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Harrop: How to get fit without really trying

Published: Monday, May 6, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

We may not have time for exercise, but there’s always time to read about exercising. And while the motivation to exercise may not be tops, the motivation to shop for “aids” to exercise seems forever strong.

Both activities offer the gratifying sense that we’re getting somewhere, fitness-wise. We know that at some point, the plans must turn into sweaty action, but that’s for some undefined “later.”

Meanwhile, hats off to the fabulously muscled men and women working out with primitive, ugly dumbbells. What have they got that gets them pumping iron on dark, rainy mornings? How do they drag themselves to windowless gyms on sunny weekend afternoons when others are outside, only contemplating movement?

I enjoyed a full armchair workout earlier this week while flying home. Strapped in seat 16A, I repeatedly lifted two fitness-themed magazines bought at the airport. One was MacLife, with a cover story titled, “An App a Day: Your Phone, iPad and even your Mac can help you on your quest to get healthy – and have more fun doing it.” I can attest to the fun of downloading “solutions.”

One featured app was LoseIt!, something I’ve tried. LoseIt! helps you count calories and record activities that burn calories throughout the day. It tells you by how many calories you are under or over budget – the budget being your calorie ideal.

Here is what really happens: You spend a good deal of time tapping in the data after every meal, snack or long walk. The moment you’re over budget, you stop looking at the thing because it’s all too depressing. (Other apps can deal with the low moods.) You also rationalize that the app burns up too much battery power.

Another app, called GymPact, asks users to set a goal for workouts and agree to pay a penalty each time they fall short on their commitment. Others who actually work out get the money. I don’t know who would make payments to strangers because they failed to reach their exercise goals. Some do, I suppose, but in this vale of carrots and sticks, there already seem to be too many sticks.

The concept of using money as a motivator for exercise, however, is not without its successes. I attend a weekly group workout led by Charlene at the gym. If I don’t show up without having given 24-hour notice, I get charged nonetheless. And I must also deal with the wrath of Charlene, who makes up for the absence by being extra brutal the next week. So I guess I already work under a kind of GymPact. But better the money go to Charlene.

The other inflight reading was Bicycling. I’ve been reading about bicycling for some time, and may someday do it on a regular basis. I’m especially interested in commuter biking. Though Bicycling is mostly geared toward the guys doing flips off mountainsides, or pumping their steel thighs across continents, it does offer some material for the spandex-averse.

Happily, the latest issue recommended a commuter bicycle for the serious beginner. A road couch on city streets, so we read, it’s also beautiful, if a bit pricey. The question is, would this state-of-the-art model get me pedaling in a way that the two bikes now growing cobwebs in my garage do not?

The honest answer is painful to contemplate. But as the plane made its final approach, the glamorous alternative on the shiny magazine page offered hope and limitless fantasies of fitness triumphs to come. And don’t forget the latest fitness watch, with heart-rate monitor, mile counter and alarm clock. I can hear Charlene laughing at me right now.

• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board.

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