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The East Coast/West Coast Exercise Phenomena : Brains and Brawn Stereotypes Shattered by Demographics : Muscling Into a Fitness Regimen

January 11, 1987|MARY ROURKE and ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writers

The look was long, appraising. Slowly, with the same clinical detachment she might reserve for some recently defrosted relic of a Pleistocene health spa, her eyes traveled the length of his body, from loafers to pinstripe suit to button-down collar shirt.

Finally, the assessment, cushioned as gently as possible. "Face it," this slender lily of Lotus Land said. "You have an East Coast body."

East Coast body, West Coast mind. Wimps and airheads, beachboys and braintrusters. In the battle between the seaboards, the cliches die hard.

In the face of a growing body of data, however, such assumptions may be on their way to extinction. Under the heading of so-much-for-stereotypes, a recent Gallup Poll shows more Easterners than Westerners now jog for exercise.

Equally stunning, the same study has the East horning in hard on another steel-belted precept of life in 1987 America. If Westerners, so it is said, are virtually required by law to claim membership in health clubs, fully 10% of Easterners now worship regularly at such temples of tone-up. That's just 2% fewer than in the fitness-crazed West.

Westerners, meanwhile, seem equally manic about exercising their brains. Neither Harvard nor Yale nor Vassar nor Wellesley, nor the whole East Coast academic establishment combined could refute findings by Denver's National Demographics and Life-styles Group that Westerners outread Easterners, ranking 2% higher in the national average among readers.

Further, group president Jock Bickert contradicts the notion that Easterners have a monopoly on opera and ballet with reports that Westerners stand 18% above the national average in arts-events attendance, while Easterners registered just 15% above average.

Facts and Media Blitzes

And then there is Blue Cross of California's legendary TV commercial. When an older couple wanders onto a beachful of bodies beautiful, their bewilderment seems to summarize the plight of the nation's sagging middle. Says the husband to the wife: "This sure ain't Nebraska."

But facts, figures and media blitzes can scarcely compete with attitudes that seem to assume that Easterners and Westerners have evolved from separate solar systems. "Easterners have bodies," said T George Harris, New York-based editor of American Health magazine, "but they hate them." Counters Los Angeles celebrity photographer Harry Langdon: "Westerners are more concerned about the color of their hair than anything intellectual."

Maybe so, but none other than William F. Buckley, titan of Eastern intellectuals, is known to break sweat on his exercise bike several mornings a week, and has taken to writing about his yearly stint at a fat farm. And wasn't that Hollywood muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger, nibbling canapes and trading bons mots in the salons of the Upper East Side?

Something is changing, certainly, a kind of transcontinental transference of intellectual and corporeal images and expectations. Just possibly, observers such as John R. Searle, professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, suggest, the nation may be on its way to shedding its Puritanical asceticism and embracing the ancient Greek ideal that mind and body could be traffic-stopping at the same time.

Nevertheless, Searle cautioned, "We do have in this country a certain stereotype of the intellectual, what he is supposed to look like."

Translated into simple American English, intellectual means Eastern.

At the school of medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Kenneth Vaux, a professor of ethics in medicine, contends that the differences in East-West ideals reflect contrasts in cultural roots. "The New England Puritan-Pilgrim mentality is still pervasive from the East through the Midwest," Vaux said. "But the West is a newer community, shaped more by Asian cultures whose art, for example, is some of the most erotic in the world."

Other Differences

Even religion is involved, the social scientist argues, noting that Catholicism in the West, for example, is likely to be Latin-based rather than the more rigid Irish or German types prevalent in the East.

Westerners openly enjoy their body "obsessiveness" because they live under what Vaux calls a strong amnesiac element. "They've put aside their family traditions and roots, all of which influence how you think about your body."

Easterners also care about their physical appearance, Vaux believes, but they talk about it in terms that Westerners find righteous and overly intellectual. For Easterners, he says, "Body training is about building stamina against the brutal weather, or the dog-eat-dog business world. The language is survival terms."

Or, as Thomas F. Cash, an expert in the psychology of body appearance, dubbed the classic East Coast style: "Studious looking." Said the professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., "We're talking Ralph Nader. Lean and hungry, intellectually hungry. When the phrase totally awesome comes out of someone's mouth, they say, 'Excuse me?' "

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