Don't ask Umbert Ciccolella why people don't exercise.
The Los Angeles fitness guru is amazed that so many Americans can remain committed couch potatoes in the face of overwhelming evidence that regular exercise is a dramatic boon to health.
"You improve your health by exercising. You improve your stress level and your body is going to look better," Ciccolella says with a sigh. "People come to me and say, 'I know I should be at aerobics class, but my daughter has to be somewhere . . . Yadda . . . Yadda . . . Yadda. It's all excuses. We all know we should do it. But, deep down, we dread going."
In the three years since the fitness boom began to fizzle (surveys show that the number of regular participants peaked in 1990), lots of people are asking the question: Why don't we exercise when we know it's good--even necessary--for our health?
The answer does not lie in the need for better athletic shoes. (A $40 pair of Nikes will suffice for most people.)
It does not lie in the scarcity of aerobics classes. (There are more exercise classes in Los Angeles on any given day than AA meetings.)
And the answer has nothing to do with the lack of role models. (Is there a celebrity who has not produced an exercise video?)
The answer is much more complex, say health and fitness experts. They say Americans have not embraced exercise because:
* We have been incorrectly led to believe that only vigorous, training-for-the-triathlon exercise will improve health.
* Modern life has practically eliminated opportunities to incorporate modest activity into daily life.
* We feel so guilty about not exercising that we can't exercise.
The "no pain, no gain" philosophy of exercise in the '80s may have backfired badly in the '90s. Chances are that everyone who cringed at Jane Fonda's cheer, "Go for the burn," is now microwaving butter-flavored popcorn and tuning in to "Roseanne."
"It may be that the current low rate of participation is due, in part, to the public's perception that they must engage in vigorous, continuous exercise to reap health benefits," says Russell Pate, president of the American College of Sports Medicine. "But actually, the scientific evidence shows that even moderate physical activity can also provide substantial health benefits."
Pate is among the nations's fitness leaders who are baffled that so many Americans remain unmoved by the wonders of exercise.
Studies have shown that regular, moderate activity can cut the risk of heart disease by half. Exercise also confers some protection against adult-onset diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers, osteoporosis and depression.
And physically active people live longer than sedentary people, even if they start their activity late in life.
"It is estimated that more than 250,000 deaths per year in the U.S. can be attributed to a lack of regular physical activity," said experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine in a joint statement released in July.
Despite this recognized value of activity, only 22% of adults engage in leisure-time physical activity at the recommended level, the report found. Almost one-quarter of Americans are completely sedentary and "are badly in need of more physical activity." More than half (54%) are "inadequately active" and would also benefit from more activity.
To persuade Americans that they don't have to do the Iron Man Triathlon to benefit from exercise, most major health and fitness organizations are shifting to a moderate-is-good philosophy.
Ciccolella, who teaches funk and other aerobics classes at Sports Club LA, agrees that a fear of pain and suffering turns off lots of would-be exercisers.
"I tell them to just stand in a back corner and shuffle their feet. The next week, they can try a little more, then a little more," he says. "I also try to make it fun for people. Otherwise, it will be too hard and people won't want to come back."
According to the fitness plan released by the CDC and American College of Sports Medicine in July, Americans who can't stand to sweat should instead look for ways of building mild exercise into daily life.
The goal of this plan is to accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week by gardening, raking leaves, dancing, walking part way to work, or from planned exercise like aerobics, tennis, walking briskly or cycling.
But it may not be possible to build exercise into daily life, experts acknowledge. Cars, television and labor-saving devices have removed much of the elbow grease from modern life. Moreover, the environment is less conducive to exercise--there are fewer safe outdoor spaces available to people in metropolitan areas.
If moderate exercise is relatively easy and it's sufficient, why aren't people doing even that? It may be because of the way we look at ourselves, says Albert Ellis, a renowned psychotherapist at the Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy in New York City.