I run now, I can feel that I could be running faster, but can't quite see what the point would be of doing so, so I don't. Running at just below what you feel capable of might be the secret, or it might be luck of the knee draw. I can't touch my toes, but I can run on whichever surface without agony. Perhaps there's some connection...

We do like simplicity. But that's a bit different from the purity urge. One's about convenience, the other about channeling what used to (or, of course, still does) go to religion into eliminating simple carbohydrates, animal products, television, etc. They may well amount to the same thing, but one mentality's about making life simpler to save time, whereas the other is about making sense of life through oversimplification.

asg said...

Story about the link between knee injuries and estrogen levels: http://www.pslgroup.com/dg/2d20a.htm

Miss Self-Important said...

Sometimes the knee injuries come later, after many years of asphalt-pounding. But basically, I agree, marathons are absurd ways for those with no pain to create some artificially and then feel good about conquering it. (Once I blogged about this, but I've since forgotten what I argued.) I've run more or less regularly for five years, and the only benefit I've ever derived from it may be the ability to force people who think I am fat to concede that it's not because I'm a lazy glutton (though I do enjoy flan w/ a side order of flan, so they may be wrong).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


So my trustworthy knees are, perhaps, a sign of manliness. Whee!


First off, people who think you're fat are insane. (As are people who don't think flan requires a side order of flan.)

"Sometimes the knee injuries come later, after many years of asphalt-pounding."

Of all the illnesses promised to 'come later' from poor lifestyle choices in youth (if 25 is still 'youth'), the ones that sneak up on you from moderate exercise sound the least frightening.