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Becker, too, has addressed himself to the rather narrow socioeconomic stratum that furnishes the bulk of the center's members: "I believe if you opened this to the hardhats, made everything free, not too many would come. A man worried about putting meat on the table is not so concerned with reordering his life. You don't have to be affluent to afford the $255 for an examination or $450 a year to belong to the activity center, but if you see a black in the locker room, it's probably Jean Fugett, the Cowboy tight end. It's just that the men who have succeeded financially are now thinking about preserving themselves, prodded perhaps by someone close to them."
Once he is given a program by the medical staff, a patient reports to Activity Center Director Russ Harris. "My job is keeping people motivated," Harris says, "and motivation is skin-deep and soluble in alcohol." Harris succeeds with a barrage of such epigrams. "Taste makes waist," he says. "You don't stop exercising because you grow old. You grow old because you stop exercising." He runs dozens of contests for pounds lost or aerobic points scored, awards special T shirts for 100, 500 and 1,000 miles jogged, and lectures on the urgency of filling out the center's computerized exercise log cards. "Of all the dropouts, 95% haven't filled out their cards" he roars, shaking in dumbfounded fury, a state he can maintain for one or two seconds before falling back into his basic posture of indefatigable boosterism. "A lot of our gimmicks are directed at the corporate people. They fly in from all over the country to enter the Tyler Cup, a two-mile run for time. At first I was awed by all the corporation presidents, but you know they can't buy that 100-mile T shirt, they have to earn that recognition. No question about it, the people in key positions respond strongly to competitive programs." Sometimes too strongly. There have been fights on the basketball court in which the net worth of the combatants ran to nine figures.
For all his boyish energy, Harris spent six years as athletic director of the Canton (Ohio) YMCA and is an experienced student of the patterns of exercise involvement. "The hoopla, the log cards and mileage charts are the first stage," he says. "Next comes what might be called competitive compulsion, the stage where something like running a marathon seems crucial, even though a marathon is about 20 miles farther than anyone has to run to get the optimum health benefit. The third stage, which few people ever reach, is where a person finds physical activity satisfying for its own sake; you know then that there has been a long-term change in habits and lifestyle, in values maybe."
Harris does not find many executives who run or swim for its own sake. "I wonder about the happiness of corporate men," he says. "More often they seem to see exercise as a small price to pay. By playing up that and by stressing friendly competition, we might be neglecting our chance to nudge people onto level three, where they wouldn't need us anymore. But we're new. I'm sure that will come."
Just before dawn in North Dallas there is evidence, albeit fleeting and muffled, that the fitness prescription has begun to trickle down from the key men. Joggers, wraiths in the evaporating darkness, scurry down lanes and sidewalks. At 5:15 on this starry, quiet morning, the Aerobics Center is ablaze (Cooper has $25,000 worth of lighting strung in the oaks above the jogging paths). Swimmers are suspended, opaque and crawling, in the shimmering blue of the pool. A shouting Russ Harris leads a group through 20 minutes of vigorous sit-ups, jumping jacks, push-ups, stretching. Each member then commences his prescribed jog or swim or ride on a stationary bicycle—true aerobics exercise.
The carpeted locker room, filled with shaving and dressing men, seems a distinctly salubrious place. There is no smoke. The air contains only the faint medicinal tang of Osage Rub.
Seated in front of his locker is Bill Haughton, 49, president of Coastal Plains Inc., a firm that distributes industrial equipment throughout the Southwest. As usual, he has done the calisthenics and a quick quarter-mile run. "There is no history of people like me running," he says, "but I couldn't see any reason not to. The jarring is considerable but not unbearable and I can do three-quarters of a mile now. The legs are so much better for it." He slips off his sweat pants to reveal a scarred, warped right calf and a left foot and lower leg which are simply prosthetic devices. "September 1951, I was a Marine in Korea," he says evenly. "A Russian shoe mine caused the event. Lost the left and was 23 months saving the right with bone and skin grafts. I can move the right foot side to side, not up or down, so I limp. Then I broke the stump of the left in five places while I was skiing 2� years ago. I laid my leg, with the ski still on it, over to the side in the snow. The ski patrol came and said, 'Oh my God, what happened?' I said, 'Well, my leg broke off.' "
Over cereal and coffee in the lounge, Haughton speaks of the Center's attraction. "There isn't anything harder than working against the flesh; if you succeed, that establishes a discipline, a confidence that lets you do well in management. But the real pull here is the quality of the fellowship in the early morning. These are not ordinary people; not everybody will get up at five for this. In fact, most people can't comprehend how you can do it, but for a guy with responsibilities it's the only time."
Told that viewing aerobics devotees as special, disciplined people seemed at odds with Dr. Cooper's intent of changing the lives of millions, Haughton smiles. "Well, you can't drag a guy out and force him to exercise," he says. "The Gospel, after all, is 'good news.' But at the same time, man is essentially rebellious; the tendency is to get off the track not on it."
The religious allusions are pertinent. It is a wonder that more doctors, baffled about why people don't do the things they know are good for them and continue with the bad, do not describe their patients as inherent backsliders, who need a vision (and perhaps an institution to interpret it) in order to keep to the straight and narrow. Says Cooper, "How much nicer it is to be told your coronary is due to hard work, laudable ambition and devotion to duty, than to be told it is due to gluttony and indolence." A staunch Baptist, Cooper believes that an improvement in physical conditioning sometimes hastens a spiritual reawakening. "There is an evangelistic zeal in both areas," he says. "I'm considering a point program for spiritual growth. People changing their physical habits are engaged in self-evaluation, an inventory in critical detail. It is natural that would extend to one's relationship with God as well."