Exercise in Paris – by Russell Hodge

I believe that physical fitness is one of the keys to good health, particularly as the years advance. There are very few things that prevent me from exercising. Once I have overcome my lack of motivation, inherent laziness and fear of self-punishment, exercise comes easily and naturally.

I have frequented gymnasiums spasmodically for most of my life. I start a program, engage a personal trainer, religiously follow the program and then drop it. For the twelve months, before I travelled to Paris, I trained at Fitness First in Miranda.

My personal trainer was a young body builder, Chris Penfold. Chris was typical of all my personal trainers. The most important attribute of a personal trainer is the ability to bear pain. I trained with Chris three times a week and I was always in pain. I always had to lift that slightly heavier weight, row that little bit harder, pedal the bike a little faster. Chris bore my pain with stoic indifference. I trained three times a week with Chris. I was making a significant contribution to paying his mortgage; I am sure that went some way to assuaging his pain.

Before I engaged Chris, I looked in the mirror and saw a fat little man. The little was non negotiable, but the fat was choice. I could fix the problem with exercise. The scales are my friend. I weighed myself daily to make sure I didn’t get fatter.

I still remember when I first met Chris. After he agreed to train me, he told me his hourly rate. I rang my bank to arrange an overdraft.

Chris stood a metre in front of me. He looked me up and down, paused, and kindly said.

“You’re old and overweight. You cannot exercise like a twenty year old. You will have to change your diet.”

“How do you know what I eat and drink?”

“I’m not blind.”

“I do not want to go on a diet, I want to lose weight with exercise.”

“You don’t need to lose weight. You need to reduce your fat and increase your muscle. Muscle is heavier than fat, so you won’t appear so fat, but you may be heavier. Put the scales away, you don’t need them.”

“Are you going to give me a calorie counting diet?”

“Yes and no. You will eat as much as you want, but you will eat different things at different times of the day.”

“I suppose sometime or other you will actually give me some exercises.”

What appeared to be a cruel smile crossed his lips as he said, “I think that can be
arranged.”

He started the first session by cross-examining me regarding my eating habits. I disclosed details of the worst of Western society’s eating habits. He made notes. He was very perspicacious. He suggested I reduce my coffee intake from four cappuccinos per day to two. Otherwise I could eat whatever I liked.

The exercises he introduced me to, at first, were not very strenuous. Chest presses, shoulder raises, leg lifts and so on were all familiar to me. I had three sessions a week and Chris wanted me to exercise on another three days. This exercise comprised walking for fifty minutes. It did not matter how far, or how fast, it was important that I actually move.

Week by week passed and the exercises not only became harder but they were varied. I did not understand what he was doing. I just did what he said. The exercises consisted of muscle building, lifting, to me, what were heavy weights. He gave me aerobic type exercises, rowing and bike riding to improve my stamina. He noticed my posture was poor and my core strength lacking. The exercises were always hard and exhausting. He varied the exercises over time to meet my physiological needs. This of course required considerable expertise. The overdraft was justified.

The biggest and most imperceptible change was to my diet. Chris spoke to me regularly during an exercise session about what I ate. He suggested I buy a rice cooker and substitute balsamic rice for potato mashed in butter and cream.

I introduced the changes into my diet. I had a huge advantage. A few years earlier I asked my wife, Josie, if she minded if I did the cooking. With some reluctance she agreed. I enrolled in a basic knife skills class at the local community college to learn to cook. I also enrolled in a couple of other cooking classes.

This meant I could cook whatever I liked. Josie was a healthy eater and other than rarely eating meat, she was understanding and flexible.

Gradually, with Chris’ subtle manipulation, I changed my eating habits. He introduced my to the “My Fitness Pal” app. I gradually changed my habits such that I ate mainly carbohydrates at the beginning of the day and protein at night. My intake of vegetables and fish increased. I never became fanatical; every night, I ate twenty scorched almonds before I went to bed.

Chris’ technique was diabolically simple. He did not attempt to radically change my diet. He encouraged me to make incremental changes over a twelve- month period. In twelve months my fat to body weight ratio dropped. Chris eschewed the body mass index test. He used calipers to measure my actual fat.

The Penfold method of incremental change, meant, each small adjustment to my daily food intake became permanent. Subtle changes revolutionized what I ate, every day.

I needed to maintain my eating regime when I arrived in Paris. Eating was not difficult as eating healthily was a matter of habit. Maintaining an exercise regime was more problematic.

I research gymnasiums in Paris. The most convenient is the Fitness First gymnasium on Boulevarde St. Gemaine. I catch the metro to Odeon and walk to the gym. The gym is housed in what appears to be a historical building. It has a centuries old façade and ornate carvings and columns decorate its exterior.

The entrance occupies the entire front of the building. I walk through wide glass doors and am immediately confronted by wide steps stretching upwards. I see gates and lights. The lights are red and green, mainly red. I ascend to a counter on the right to be greeted by a young woman. I explain,

“I am in Paris for six months. Can I look at the gym please?”

The friendly young woman walks me through the gate and past the counter. On the same level is a row of treadmills, cheek by jowl lining the wall. There is no other equipment. At the end of the room we walk up stairs to the next level.

The next level is the centre of the gym. At the top the stairs I face a room. Immediately in front is aerobic equipment. Stationary bikes, rowing machines, pull up bar, and the like. To the left of the room is a space that appears quarantined, is area where heavy lifting occurs. There is a bench press, leg press machine, free-weights and assorted other equipment. At the other end of the room is a small matter for free exercises such as, the plane, sit ups, push ups and so on.

The young lady shows me the door to the men’s change room. It consists of about four rows of mahogany benches below mahogany lockers. It is spotlessly clean. The showers are numerous and very public. The gym is by Australian standards very small.

I unsuccessfully attempt to transfer my Fitness First membership in Australia to this gym. I pay the significant membership fee for six months.

The gym is ideal. Although small it has all the equipment I need. Its main advantage is that it is five minutes’ walk from the Sorbonne where I will be studying. For the next five months, I exercise three times a week, including one day every weekend.

I typically exercise before or after lunch. This is when the gym is the least crowded.

I decide to utilise the heavy weights section. I soon become a regular at the gym. Each time I go I see the same faces exercising. I see the same faces in the change room. Occasionally someone speaks English, however, in the main French is the sole language.

I do not interact with the regulars. I have an exercise program. I put weights on the machine; do repetitions, rest, change the weights, rest and so on. My fellow gym junkies are serious about exercise. During my rest period they jump in, load my machine with weights, do their own repetitions, and then remove most of the weights when they finish. In this way we alternate using the machines.

Men are sole users of the area where I exercise. In the main, the men exercising are magnificent physical specimens. They have washing board stomachs, huge chests, large carved biceps and legs like tree trunks.

I never attempted bodybuilding. I decide it is time to start. I copy the exercises done by others. I know my technique is correct. Chris was a stickler for doing exercises in a particular manner. He contended each exercise has a particular technique. Failure to follow that technique will result in long-term injury.

After eight weeks my body has not changed. Why has my body remained unchanged? My skinny arms, skinny legs are the same. I still have a Cronulla chest, far from Manly. The only logical explanation is that I have not properly copied the actions of the magnificent specimens I admire.

I continue my exercises and introduce another routine. It is a routine faithfully followed by every body builder in the gym. In doing so, I ignore the lessons of Plato.

As part of the subject The Philosophy of Art I studied Plato. Plato starts with an idea. The idea is then created as a form and the imitation is the painting. Plato contends the imitation is inferior to the form. As an example; a chair. First the idea of a chair, then the carpenter creates the chair. The painter who copies the chair creates an image, according to Plato, inferior to the real thing, the actual chair.

I do not believe it. The idea is a muscular man. The men in the gym are the products of the idea. I resolve to imitate the men in the gym and arrive at my own muscularity. My muscularity will not be an inferior imitation.

I look at myself lovingly in the mirror. The look of adoration is the key to success. I put my shoulders back, suck my breath in and hold my chest out. Then I hunch my shoulders forward, hold my arms in an ape like pose. My elbows are bent, my fists clenched either side of my ears, reveal my biceps.

I practise this over some months. It works: I see embryonic muscles appear, my chest is larger, my stomach flatter. Every time I see my body in the mirror it looks better.

There are setbacks. In order to improve my body, I must not look at any other male in the gym. I learn to look but not see. I become totally unaware of anyone else. I am self-absorbed in the beauty of my own body.

I am so successful that the gym staff gives me special consideration. As I enter the gym someone always says. “

“Votre chez les dents c’est la.”

It is only after I return to Australia that I understand what they said, “Your toothpicks are there.”

Plato is correct, art is an inferior imitation of the real thing. No wonder I fail the Philosophy of Art exam.