Were the Seventies the first Fitness Decade? Probably.
In the Seventies, Jim Fixx became a household name with his The Complete Book of Running. Cigarette ads disappeared from television, entrants in the Boston Marathon quadrupled, and the Village People sang the merits of exercise in “Macho Man” (“Jogging in the mornings, go man go / Workouts in the health spa, muscles glow.”)
If the Seventies were the Me Decade, an essential part of the Me Decade was the maintenance and upkeep of one’s physical plant. How could one come into one’s true fullness if one gasped and panted going up a flight of stairs?
Not everyone who started paying attention to fitness in the ’70s was an egotist or a wanna-be Schwarzenegger, though. Some people were more interested in survival than in filling out their leisure suits.
That included my grandfather, who went out one Saturday early in the decade and bought himself a new and unfamiliar machine.
I’ve written at some length about the heart attack my grandfather suffered in May 1971 — the first of three he would suffer — and the physical toll it took.
While my grandpa eliminated some physical stresses from his life, his doctor also told him to get some exercise, in a controlled and defined fashion.
And so he bought himself a Vitamaster exercise bike.
It was a purely analog beast, of course; white in color; with what seemed to me at the time as an exaggeratedly large, oddly ridged, and most uncomfortable seat. (My grandparents padded it with a large cushion that, while not designed for high-intensity workouts, did the job fine.)
I helped him bring it home and set it up (this is my dad talking); he bought it used from a classified ad in the Stamford Advocate. He was very serious about his health after his heart attack, and is one of the few people I know who really changed his lifestyle and kept it that way.
I cannot get my hands on a picture of the bike right now, but I remember exactly where it lived — in the dining room, on the far side of the family dining table, near the windows.
When we would visit, my brother and I would take turns riding it, usually in brief frenzied splurges of energy, glancing only occasionally at the odometer to see how far we’d gone.
I cannot remember seeing my grandfather ride the bike in person — maybe because he preferred to spend his time entertaining his grandkids when he had the chance to do so in person.
My dad vouches that my grandpa got his exercise when we weren’t around:
I think he was embarrassed to be seen exercising, but I used to glance at the mileage on the speedometer when we’d visit and he had put on quite some miles between our visits.
It’s a lonely scene, and perhaps a somber one, to imagine my grandfather clambering up on the machine and putting in his time, driven by the implicit bottom-line interest of trying to hold off death.
That’s what it was ultimately about, after all — not looking good, or coming into his fullness, or making his muscles glow like a macho man, but giving himself a physical advantage to keep his heart beating as long as possible.
It worked. Not by itself, of course; any number of other actions also helped keep him going. But it surely contributed.
More than a quarter-century later, when the Me Decade fitness boom was a distant memory to many of its hamstrung and pot-bellied former participants, my grandfather got to hold his first great-grandchild.
The race is not always won by the swift. Sometimes, it’s won by those who sit in one place and don’t go anywhere.