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BODY WATCH : Light Reading for Heavy Workouts : Your muscles scream; your lungs burn. Try easing the agony of the workout with a good magazine. But leave the Economist at home.

July 12, 1994|LESLIE KNOWLTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What makes the difference between wimping out early on the StairMaster and going the distance?

It may be as simple as something good to read.

Forget newspapers (sorry, boss!)--those big, flapping pages can be tricky to handle while you're panting, and all that black ink on sweaty hands can leave you looking like a chimney sweep.

And forget books. Anything thicker than "The Cat in the Hat" won't lie flat, and it's tough to follow a serious plot line while sneaking peeks at the bench-pressing hunks.

Consider instead the magazine: While there's lots of talk today about the writing becoming too light, for gym reading that's just what you want. But remove all those loose subscription cards first so you don't jam the machine with paper shrapnel every time you turn a page.

What makes a good gym magazine?

* It should distract you from--but not compete with--what you're doing.

* It should not be embarrassing to be seen with--or for others to share the room with.

* The type shouldn't be so tight that you have to bring bifocals even if you don't ordinarily need them.

* Features should not jump past non-page-numbered advertising supplements to page 205.

* And until someone makes exercise machines with suitable appendages to hold reading material, make sure your mag is lightweight or can easily be propped in front of you.

Of the thousands of possible choices, here are our picks for the best and worst magazines to take to the gym:

THE 10 BEST

Entertainment Weekly--It's less tacky than the National Enquirer but still has those tabloid tidbits--all the Hollywood grit and gossip, including everything you'd ever want to know about "Star Trek" spin-offs and Barbra Streisand's mother.

People--Lightweight in every sense of the word, this is the magazine to read on cardiovascular machines. It travels easily among the dirty socks and towel, and if it gets a little wrecked, so what? You weren't going to showcase it on your coffee table anyway. Learn about the week's best TV programs, so when you stagger from the gym to crash on the couch, you'll know what button to push on the remote control.

Newsweek/Time/U.S. News & World Report--These clones offer great photojournalism and lots of meaty features in one easy-to-digest package. Keep up with weighty affairs without being so overwhelmed that your machine program drags to a dead stop.

Life--In the old days, its big format might have kept it off this list. But the downsized version still has great photos and a lively mix of news you can use. One recent issue covered everything from Castro to breast cancer to electron-microscope photographs of live human parasites--including the louse--and Marilyn Monroe's sister's never-before-published photos of Norma Jean.

American Health Magazine--Because fitness of body and mind is ostensibly why you're at the gym, look committed and motivate yourself at the same time by reading helpful stories about antioxidants, nine keys to a lasting marriage and how to find out if you, too, are a hypochondriac. Added bonuses: how giant rubber bands can firm your thighs and low-cal recipes to keep them that way.

Natural History--More bang for your buck: Support New York's venerable Museum of Natural History, impress fellow exercisers and learn all at the same time. Easy-to-handle book will entertain and educate you with such features as ScienceLite (astrophysics made easy), great comics and compelling photographs of Maui hawkfish hovering over antler coral.

Buzz--The local pick: Wide and thin for easy propping, it's hipper than Los Angeles magazine and livelier than many other regionals. And while offering fun tips and dishing insider scoops about some of L.A.'s weightier institutions--such as Hollywood and The Times--it lets you in on what's happening each month in shopping, dining and entertainment.

The Atlantic Monthly--With stories such as "The Coming Anarchy" and "The False Promise of Gun Control," its subject matter may be heavy, but the fact that you're reading it will definitely turn heads. True, you may not finish even one feature if other masochists are waiting for your machine, but at least the stories are presented on consecutive pages and the easy-on-the-eyes design allows the words to breathe while you can't. Good fiction and poetry.

The New Yorker--You'll seem sophisticated and cosmopolitan despite the criticism that Editor Tina Brown has dumbed it down. The fiction is still great, the cartoons as acerbic as ever, and it runs great book and movie reviews. One warning: If you've never lived in New York, you may think they're talking too much.

Travel Holiday--To take your mind far, far from your physical agony, get lost in this well-photographed book with its easy-to-read type, vibrant writing style and handy travel tips. One recent issue meanders through Barbados, Africa, Vienna, Glacier National Park, American casinos and Kentucky bourbon distilleries.

THE 10 WORST

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