He’s An Accident Waiting to Happen

He’s An Accident Waiting to Happen

I’m in  the gym, on the treadmill.  The guy next to me is doing some crazy kind of interval training.  Not a good kind of crazy.  I see him here almost every time I come, and every time it is the same story.

The man looks to be around my age- late 40’s to early 50’s, not a bad-looking guy, average body, curly graying hair.  He shows up in old sweats and a dingy, yellowing T-shirt.  He always has two containers, strangely two old jars, full of water, which he puts in the two cup-holder spots on his treadmill when he arrives.  He never warms up, just cranks the treadmill up to 7 mph and starts running immediately.

After a minute or two, he starts to huff and puff and pant, and then he stops, placing his feet on the metal next to the conveyor belt, and drinks from one of his jars.  Then he starts up again, running, huffing, panting, puffing, for 3 or 4 minutes, stops, drinks, and repeats. He intermittently coughs and snorts while he is moving.

After 10 minutes, he has draped himself over the control panel while he runs.  I am afraid he is going to drop dead right there on the treadmill, or that the next time he stops, he will fall down, clutching his chest. Or maybe he will just stop moving his feet, and the treadmill will shoot him off the back like George in the Jetsons.  I can almost hear him yelling, “Jane, stop this crazy thing!”

But it never happens.  He keeps up this strange routine for almost an hour, as I finish my aerobic workout, move to the Pilates equipment or free weights, stretch and prepare to go home.

I’ve resisted the urge to talk to Mr. Water Jar over and over again.  I want to tell him that I’m worried about his workout, that he looks like he is about to die, that if he hasn’t developed any endurance after months and months of this ‘interval workout’, it appears to be ineffective, that maybe he should consult someone- a trainer, his doctor, a priest- before he returns to the gym.

In fact, the last time I exercised next to him, I was so distracted, that I stopped moving for a minute myself, and fell right off the back of the treadmill.  I started laughing to myself.  Mr. Water Jar, earphones in place,  looked at me quizzically, and kept running, though now his upper body was draped over one of the sidebars.  He snorted and coughed a few times as I climbed back on my treadmill and started walking.

Still I say nothing, because part of me believes that one’s workout habits are very personal, and that it is none of my business if someone wants to exercise ineffectively.  How could he possibly react to any commentary except defensively?   He must believe what he is doing is good for him, I reason, or he wouldn’t keep doing it.  In fact, he might know something I don’t.  Maybe this is a new form of exercise, one I am not yet enlightened about.  Or not.  But regardless, any critique would be intrusive, and I am not generally an intrusive type of person.

I can just imagine how the conversation would go:

Me:  “Excuse me, Mr. Water Jar, but I’m wondering about the way you are exercising.”

Him:  “Who are you and why are you bothering me?”

Me:  “I’m a concerned member of your community, one of your brethren, and I don’t want you to hurt yourself.”

Him:  “No, you are a crazy lady who fell off the treadmill last week, and what I do is none of your business.  And if you must know, I am INTERVAL TRAINING.  It is an effective way to increase metabolism and endurance.”

Me:  “Your form is not very good.  You might hurt yourself.”

Him:  “You aren’t anyone to talk…”

And so on.

Or should I, in this situation, be my brother’s keeper?  I am no athlete, but in my years as a physician, one who feels bound to practice what she preaches, I have learned a thing or two about exercising.

Let me back up and say that I’m not the kind of person who naturally craves exercise.  There are those people, my husband included.  They are extremely annoying to the rest of us. Supposedly it’s a genetic thing, the desire to exercise.  I am, instead, the kind of person who naturally wants to sit and read or watch TV, or better yet, play Spider Solitaire incessantly on my IPad.  It’s very addictive.  I’d tell you to try it, but then you would be angry at me for getting you to waste hours on end trying to win.

Yes, I was born to be sedentary. But I was also a born perfectionist, so, knowing from a young age that exercise was the ‘right’ thing to do, I have fought my sluggish nature, and become a regular exerciser.  I’m not compulsive- no 90 minute, light-speed, crazy workouts, but I do force 3 or 4 days per week of exercise, and I cross-train, alternating between aerobic exercise, strength training, yoga and Pilates.

Being a perfectionist, I am a stickler for form.  If I can’t do something right, I won’t do it, and if I’m going to do something, I want to do it right.  So much so that a few years ago I completed 450 hours of Pilates training and became certified to teach.  It’s all about core strength, and core strength may be the most important part of good form.   I am a firm believer that proper form prevents injury, and this has so far worked for me, as I have had no serious sports injuries in all my years of exercise and recreational activity.

So Mr. Water Jar’s machinations are killing me.  I show up at the gym in my proper workout clothes, with my proper sports water bottle, and my pre-planned interval and weight routine.  And despite my efforts to vary my gym times, hoping to avoid him, there he is, making a mockery of ‘the workout.’

So, you ask, what would I recommend if I actually had a conversation with Mr. Water Jar during which he listened?

First, I would tell him that warming up by walking and then slowly increasing speed and intensity is essential.  Next, that intervals do not entail starting  abruptly and then stopping completely.  There should be a smooth transition from lower intensity to higher and back, and whether intensity is increased by increasing speed or by increasing incline (on a treadmill) or resistance (on other equipment), is a matter of both ability and choice.  If one cannot maintain good posture- abs tight, back upright, should blades pulled down and together, chin tucked slightly- then the speed, incline, or both are too much.  In fact, the posture I describe should pretty much apply during any activity, except when specific poses or exercises require temporary deviation from it.

I would tell him that, while his heart rate should rise, panting and gasping for air should not be part of exercise.  He should be able to talk, or better yet, sing, during most of his workout.   I would also tell him that cooling down and then stretching are extremely important.  Finally, I would suggest that he take note of whether or not his endurance, strength, and feeling of well-being are increasing as he moves forward in his activities.  If his workout is effective, he should be able to answer ‘yes’.  If the answer is ‘no’, he needs to rethink the plan.

Pilates and yoga have been invaluable in improving my posture and form, as has been working with trainers now and then over the years.  I doubt Mr. WJ has ever taken a yoga class, and I doubt he will. I also doubt I will ever get the nerve up to correct Mr. WJ.  And I’m not sure I should.  But maybe a trainer in the gym will notice and do it, or a friend, or maybe, just maybe, he will come upon an article like this one someday and take a hint.  I hope that happens before he gets hurt and is no longer able to come to the gym.

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Rosalind Kaplan, M.D. is a general internist specializing in women’s health issues and medical management of eating disorders. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and did her residency at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. She is currently an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at Temple University School of Medicine and the Director of Temple Health Women’s Care, a multidisciplinary practice for women.