Monday, October 19, 2009

Scenes from the Treadmill

The exercise room in our local community center, like most, is screen-centric. The place is packed with 33 machines (treadmills, stationary bikes and elliptical trainers) that face a bank of five glowing TV sets mounted to the interior wall.

Two treadmills look the other way, out the large window to a hedge and the parking lot beyond. Trees, now in fall foliage, rise above the lot.

As a hedge/parking-lot tread-miller, I’ve always find this disproportionate arrangement odd. On days like today, when the only treadmill available was a TV-pointer, I find it downright unjust and even mentally disturbing.

As in unhealthy . . . mentally.

Who decides that screen-oriented machines should outnumber the hedge/parking lot ones 33 to two? Did anyone think to ask the users of the machines? Or is this just a ratio that the exercise experts have learned “works from experience.”

My experience is that when the public is confronted with a screen, it will watch it.

Unquestioningly. Anywhere.

Once exercise machines are arrayed facing screens, the inertia sets in. Machine users gaze into the videosphere as their flailing bodies send heart rates to some age-and-weight-related “target.”

Because the hedge/parking lot treadmills were in use, I was forced to join the video gazers today. I unthinkingly scanned the wall's screen horizon to keep my bearings and pass the time.

First I homed in on CNN’s definition of “The News.” It featured a hurricane, a foundering ship, the on-going (day five and counting) saga of the “balloon-boy-who-never was,” and two attractive female “anchors.” The anchors were chatting about something as millions listened and watched. I say “something” because I didn’t plug into the sound (“mute” is a merciful option —always), and my unassisted eyesight was too bad to read the distant scrolling transcript.

On a neighboring screen was a frothy adventure about perfectly proportioned young women friends. They looked remarkably like the news anchors. (Could it be….?) One of the women seemed to have extraordinary powers that had a way of intruding on her incipient, romantic attraction to remarkably attractive young men with assertive jaws.

Another screen was tuned into the “History Channel,” which was telling me more than I wanted to know about the historic virtues of the battle ax. Because I was closer to this screen, I could make out the subtitles. Two young warriors, who looked remarkably like the love interest of the woman wizard, were demonstrating the numerous ways the ax could be employed to dispatch enemy combatants — in this case, each other. Hacking, bludgeoning, pummeling, slicing etc.

I confess, my eye strayed back to the fetching wizard woman and her friends. When I glanced back at the History Channel, the battle-ax program had segued into how an ax could be used to cut down a perfectly healthy looking tree in one’s backyard.

The final screen (I’m leaving out one that made no impression on me whatsoever) showed highlights from yesterday’s NFL games — endlessly.

Recently I’ve taken to watching sports reporting to see how it portrays injuries. A broken ankle, a torn ligament, a fractured arm, a “mild” concussion. Sportscasters report them matter of factly, giving them equal weight to a stunning end-zone reception, a goal-line stand or a 55-yard punt return. Injuries are reported as just another part of the game. Injury time-outs are welcomed opportunities for commercials — cars, beer, tacos and pizza.

But in the exercise room, vulnerable as I am to the hidden infirmities of age, I personalize these injuries. Hey, what if I had a torn ligament or a mild concussion like that? These injuries are NOT the same as a 55-yard punt return, or even a 90-yarder. No, injuries have real consequences for the injured. Some, like concussions, can eventually lead to dementia. (The current New Yorker has an article on that subject.)

* * * *

A single TV channel is confusing enough. All by itself it presents a stream of disconnected information. Sit-com, detergent commercials, reality TV, heart disease commercials, bare-knuckled wrestling, erectile dysfunction disorder medication commercials, the news (war, famine, health reform, boys — perhaps — in balloons), MasterCard commercials.

So it goes.

Here, while running for a couple of miles on a treadmill, I was trying to make sense out of six simultaneous programs. While my body may have benefited from the exercise, my sanity was unraveling with each stride.

Which is why I face the other way, to the hedge and parking lot, when I get the chance. I’m going to suggest to the folks with the power to re-arrange the exercise room that they take our mental as well as our physical health into account. Please, I will say, turn more of the equipment to the window.

They’ll probably think I’m crazy.

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