A TV critic journeys through the cheerful hell of exercise shows.

A TV critic journeys through the cheerful hell of exercise shows.

A TV critic journeys through the cheerful hell of exercise shows.

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Oct. 30 2009 11:57 AM

Thrust, Lunge, Vomit, Smile!

A TV critic journeys through the cheerful hell of exercise shows.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Flip the channel and feel the burn. The history of exercise on TV stretches to 1951 and The Jack LaLanne Show. Amazingly, despite the advent of home video, LaLanne's successors are still on the air, lifting and thrusting and smiling too hard. By way of seeing what kind of shape the genre is in, I subjected myself to its rigors, devising along the way a weeklong regimen: The TV Critic Workout. It guarantees flatter abs in seven days, partly by way of stomach crunches, partly by way of promoting tummy-straining laughter at both one's own foolishness and the sillier programs.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

From their spot under the bed, I fetched the wife's 8-pound hand weights, which I had forgotten served a purpose beyond attacking my toes in the dark of night. From the storage closet, I retrieved—don't laugh—my official Slate yoga mat. From the shallows of my character, I summoned a modest amount of physical courage: This workout is geared to the type of TV critic who might have once lost a squash match because, in his breathlessness, he could not detach himself from the wall.

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Monday
Many workout shows appear on PBS affiliates, a service to viewers without the means to join a gym. Because these stations are locally programmed, you will need to check your listings to see which shows are available in your area and exactly what ungodly hour they air at. The upside: You can begin the seven-day workout with body-weight training in the form of dragging yourself out of bed.

In New York City, Priscilla's Yoga Stretches comes on at 6 a.m. Mercifully, it really is just stretches, a mere 15 minutes of them at that. Priscilla Patrick hails from Columbia, S.C., and counts a gentle and comforting manner among her Southern charms.

The blood flows and your body purifies itself. Repeat Priscilla's Yoga Stretches every morning through Friday, if for no other reason than to admire the gleam of her kind eyes.

Take a 45-minute coffee break while preparing to have your buzz harshed by Wai Lana Yoga, also on PBS. Where Priscilla says that her approach to yoga is "nonmystical," Wai Lana's is geared to the New Age fruitcake. She wreathes her ankles in flower garlands and smears blush across her cheeks as if it were war paint. Strengthen your fortitude by sticking it out to end of the show, where she emits an open-throated warble that makes Yoko Ono sound like Alicia Keys.

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Tuesday
A proper TV critic is always on the lookout for cheap thrills, so tune into Kiana's Flex Appeal(ESPN Classic, 7 a.m. ET). A killer rabbit among gym bunnies, Kiana Tom presents weight-lifting workouts while being spotted by muscled or overmuscled—and in any case grossly over-oiled—men. The show promises that, with some persistence, you can earn their bodies. Hers too.

Flex Appeal is not strictly a participatory program, unless it's the case that your TV screen is visible from your squat rack, and that's not really the kind of rack this show is about. I would say that Kiana is perennially spilling out of her push-up bra, but her firm bust—one of her camera's favorite subjects—is not built to spill. Make a note to investigate whether, true to a vague recollection, bond-trader types used to call this kind of show "porn in the morn."

In the evening, tune intoShimmy(FitTV, 8 p.m. ET), which conveniently airs after happy hour, the better for you to giggle at it. Shimmy is a belly-dancing lesson promoted as "a special series that'll get your body moving in the most mysterious ways." On your knees, boys? Hardly. You will be on your feet throughout Shimmy, getting a decent abdominal workout by way of switching the hips. If you follow the lead of the on-screen dancers precisely, you will further work the neck with a lateral head slide and the extraocular muscles with the shifting sidelong glance immortalized by Susanna Hoffs.

Use the commercial breaksto feel just a bit squeamish about the show's Orientalism. On a typical episode, the ladies on-screen start off wearing a normal exercise gear, perhaps accessorized with an arm cuff. In the next segment, they're wearing coin belts around their fine hips. The next thing you know, they're dressed in gauzy skirts and spangled bras, all done up to rock the Casbah. Every exercise show promises a transformation, but these costume changes give Shimmy the flavor of Geisha training.

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Wednesday
Now it's time to get ambitious. Investigate Shimmy's neighbors on FitTV, a sister network of the Discovery Channel pitched to people who want to flaunt tight buns and eat skinless chicken.

It's tricky to take notes while falling on one's face from the one-armed downward dog position, so I might be mixing this up. But I think that In Shape With Sharon Mann is the one with the punishing step exercises and the horribly cheerful host; that Stretch Max: Cathe Friedrich is the one with the punishing Pilates program and a set inspired by Greek-diner classicism; and that Cardio Blast is the one with the punishing house-music cover versions of classic songs. I was with them during Steve Miller's "Abracadabra" but they literally lost me with Nirvana's "About a Girl." Without question, Namaste Yoga is the one where the hushed voice-over goes easy on personal pronouns and definite articles while lightly lip-glossed instructors, each much more your type than Kiana, appear at such varied settings as a white-sand beach, a renovated loft, and a fairly clean parking garage.

The most satisfying by far is Total Body Sculpt With Gilad. Strapping Gilad Janklowicz moves like a panther and talks like a perfectly supportive coach, lacing his clear instructions with plausibly sympathetic acknowledgments of the torture he's exacting. He is charismatic enough that you believe him when he says, "Pain is your friend." You'll burn some real calories here, so go out for a restorative lunch of duck salad and Sancerre.

Thursday
Oof. Pain is your friend overstaying his welcome on your sofa-bed. Your feeble little arms may be especially useless, so pray it's a buns-and-legs day onGetting Fit With Denise Austin(ESPN Classic, 7:30 ET). Toothy and wholesome, Austin is all the more captivating for coming to us from another era. She is reported to be launching a new show in January, but the TV audience of today catches her in her early-'90s heyday, sporting bangs from Hillary Clinton's Tammy Wynette stage and a high-cut hot-pink leotard suitable in 2009 only for American Apparel hoochies out on the town. Despite the punishing intensity of her workouts, she never loses either her breath or her by-golly demeanor: "We burned fat today. Doesn't that make you feel happy?!"

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Next, after a catnap, see what's streaming at Fitness TV, newly launched by Sky TV and touted as the United Kingdom's first fitness network. Such shows as '70s Disco Groove—"Leg warmers compulsory!"—indicate the channel's campy streak. Fellas: It's probably best to sit back and watch your wife sprain her ankle during High Heels Workout.Nota bene: Because Fitness TV broadcasts according to a London schedule, there will be certain difficulties and dissonances when playing along here in the states. For instance, Baby & Me Yoga is on at 4:30 a.m. ET. Have you ever tried to scrounge up a baby at that hour? None of the new moms I know returned my texts.

Friday
Isometric exercise: Stretch out on the couch. Pick up the remote and hold it perpendicular to the spine. Begin sampling the multitudinous offerings of ExerciseTV, a free video-on-demand network. Biggest Loser Power Sculpt, College Crunchtime, Bridal ABsession, Carmen Electra's Aerobic Striptease, Abs of Envy, Arms of Envy, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Power Squad Bod! … No marketing niche goes unexplored, no body-image issue unexploited, no B-list babe unemployed. A personal note to the hostess of Baywatch Abs. You say, "Think about running down the beach and nothing jiggles. That's amazing right?" Wasn't jiggling Baywatch's whole raison d'etre?

No proper workout would be complete without an activity solely focused on keeping the mind sharp—mens sana in corpore sano and all that. Head over a friend's place to share a night of low-stakes poker and top-shelf scotch with others. Play tight, but bluff aggressively. Triple your money and take a cab home.

Saturday
Get in around 3:30. Fix yourself another drink probably. Sit in a straight-backed chair. Watch whatever. Sit and Be Fit (PBS) will be on at 6. The nonprofit organization behind this series intends it for seniors and "those with limited physical capabilities." The latter category most definitely includes you.

Host Mary Ann Wilson scarcely asks you to stand while leads you through motions essentially familiar from childhood activities including patty-cake, the hokey-pokey, and time-out discipline. Her kind manner and Mr. Rogers-type gentleness may inspire a certain self-disgust in a dirty stay-out like you, but, properly applied, this will only build character.

Sleep until 1, eat a sensible brunch, go back to sleep again.

Sunday
Rest.