Body Attack

As noted previously in this blog, my body decided it would be fun to celebrate my arrival in Paris by contracting a flu-like illness over the appetizer course last Saturday night. Since then, I’ve worked my way through several stages — fever, sore throat, general fatigue, lingering cough — before waking up Thursday morning feeling like I was finally back to normal.

My mother, a nurse and overall wise and practical woman, probably would have suggested that I continue to take it easy. But instead, I decided it would be an excellent day to use my free pass at the gym across the street (a 25 euro value!) and try out a class called “Body Attack.”

According to its description on the gym schedule, Body Attack is “encore plus fort, encore plus loin pour une forme explosive.” Even stronger, even further, for an explosive form! (Hannah read the French text aloud to me on the subway, much to the amusement of the man standing next to her.)

I’ve been feeling recently that, given the abundance of camembert, my forme is not going in a particularly explosive direction. So despite my lingering fatigue, I headed across the street to the Vit’halles gym, where I walked past two floors of French weightlifters, found the aerobics studio, and noticed several things: first, much like the Metro, the room was not air conditioned. Second, there were only about five people in it, none of whom looked explosive. Whatever. I pulled out a foam mat and took my place toward the back, looking up at a small stage backed by Nike posters.

I should note that attending aerobics classes in foreign countries is one of my favorite things to do when traveling — past favorites include hip hop in Beijing, Croatian pilates, and a South Korean class called “dance dance.” I love seeing how different cultures have reacted to fitness trends — say, step class — and what traditions they bring to the gym themselves. In China, for example, people worked out with nalgene bottles of green tea and, despite the 90+-degree heat, I saw multiple women who had saran-wrapped their thighs.

The French class was a little different. There were only about five people, and instead of my charismatic Chinese aerobics instructor, Lightning, the teacher did not introduce himself with any sort of fun fitness nickname. But he was still perky, dressed in shorts with a Madonna-esque earpiece in one ear. He started by asking if anyone were new to the class. I raised my hand. “Zero experience?” he said.


“D’accord,” he replied, and proceeded to explain the class format: cardiovascular work followed by sports training followed by muscles.

For first half of the class, I didn’t have any problem. We worked our way through jogging in place, punching the air above our heads, and doing a shortened version of jumping jacks as the Black Eyed Peas played at high speed on the stereo. I was feeling pretty good about myself, noticing that, even if I cannot properly form the conditional or future tenses, I am good at following exercise classes. Grapevines? Jogging in place? High knees? Who needs French? I speak aerobics.

But then came the sports training segment. The teacher divided us into two “teams” and instructed us to sprint back and forth down the gym, five times in a row, before taking a break jogging in place.

I started off strong and cocky — despite being led by the instructor, the other team was lame. One of the woman hadn’t even been able to keep up with the jumping jacks. “Sprint,” I decided, was clearly a relative term.

But then, halfway through the first sprint, I saw her: a woman in a red tank top who seemed — no, was definitely — trying to beat me.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I thought to myself, momentarily falling behind. Did this cigarette puffing Frenchie think she was going to win Body Attack?

Uh, no. Putting aside the fact that 24 hours earlier,  I’d been feverish and on the couch, I stepped on the gas and coasted past her to the end of the room. I felt a little winded, but then again, so did she.  So I was surprised when she did the same thing on the second sprint, leaving me with no choice but to push past her again.  Sprint numbers three, four and five? Same deal.

By that point, I felt a little like I was suffocating. I don’t sprint much in my daily life, my blood sugar was high, my head was starting to hurt, I had no water, and I was seriously resenting the gym’s decision not to install an air-conditioning system. Whereas before I’d been jauntily jogging in place during the rest periods, now I was feigning reasons to bend over so I could catch my breath. (I think my shoelaces “untied” about six times during the course of the sprints.)

Unfortunately for my heart rate, the ancient Greeks’ obsession with the rule of threes has influenced modern-day cardiovascular training: we had two more sets of five sprints ahead of us. I struggled through them, still managing to beat my nemesis most of the time before needing to tie my shoe laces again.

The rest of the class was relatively simple, except for a long lunge sequence that I knew ahead of time was going to make it difficult for me to sit down in a chair for the next three or four days. But the damage had already been done. Today I’m feeling a little sick again and, what’s worse, the body attack has literally attacked my body — my legs are killing me, and my triceps burn every time I straighten my arms.

Whatever. I still won.

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