After Helen’s last chapter on diet, I expected this one on exercise to be full of unhealthy and near-neurotic advice and anecdotes – and it was, but I was also surprised to find how much I agree with some of the things Helen had to say on the topic. And given that we share similar childhood experiences when it comes to sports and fitness, I even felt a little bond growing between us as I turned the brittle, yellowed pages of ‘Having It All’ (which incidentally I still don’t).
“I used to take “rest” while other kids took gym. While they were out on the hockey field, lining up at the baseball diamond, choosing sides for volleyball, about twenty of us scrawnies were given a glass of milk and two graham crackers and put to bed for an hour.” Oh, how I envy the school systems of the 1930’s. The only way I could get out of P.E. class was by claiming to have menstrual cramps – and no one gave me any cookies! Seriously, I did this so often that someone really should have been concerned about my well-being; or at least my iron levels. Once I even rewrote a math test three times to avoid some outdoor group activity that was meant to be a reward for finishing early. No thank you.
She assures me that the more I exercise, the more “more skilled and less clumsy” I will get; I managed to snap myself in the face with a resistance band just last week, so I'm not sure how much I believe her. I do appreciate, however, that she wrote “exercise is so individual," it may be common knowledge these days, but it really wasn't when I was a kid. When I was in school, you either played team sports or you didn’t participate in fitness – so I didn't participate. To this day, possibly only on threat of death (or dieting) could you get me to play a team sport; bringing a main dish to potluck is about as close as I get. It wasn't until I was an adult that I found activities that I enjoyed, like hiking and mountain biking. Being somewhat of a late bloomer in this area, I felt comforted to read that Helen hadn't discovered exercise until she was forty-seven. Of course, she promptly became an expert in it, “I have a few thoughts on the subject and nothing is going to keep me from telling you!”
About half the content of this chapter still holds true today as good, or at least not horrifically misguided, advice. For example, Helen and I agree that exercise makes you feel better and improves your overall health and immune system. “Medically proved fact: Exercise lifts the spirits of moody, melancholy people. . . No matter how yucky I feel on getting up in the morning – and sometimes I am mildly depressed then – an hour of exercise miraculously lifts the gloom.” Finally, something in this book that she can claim as a fact. . . that actually is one. Helen also goes on to explain to us how exercise can improve our cardiovascular and respiratory systems and how mental and physical stress can both be helped by better overall fitness. She covers some good tips on getting started – “You also know to start modestly and work up. A few heavy crash sessions will only discourage you because your body isn’t ready for so much abuse, and you’ll stop after exhausting yourself a couple of times. Begin little and move on.” And covers fads – even though she was dedicated to them in the last chapter – “Nearly every exercise maven thinks his system is the only way to salvation and says the others will kill you. They’re wrong, of course! Anything you do regularly is good.” All this advice holds up.
But just when Helen and I were seeing eye-to-eye and I was starting to wonder if I had completely misjudged her, she gives us a little peek into her own life – “One morning when I was writhing on the floor with stomach cramps after a thirty-six hour fast plus my usual hour of huff-puff. . .” God damn it, Helen! Here we go again.
While touting the benefits of exercise, she is very clear that dieting is still top dog when it comes to having it all. “Even men can’t necessarily tell that you’re exercised; weight loss is far more dramatic and noticeable. . . I must point out again that “smaller” mostly comes from weight loss, which comes from diet. . . People looking at you may think you’re cute and trim from “nature,” but you know it’s from exercise and exercises soul mate, diet,” these are just a few of the reminders peppered throughout. And come on Helen, we all know that exercise’s soulmate is food. Why else would we do it, if not to be able to eat more? Let’s just be clear on motivation here.
“Could we agree that getting dysentery from eating unpeeled vegetables in a foreign country doesn’t count as sick?” No. I’m like 99% sure that only counts as one thing – and that one thing would be getting sick. “I was sick, but exercising never went. For an exerciser there is no exhaustion, fatigue, home or office crisis, too-late night, too-early morning or illness extreme enough to keep you from your accustomed workout. . . the exercise generally makes you feel better.” In fact, Helen believes that “Unless you’re felled with a hysterectomy or lockjaw, it seems to me you’d best continue, without pause, once you begin and every day is best.” In thirteen years (at the time the book was written) Helen had only missed two days of exercise. Even after having her eyes ‘done’ she was back exercising the very next day – “The doctor had forbade all exercise for two weeks so my energy could go to healing, but I was certain he meant me to be an exception.” Obviously.
At one point Helen asks us – “Am I getting too intense?” Helen, honey, it’s chapter four and page one-hundred-and-three and only now you’ve become concerned about your intensity? That ship sailed around the first paragraph of the first chapter – possibly even on the contents page.
“There is almost no such thing as too much exercise if you can carve out enough time,” Helen continues. This sounds vaguely as accurate as the advice in the previous chapter about how there is no such thing as being too skinny. “Eleanor” someone Helen knows (I hesitate to use the word ‘friend’), “exercises two hours a day at Lotte Berk salon (their routines are killers), then swims one hundred eighty laps in her pool. She also doesn’t eat. Well, seeing this paragon with her dear, perfect little arms and legs sticking out of her newest Scaasi is enough to make you want to do just one thing – push her out the window. . .” Retract those claws there Helen! Meow!
“Some exercises actually produce horniness.” Okay, you’ve got my attention! But apparently we are going to have to wait for a few chapters before she gives us her ‘recipe’ for it – Helen, you are one heck of a tease! She goes on to tell us that one of the benefits of exercise where sex is concerned is that “You can get into any position ever invented without dislocating a thing. It seems to me a man used to an agile girl could hardly put up with one whose bones kept cracking or who said things like, “Oh, God, Henry, I think my back went out.” I suppose being in love with the woman helps.” Um. I guess, maybe love has something to do with it. “I don’t fear death but I do fear the loss of femininity, of attraction between me and a man. If I could die f-----g, that would be the way I would want to go, and if the moment came a little sooner than I’d hoped that would be a small price to pay for having stayed female all my life. . .” Recently, I was telling a friend about how Helen got breast implants in her mid-70’s to which she replied “if I still have to worry about shit like that at that age, then what’s the point of getting old? Finally, not having to worry about all this,” she gestured to her body, “is the only thing I’m looking forward to.” I couldn’t agree more. Although, I suppose dying in the middle of a sexual-encounter-induced-by-a-fit-of-horniness-resulting-from-a-Helen-Gurley-Brown-prescribed-exercise is not a terrible way to exit this world.
As a final closing thought to ponder I would like to offer up a topic that may be near and dear to the hearts of many of the women I know. “Herb Goldberg, author of the New Male, says a woman who concentrates on health instead of hair and clothes can run with a man, play tennis with men, go skating, boating, river rafting, that being sports-minded is the new attraction available to all women. It’s a thought.” Now, all my life I have intuitively focused more on, well – just about anything, other than my hair and clothes, so I’m grateful to hear that men may still find me attractive. But at the same time, isn’t this book called ‘Having It All’? Shouldn’t I be able to spend time on my looks and go boating?
On to chapter five to find that answer; “Now let’s talk about a subject I get the jaw-wobbles about just contemplating what I’m going to say. . . beauty (the facial kind)!" I am uncertain if ‘jaw-wobbles’ is an occurrence that happens when you are excited or afraid or post-coitus, but I’m sure I will find out!
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