by Robert Rickover

Spring is traditionally a time for renewed interest in fitness activities. But these days, our enthusiasm is often tempered by a growing uneasiness about the benefits of exercise. Increasingly, we are hearing concerns being voiced about the effectiveness of some fitness programs.

“Are health clubs risky?” “How fit is your fitness instructor?” “Is exercise harmful to your health?” These are a few of the many newspaper headlines that have appeared in recent years.

For people like myself who grew up in America during the 1940’s and 1950’s, today’s emphasis on fitness came as quite a surprise. In those days, most people hated exercising. By the time we got to high school we spent far more time in a car than on our feet, and out interest in athletics consisted mainly of watching football and baseball on TV.

About forty years ago, Air Force doctor Kenneth H. Cooper began conducting tests on airmen to learn more about cardiovascular capacity. He measured their ability to absorb oxygen, to distribute it to different parts of the body, and convert it, along with food, into energy.

Dr. Cooper’s pioneering work, and his widely-read books on aerobics made a major contribution to our understanding of how the body functions. Further, he alerted millions to the need for more physical exercise in their lives.

But as so often happens with new discoveries, heavy commercial promotion set in and the aerobic conditioning processes he developed have not always been wisely used. Sometimes, we have been misled into confusing aerobic capacity, which almost exclusively emphasizes the operation of the cardiovascular system, with the much broader concept of total fitness.

What should we expect from a fitness program? I believe it is the ability to carry out our daily activities, including sports and other physically demanding tasks, in an enjoyable, easy, and efficient way. It should include the ability to cope with unanticipated crises calmly and effectively and the ability to get a good night’s sleep so that we can awake refreshed and alert the next morning.

Our bodies, after all, are a lot more than heart, lungs and blood vessels. Aerobic capacity is just one of many important indicators of good health. The ability to pass an aerobics test doesn’t in any way guarantee that you can go through life without pain, discomfort and fatigue.

A large part of the problem is that exercise is frequently carried out in a manner which fails to take account of the way we, as individuals, actually use our bodies. In fact, some programs encourage an unconscious exaggeration of our worst habits of movement. You can see this for yourself the next time you watch a group of joggers or an aerobics class. Chances are many of the people you see will look awkward and uncomfortable, with excess tension and strain showing in their faces and in their bodies.

There are a number of methods available today which can teach fitness participants how to stop putting harmful and unnecessary strain on their bodies while exercising.

The method I know the most about is the Alexander Technique. Four generations of performers and athletes have used it to increase their stamina and skill and it is increasingly being used by people in all walks of life to help alleviate stress-related conditions such as backache, migraine, and TMJ disorders.

Certified teachers of the Alexander Technique undergo a rigorous and lengthy training process during which they learn to detect the harmful (and often very subtle) habits which interfere with the body’s natural flexibility, coordination and balance. Because these habits often produce excessive muscular contraction, or tension, they prevent the spinal column from achieving its full length and restrict breathing and movement capacity.

Using a combination of verbal instructions and gentle hands-on guidance, Alexander Technique teachers show their students how to release this tension. They help them to direct their energies in ways that allow exercises, as well as ordinary daily activities, to be done in a safe and efficient manner.

Central to this process is a relearning of the natural balance and ease of movement we all had as children, but which we have lost touch with in our fast-paced stressful world.

You don’t have to be an athlete to benefit from increased body awareness. And it’s not only your body that improves. Becoming more comfortable in your own skin gives you greater freedom to enjoy the world around you, and to develop all your abilities, mental and physical, to the fullest.

In the final analysis, any fitness program that does not address these fundamental issues is incomplete.

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Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the Alexander Technique Content Editor for America OnLine,, and He is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique Web Site Homepage:
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