Welcome to the Independent Exercise Monitor, a unique opportunity to test your personal fitness at a glance...

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The Independent Online
Welcome to the Independent Exercise Monitor, a unique opportunity to test your personal fitness at a glance...

Here's how it works. Award yourself five points for each of the following items in your home or office.

a) Bullworker;

b) Step machine;

c) Video by Jane Fonda, Claudia Schiffer, Cher or similar (five points for each one, bonus five points for Barbie);

d) Video by the Green Goddess, Mr Motivator, Rosemary Conley or similar (five points for each one: lose five points for "Workout with Dawn French");

e) Exercise cycle;

f) Rowing machine;

g) Weights;

h) Home gym;

i) Waistline reducer (any sort, five points for each model).

Add an extra 10 points for each one that you no longer use. Now award yourself five points if you have attended a health club or classes in aerobics, step aerobics, aquaerobics, anaerobics or jazz dance. Collect 10 extra points for each one that you have given up. Add up your total.

Congratulations if you have topped 50 points. You are a fat, lazy slob who still believes every advert claiming: "Fitness in five minutes a month." If there is a new wonder exercise gadget, you are the sucker at the front of the queue. Think about it: if all those classes, videos and gizmos worked as they claimed, you would only need one. They are merely gimmicks for the gullible. Unless you are incredibly committed, nothing really works. Even those that do you good leave you feeling wrecked and smelling like a skunk on heat.

Well, that is what I thought until I gatecrashed a Health and Beauty Exercise class. Yes, that's right: groups of women in black satin knickers and white blouses doing PE. But the outfits and music have changed, and the exercise regime that pre-dates aerobics by about 50 years is still going strong.

It was started in 1930 by the extraordinary Mary Bagot Stack, a suffragette who had a vision to enhance women's lives and improve their health at a time when there was no health service for women. Her first class was in the YMCA premises in London's Regent Street, and she publicised her Women's League of Health and Beauty by marching down Oxford Street and giving a demonstration in Hyde Park.

The emphasis was on exercising the whole body, improving posture and flexibility. With classes costing just sixpence, the movement was a huge success. It spread to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. (It has added South Africa, the Netherlands and Zimbabwe since). By 1939, the League had 166,000 members.

It was never to achieve those dizzy heights again, though the League, by then a charity, continued to be popular - until the advent of aerobics.

Jenny Dingley, who teaches in the Leamington and Coventry area, recalls: "My numbers dropped by 50 per cent at that time. Unqualified people with enterprise were buying aerobics tapes and saying: `I could run that class.' It really knocked us for six."

The League realised that it had to adapt or die. Teachers were allowed to train part-time. Tapes replaced the traditional piano player (though about 10 per cent of classes still use a pianist). Popular music replaced "I'll Take You Home, Kathleen". Leotards replaced white blouses and black knickers. Even the name was changed to reflect a more modern image.

Today there are classes for children, the disabled, the elderly and even men (of which, more later). The League has high hopes it can play a key role in helping in the national curriculum for PE and dance in schools. Though it has shied away from advising on diet in the past, there are even plans for a promotion with Weight Watchers.

Amazingly, the changes have taken place without alienating long-standing members, some of whom have been attending for 40 years. Eileen Crook, 71, is typical. She has only skipped classes for good reasons, like two hip replacements. "I started coming 41 years ago when I lived in Kent, and when I moved to Leamington, I kept going. I still go twice a week and call it my second religion. I like the fact that it's so welcoming and that the teachers are properly trained."

And how. All 400 teachers have gone through a 200-hour training procedure that retains many of Mary Bagot Stack's principles. It includes the theory of anatomy, physiology, body mechanics, choreography and composition, teaching practice, voice production and musical understanding. They have to attend two refresher courses a year, where professional choreographers introduce new routines and sequences to add interest. Many teachers, such as Jenny Dingley, go on to take further teaching and dance certificates.

Dingley, a dancer, saw a class when she was in her twenties and was captivated. "I decided: `I want to teach this.'" She has been doing so for 22 years. "What I like about it is that people get their exercise, but there is no rigid regime and the classes have an ambience. For a lot of people, it is the social side that keeps them coming year after year."

It is not all middle-aged women either. Anne Richardson has been attending for three years and has roped in her 21-year-old daughter, Claire. "I like the style of it. Aerobics is just for exercise, but this emphasises stretch, balance and poise too, and it's aimed at the whole body. I cycle, walk and tap-dance but I have doubled my mobility, and I have been surprised at how much fitter I have become. I come out not feeling exhausted but invigorated, both physically and mentally."

This is all starting to sound uncomfortably like a plug for the League, but it is impossible not to be impressed by the enthusiasm, friendliness and that it looks like fun rather than punishment. Even women who are heavily overweight are not made to feel out of place. Many exercises are similar to those used by aerobics or dance classes, but there is an element of yoga, and everyone is barefoot (no trainers here, because the feet are exercised too). The work-out is altogether more gentle than aerobics and the music reflects this: it is not hard rock but Richard Clayderman and Celine Dion, Robert Miles or Gina G.

In fact, I was lucky to watch a class at all, and the suggestion that I might join in provoked the sort of response you would get from announcing a female judge for a small willy competition. Training and development officer Margaret Peggie likens it to women going down a coal mine. "Especially for older women, the presence of a man changes things. They come in, strip down to a T-shirt and slacks or a leotard and chat to friends."

Dingley agrees: "We appreciate that men would benefit from this and the first male teacher has just qualified. But I wouldn't be happy bringing men into an established class. Anyway, I think what I do is too `floaty' for men. I think they want more circuit-training type exercise: this is more aesthetic, more dance."

Ah well, back to the Bullworker.

More details about Health and Beauty Exercise from 52 London St, Chertsey, Surrey, KT 16 8AJ. Tel 01932 564567.