SI Vault
John Maier
October 23, 1989
Rio de Janeiro Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics, first visited Rio de Janeiro nearly 20 years ago and was stunned by what he saw on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. No, it wasn't the local beauties in their scanty bikinis who shocked Cooper—at least that's what he says—but the hordes of Brazilians jogging, working out, playing soccer and volleyball, exercising all day long. "I've never seen people so devoted to physical fitness," says Cooper, who has visited more than 50 countries in the last two decades. "Rio was and still is the aerobic capital of the world. You won't see such fitness freaks anywhere else, not even in California. It's the only place I know where people work out 24 hours a day. You go down to the beach at any hour, even two or three in the morning, and you see people jogging. Some of them are 75 to 80 years old."
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October 23, 1989

Seaside Muscle Mania

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Cariocas are known for their sculptured physiques. The men's bodies are tight and muscular, the women's curvaceous but athletic. Though rounded bottoms have always been a trademark of the "girls from Ipanema," small breasts are in, as are taut thighs and calves.

"There is nothing better than a strong, athletic body," says Tania Dias, 27, who is exercising on Copacabana. "We like to look at nice bodies, and we love to be looked at, even whistled at or flirted with, if it's done in the right way." Dias turns to look at a bodybuilding station where several men are doing chin-ups and sit-ups. Others, waiting in line, strut around or stand and flex their muscles. "Actually, there is only one thing Cariocas like more than being looked at or looking at other people," says Dias, "and that's looking at themselves."

Ah, well, Cariocas have never been known for their modesty. "It's not that we're all good-looking," says Dias, "but we think we are. So we act and dress as if we're celebrities."

As with aerobics, obsession with one's appearance did not originate in Rio, but it found a home there. On the beach, the Cariocas, who are usually naked but for a stitch or two, are equals: rich and poor, executives, movie stars, garbage collectors. Stripped of their tailored suits, fashionable dresses or tattered hand-me-downs, they are simply men and women, "like Adam and Eve, but with less on," says Dias. "Here, the only thing that counts is your body."

With so much emphasis on appearance and youth, is it any surprise that Rio has more plastic surgeons per capita than any other city in the world? Or that women put on makeup and jewelry and have their hair done just to go to the beach? Or that outsiders joke that the only things with any depth in Rio are the bay surrounding Sugar Loaf Mountain and the city's potholes? Or that nobody reads books at the beach? Or that Cariocas have been labeled narcissistic, uncultured, superficial and hedonistic?

Cariocas have heard it all and they don't mind, perhaps because they're so caught up in their own world and are too busy enjoying life. Still, the Cariocas deserve some credit. Regardless of why they work out, all that running and sweating can't be bad for their health. (In fact, life expectancy among all Brazilians has risen during the past 20 years from 59 to 65.) So what if their egos are a little inflated and they place undue emphasis on body over mind? That too can have its advantages. Hear Katie Byrne, a 23-year-old tourist from London: "When I visited Italy and Spain last year, everybody gave me these terrible looks when I put on my bathing suit, because my skin is so white. They made me feel awful and unwelcome. I thought the same thing would happen when I went to Ipanema, but surprisingly nobody even looked at me."

Surprisingly? The Cariocas were probably too busy admiring their own physiques.

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