In generations past, the aging process was a cruel and inevitable march toward decrepitude. Someone fortunate enough to reach the ancient age of 70 usually looked like Yoda--hunched, shriveled and frail. No wonder Ponce de Leon searched for the fabled Fountain of Youth.
Today, however, we know that many of the physiological infirmities that used to make old age so oppressive aren't necessarily predestined. If we take care of ourselves properly, muscles do not have to shrink, bones do not have to become brittle, limbs do not have to become inflexible, backs and joints do not have to ache, metabolisms do not have to slow to a crawl and fat does not have to bulge from our clothes.
Taking care of ourselves means strength training.
Strength training, researchers agree, is the surest way to prevent the bone loss and brittleness of that "silent killer" osteoporosis, as well as build atrophied muscles, make joints stronger and more flexible and improve metabolism, thus burning fat.
That's why, for the holidays, you might consider giving your loved ones of any (adult) age a fountain of youth. Give them the gift of strength training in the home--devices that can make weight training both fun and quick, by eliminating the need to drive to a gym.
With my friend Patrick Netter, an exercise equipment expert, I've drawn up a short list of items that fit the bill, from the ordinary to the cutting edge. Using any of them twice a week for 20 minutes, you can derive all the physical and psychological benefits of weight training. Working from the least expensive to the most expensive gifts:
* Dumbbells. In my opinion, no one who's serious about his or her health should be without them. They come in three main forms: standard iron, costing about 50 cents a pound at your local sporting goods store; neoprene-covered, costing about $1 a pound; and chrome, about $2 a pound. I recommend starting with a set of 3-pound weights, a set of 5-pound weights and a set of 8-pound weights. Using those three sets and half a dozen or so exercises (found in books and manuals), the recipient can get a complete workout, strengthening every part of her body. As a stocking stuffer, you might add in some Valeo weightlifting gloves. Made of washable black leather, with no color "bleed" on the hands, they come in all sizes for $19.95 at Busybody; for store locations, call (800) 466-3348, or visit Busybody's Web site, http://www.busybody-fitness.com.
* Bollinger's the Rack is a new product that has been so hot that stores are sold out; new shipments will begin in January. You can give a gift certificate for the steel frame exercise aid that uses your own body weight to build upper-body strength and abdominal strength through exercises like knee raises, dips, push-ups and crunches. At $79, it folds up for easy storage. Visit your local sporting goods store or stores where sporting goods are sold. For locations, call (800) 241-0276.
* Premise Products ProBell is a high-tech (and more costly) solution to the problem of outgrowing your dumbbells. If your budget allows you to spend $294 for black weights or $394 for chrome weights, take a look at this amazing device that allows you to dial in the desired amount of weight, in 5-pound increments, on each dumbbell. One pair replaces six sets (210 pounds) of free weights. To order, visit the company's Web site, http://www.premiseproducts.com, or call toll-free (877) 333-7867.
* Pacific Fitness' Zuma is one of the newest and best home gyms. Taking up barely 4 feet by 5 feet, it nonetheless offers 25 exercises designed to train every muscle group. The machine offers a full range of options that allow you to target muscles that are hard to work with just dumbbells. It's $995 at Busybody; for store locations, call (800) 466-3348, or call up Busybody's Web site, http://www.busybody-fitness.com.
* If your budget allows, the Vectra C-1 offers the sleekest design of any weight machine out there, fitting snugly in any corner. It's also easy to operate, and comes with a detachable weight bench that can be used with dumbbells, providing a complete biomechanically correct workout for both upper and lower body. It's $1,995; to order, call LA Gym, (800) 915-9111.
With any of these gifts (or as a gift on its own) you might include a weight-training video or book from a recognized fitness expert who can both inspire and instruct your loved one (or yourself) on how to get started. Dozens are available in video- and bookstores everywhere. Also, how about prepaying for an hour with a personal fitness trainer who will come to the home and provide hands-on instruction?
In truth, most of us can't remember what we got last year from those we loved, nor can we remember what we gave. But giving the gift of health and longevity is a great way to do something meaningful and memorable in this most meaningful season.
Too bad Ponce de Leon couldn't walk to his local sporting goods store.
Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith
Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.