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Fitness is work — and worth it

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Portrait of a society: Slim, energetic, beautiful people who rise before the sun for a run through town. With cell phones at their ears and in-line skates on their feet, Americans are industrious, healthy, athletic and on the go.

Here's the reality: The hip, successful American drags himself out of bed after hitting the snooze button two or three times. He washes down a bagel with coffee while driving to work, polishes off a Big Mac at his desk for lunch and hits the vending machine in the afternoon for a pick-me-up. He returns home for dinner and some quality couch-potato time.

So it can't be surprising that a new Centers for Disease Control study reports that only one-quarter of Americans exercised enough in the 1990s. And consider these alarming facts:

About 38 percent of men and 51 percent of women are not even moderately active by age 19, according to the 1996 Surgeon General report, "Physical Activity and Health."

The World Health Organization ranks the United States 34th in overall health among nations.

Yet magazines, television commercials and movies portray us as the picture of perfect health. That's what we want to see in the mirror, and we want it without working for it.

We're a society addicted to infomercial scams, "ancient" herbal remedies and anorexia-inducing diets. Analysts blame lifestyle amenities such as fast food restaurants and cable television for making people lazier. Our culture has become an enabler.

Since the advent of motor vehicles, television, mass food processing and even electricity, only the "weirdos" walk or bike to work, grow their own natural food or get enough sleep.

Technology may enable us to move faster, but there have been no scientific advances granting instant health.

Models, actors, athletes and other fit people we admire invest the equivalent of a full-time job working to stay in shape (and the few who don't are genetically gifted). They follow strict diets and exercise diligently — usually under the guidance of a professional trainer. That's all there is to it. No secret pill. No revolutionary piece of equipment.

Some societies understand that it takes discipline and dedication to preserve health and attain physical beauty, and they don't look for a shortcut. Three-time World Aerobics Champion Yuriko Ito of Japan said, when asked if the Japanese view fitness differently than Americans: "Yes. When I was in the States, people came up to me with a serious expression and asked how I get my body looking like this. How many push-ups? How many sit-ups? In Japan, people enjoy fitness as leisure."

Could it be that keeping fit is just a result of everyday life in some societies? Perhaps exercise is not something they dread, but something that is inherent in their lifestyle.

If we Americans want our reality to match the illusion shown in the media, then the answer is in adjusting our attitudes about food and exercise. We need to eat right, exercise a whole lot harder and a whole lot more often, and reduce our stress levels.

Some people complain about the "no pain, no gain" axiom, saying that exercise isn't supposed to hurt. But they're missing the point. The pain, in this sense, doesn't refer to physical pain, but to the pain of hard work and self-discipline. The motivation to get up off the couch. The struggle to challenge ourselves daily so that we can grow as individuals to become smarter and stronger and live longer, healthier lives.

I'll accept the pain to get that gain.

Shannon Entin, a certified fitness instructor, is editor of FitnessLink.com and co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Health and Fitness."