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Exercising the Body, Stoking the Brain

May 10, 1999|CHRISTOPHER NOXON

Whenever Vanessa Beretta cracks open the cover of a new book, she feels suddenly certain that the time has come for a nice long nap.

"I always fall asleep when I read," says the 28-year-old jewelry saleswoman. "I don't like to start a book because I figure I just can't finish it."

But three weeks ago, Beretta bid adieu to her book boredom. During an early morning workout at the Meridian Sports Club, Beretta joined an exercise class that makes use of an unusual workout accessory: a novel. With the encouragement of her gym instructor and eight classmates, Beretta has managed to shed a few pounds while polishing off a 405-page mystery.

"This is the first time I've finished a book in 15 years," says Beretta, pumping the pedals of a StairMaster. "It's just like working out: If you didn't come to the gym, you wouldn't do half these exercises. You need the motivation to do something good for yourself."

Welcome to the latest in L.A. literacy: power reading. Created by gym instructor Nelson Aspen, the so-called "Brains and Brawns Workout" combines the rigors of a cardio class with the civility of a neighborhood book club.

Most of those enrolled in the class do their reading at home, then discuss the book during the 45-minute class. But a few prefer to read while simultaneously plowing through virtual miles, their novels propped up on treadmills and StairMasters like mechanical rabbits ahead of racing greyhounds.

"I'm 35 years old, and I don't want to listen to boom-boom music anymore," says Aspen, who also works as a TV reporter--"the Party Patrolman"--for KABC. "I try to come up with gimmicks that will liven things up."

The book club is actually pretty ordinary, Aspen says, compared with other new classes, such as gospel aerobics or Afro-Brazilian cardio. The newest class at the West Hollywood gym Crunch is choreographed jump roping, led by a husband-and-wife team known as "the Rebel Ropers." But this may be the first time a fitness instructor has introduced literature into the gym, not that the class will be tackling any really tough books.

"We're staying away from writers like Dickens," Aspen says. "This is Book Club Lite."

When the class finished a whodunit called "False Accusations," by Sacramento chiropractor-turned-novelist Alan Jacobson, they were rewarded by a visit from the author. Wearing a tank top emblazoned with the title of his novel, Jacobson fielded questions, all the while keeping up a steady 4 mph clip.

"You definitely wouldn't see this kind of thing up north," he says. "But I really like it. We're exercising our bodies and our minds."

The pairing of exercise class and book chat can make for some decidedly strange discussions. At one point during the workout, Aspen hollers, "OK, people. Let's take it up to a 10% elevation--and I want you to tell me who you'd cast in the movie of 'False Accusations'!"

"Michael Douglas!" one woman pants from the second row.

"Harrison Ford!" huffs another.

In the second row, Cathy Twardosdz keeps quiet. Ordinarily she might offer an answer, but not now, as the base of her treadmill tilts ever upward. "You just get too tired to talk." On a nearby StairMaster, Beretta says the class has made her see literature in a new light. "I'm definitely going to read another book."

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