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Movies guaranteed to take you nowhere fast; A sweaty guy's discriminating guide to the best -- read cheesy --action flicks for your daily NordicTrack trek.


Early most mornings while my family is still slumbering, the muffled sounds of mayhem arise from the basement. Gunfire crackles, voices bellow in rage and bodies crash through glass.

The noises do not alarm my wife and children as they waken. They know it's just me getting my exercise.

Actually, I am not the one making most of the racket. Only the grunts are mine as I huff and puff my way along on the NordicTrack, that ingenious torture device that simulates the motion of cross- country skiing. I say torture not because I find the NordicTrack excessively strenuous. It does provide a fine workout, but that is not its foremost feature. The NordicTrack's most notable characteristic is that it is excruciatingly boring.

Like all exercise equipment, the NordicTrack defeats the laws of the physical world. It has the capacity to make time stand still. When you are on the NordicTrack, all you can think about is how much longer you have to be on the NordicTrack. Once that happens, you're doomed. The minute hand of your watch will not move. The sun won't rise. While you are skiing in place, it will seem as though you'll live forever -- and you'll hate every moment of it.

Yes, on the NordicTrack, you will be able to ski your way to a stronger, leaner body, but by the time you get there, your brain will have atrophied and turned to dust from forced inactivity, from concentrated thinking about nothing more than when you can get off this infernal thing.

None of this was a surprise to me when I took up the NordicTrack last year. At that time, I had been a runner for more than 25 years, and in all that time never did I take a stride without calculating exactly how much longer I had to run before I could stop. In a quarter-century of running, I never once experienced what the running magazines mystically referred to as a "runner's high." Stopping running, that's what gave me the most thrill about running.

The only way I survived all those years was with a Walkman. Listening to music was all that kept me on the road -- that and the conviction that if I ever missed two days of running in a row, I would suffer a massive heart attack. The Stones, Creedence, Springsteen, Alanis. To me, they were the key to a healthy cardiovascular system.

So after my knees finally went and I was forced to change exercises, I knew that only a madman or a complete dullard would dare take on the NordicTrack single-handedly. Initially, I thought that I could again enlist music in the fight against slovenliness. But here I underestimated the full mind-sapping effects of the NordicTrack. Only minutes into my first trip to nowhere on the NordicTrack, I realized that music, no matter how pulsating, was no match for a stationary piece of exercise equipment.

With running, at least there was the mildly entertaining passage of scenery, the enjoyment of being outdoors, the gratifying avoidance of dog bites and pickup trucks. But the NordicTrack doesn't offer any of these welcome diversions. It's just you and four walls. I don't care how dramatic the drapery scheme, it's no defense against the stultification of the NordicTrack.

What then? Was the NordicTrack to win this battle of wills? Was I destined to either a life of sloth or one of catatonia? Was there no help for me against this wicked machine?

Yes there was, and the answer had been staring me in the face the whole time, mute and darkened, only waiting for the call to battle. How could I have forgotten that the NordicTrack wasn't exactly a pioneer in the area of mind- numbing household apparatus? Couldn't the hypnotic effect of television contend with the stupor caused by the NordicTrack? Was it possible, I hazarded, for one piece of intellect-killing equipment to counteract the effects of another? It was a crazy idea, but could it work?

By God, it could!

But the solution wasn't so easily arrived at. Television programming, I quickly discovered, is not potent enough, even with cable. Even with "La Femme Nikita." For one thing, there are the commercials. Commercials are the bane of the NordicTrack. It's hard enough focusing on an ad for a nasal decongestant or laundry detergent if you're lying on the couch. On the NordicTrack, you run into one of those commercials and you'll be off that piece of equipment as if it had been electrified.

For another thing, commercial television doesn't deliver the sort of consistent adrenalin rush you need to keep on keeping on, on the NordicTrack for 45 minutes or an hour. Too many slow spots. Too tame.

No, your only hope is the full-length, Hollywood feature film. The only way to take on the NordicTrack is by renting movies. But not any movies. Date movies, for instance, are out completely. "Sense and Sensibility," a fine film, is a disaster on the NordicTrack. Same with "Wings of the Dove" and "Mrs. Brown." For one thing, on the NordicTrack, you often miss whole snatches of conversation, even with the volume turned all the way up so you can hear over the clattering of the NordicTrack. For another, those movies appeal to the higher regions of the intellect. That's too refined for the NordicTrack. You want your blood thumping through your body, your pulse rate racing.

Poetry, lyricism, glorious cinematography, none of that does you any good on the NordicTrack. Forgive me, but what you want is violence.

You want "Braveheart." You want "ConAir." You want "Air Force One." You want action, death, riots, explosions. You want people on fire. You want airplanes hurtling into the ocean. You want forces of nature obliterating half a continent.

Hey, I'm not proud of any of this. My whole NordicTrack adventure has raised some issues about human nature and primordial instincts that I don't even want to contemplate. On the other hand, I think my aerobic capacity is at an all-time high.

NordicTrack viewing requires its own unique critical sensibility. What's great while sitting motionless in a movie theater is unacceptable on the ski trails of your basement. For instance, much as I admire her, Emma Thompson will not do. Hugh Grant, he's my bitter enemy, exercise-wise. Judi Dench? A wonderful actress, but one who should only be watched while I'm perfectly still.

On the other hand, Sigourney Weaver in the "Alien" movies, come on down. Meryl Streep? Perfectly acceptable in "The River Wild" but nowhere else. Mel Gibson? Very reliable when trying to sweat off pounds. Harrison Ford? Indispensable for keeping that gluteus maximus tight.

As for Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, well, there are some things even I won't do for a flat stomach.

Obviously, the NordicTrack requires an altogether different set of movie-watching standards. "Runaway Train" with Jon Voight is one of the all-time great NordicTrack movies, with the bonus attraction that it takes place in the snow. Sure, the dialogue is hopelessly stilted in places but again, you can hardly hear what they're saying anyway. The action is nonstop, and that's what counts on the NordicTrack.

Another good example is "Scream," an otherwise overrated piece of movie-making, but a great NordicTrack movie. Why? Because of the high body count. Thrills and suspense keep you moving. My guess is that the "Scream" movies owe their high grosses to the rise of exercise equipment. By contrast, "The French Connection," a deserved Oscar winner, has too much emphasis on dialogue and character development. Not helpful on the NordicTrack.

Comedies are a tough call. If they're dopey enough, like, say, "Austin Powers," you're safe. Even "The Last Days of Disco" got my heart pumping. Dancing is a big plus on the NordicTrack. (Sex, by the way, is pretty much a lost cause on the NordicTrack. The physiologists will have to explain that one.) But mid- to late Woody Allen just won't work, and for all his insouciant charm, Cary Grant movies do nothing to keep excess pounds off.

So you see, it is a complicated business trying to rate movies in terms of exercise effectiveness. But, with the continued popularity of home exercise equipment, I hope movie reviewers will find a way to start taking into account such concerns.

As it is, critics often give a heads-up on sex, violence and profanity. Why not add a new category, maybe something called "NordicTrack-worthiness?"

Or even better, maybe the surgeon general's duties should extend to movie criticism. He could judge films on the basis of heart rate and muscle tone. Think what it would be worth to studios if their movies carried the seal of approval from America's top doctor. It would be a public service, wouldn't it? After all, isn't it about time we get serious about fitness in this country?

Pub Date: 02/14/99

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