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BODY WATCH : Burn and Learn : Here's a new way to take your mind off exercise: tone your brain and your body at the same time. One gym offers language, nutrition and film appreciation classes.


PORTLAND, Ore. — Hola! . . . puff puff, puff . . . Como esta usted? . . . puff, puff, puff . . . Only five more miles to go! Bueno! . . . puff.

I made it--logged nearly 15 miles on an exercise bike and at the same time expanded my knowledge of a foreign tongue. Education and exercise? Surely this is what living in the '90s is all about. By the end of this seven-week class I will have terrific language skills, not to mention great thighs.

I'm enrolled in Cyclearning Conversational Spanish at a local gym, Corner on Health. There are six of us, all adults. We face the chalkboard and our teacher (the only person actually standing) in a half-circle of stationary bicycles. She teaches; we pedal.

And we learn, possibly more efficiently than if we weren't simultaneously burning fat. That's the theory of gym owner Ellie Hodder, a former music teacher. She once observed that kids learned faster if their bodies were working along with their minds. To test her theory, she added Exercycle French and Spanish to the gym's schedule.

Now, nearly five years later, she has a faithful band of cycle learners. It seems they're game for just about any class on wheels. There have been nutrition classes, film appreciation classes, even a Perry Mason fan club that pedaled through the TV reruns.

Then there's the highbrow stuff. This month, Hodder is bringing in a director from the Portland Repertory Theatre, who will discuss this season's offerings over the whir of culture-seekers' pedaling. The price of that class includes opening-night play tickets, but wearing bicycle shorts at the gala is discouraged.

I'm looking forward to the fall film series. One feature-length film, plus group discussion after the credits, can burn up a lot of calories. "Thelma and Louise" is the one I don't want to miss. We will be pedaling away, with the long-range goal of improving our male-female relations, while on the screen T & L are handling it in a different way.

But for the moment, I'm in Spanish class. It's a relief to see that other students are also saddle sore and occasionally have to stand up on the pedals to restore circulation. At least Spanish class doesn't dehydrate me; like all the other students, I keep my water bottle handy.

I had originally signed up for French but attended only one class. You see, some time ago I'd had four years of high school French. It soon became clear that my rather elementary French was miles beyond that of my fellow travelers. After just a few laps of class, the teacher observed that my French was coming back.

"Yes," I agreed. "It's like riding a bicycle."

I dropped out--dismounted, actually--with some regret because the French students had devised a fun way to motivate their feet. They kept track of their mileage and then mapped their progress on the route of the Tour de France.

A few veterans of the French class--those students with the slim thighs--remarked that they'd already circled France several times. Somebody suggested Tahiti for a change, until they realized that their total mileage from the first class alone already had exceeded Tahiti's circumference. Oh, well. Back to France.

I said au revoir and transferred to Spanish. Our teacher (or pedalgogue, if you will) had lived in Mexico for five years and was working at a Portland preschool when she landed this job. She said it was the oddest way of teaching Spanish she'd ever seen, but she liked the method.

"I've always taught with games and a lot of moving around," she said. In this class, of course, it's only our feet that are moving around. But because we're constantly clutching the handlebars, we can't refer to notes or dictionaries. The teacher gets our rapt attention.

She teaches us snippets of Spanish conversation and we practice among ourselves, turning to speak to neighboring cyclists. Among the questions already in our repertoire: "Where are you going?" . . . puff, puff, puff . . . "Do you like to bicycle?"

By the end of the hour, I know it's been a good class if my shirt is sopping wet. I wipe my brow and slip off the saddle. I do stretches for my quads, calves and hamstrings. Someday I'll be able to say those words in Spanish.

Already we've learned a children's song about touching our head, neck and shoulders, but we didn't dare do the hand movements for fear of falling off our bikes. It was hard enough adjusting the rhythm of the song to the rhythm of our pedaling.

Everybody's raring to go before the next class begins.

We're doing warm-ups and stretches while greeting each other in Spanish: "Hola!" But our teacher is a few minutes late. She rushes in, apologetic. She lost track of the time, she says. She was at home, riding her Exercycle.

Everybody's doing it. Muy bien!

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