"I guess the first thing that struck me was, this ain't L.A."
Paul Bosco was holding court in his ramshackle storefront fitness center in an alley on the east end of University Avenue in St. Paul. A reporter was asking him how he got into the business.
"I was driving down the avenue in the rain," Bosco said, "looking at this huge operation called L.A. Fitness. I was thinking, 'Nowhere does a person feel further from L.A. than in St. Paul's Midway district.'
"I pulled over and walked inside the joint—thousands and thousands of square feet of the trendiest workout equipment and top-of-the-line spa offerings. It was a cathedral for the body. I stepped back out in the rain and stared at the shoppers waddling past me: oval, round, and pear-shaped folks in cut-off T-shirts and baggy pants, fat ladies with canes and floral print shirts, rotund men with saloon jackets and work boots. None of them were walking inside, nor would they ever.
"I got to thinking that there needs to be a place for these people. We need a St. Paul fitness center, something as different from L.A. as we are."
Bosco says Frogtown Fitness is not looking to change people's body shape. He says he's interested in fitness in the broader sense of the term.
"What this means is no exercise machines, no dumbbells, jump ropes, or aerobics classes. Instead, we have five soft, comfortable old chairs and a cooler filled with lemonade.
"We sit people down and start out asking them about their lives. Most come in looking kind of haggard. We ask them if they've laughed that day. If they haven't, we make them laugh. We don't tell jokes so much as tell stories that highlight the absurdities of life. We start to see the lines soften on their faces. They start to relax. We show them we're no different from them. We're in no better shape, have no greater stamina. Suddenly, they feel less threatened. We tell them their visit costs nothing. Our few expenses are covered by an anonymous businessman who made his money in the fast-food industry and feels a sense of guilt. He wants to give back.
"We take them to Cub Foods and show them inexpensive items they can buy and some simple meals they can prepare at home, not because it's so much more nutritious, but because it can be made where food should be made. We talk about the joy of preparing a simple meal at home, the pleasure of just working with food, the sweet thrill of doing what we were all put on this earth to do, take care of ourselves and each other. We slow the world down a little."
According to Bosco, the only real exercise anyone experiences at Frogtown Fitness is walking.
"We encourage walking, but not on any treadmill. We take them through St. Paul neighborhoods, usually ones with kids and cats and porches and old people—neighborhoods where people are home during the day. We try to get them to walk while taking in all of the life around them: the kids with skinned-up knees pulling wagons, the grandmas with the wide-brimmed hats yanking weeds and telling barking dogs to hush.
"We tell them this is the prize right here, this is life, the gift we're given for the effort.
"And while they look and listen and smile, their breathing changes, which alters their mood, affects their metabolism, calms their mind. They're getting more fit and don't even realize it. It's fitness of the soul, which ends up affecting all the other parts of the body.
"I'd love to say there's more to it than this, but there isn't," Bosco concludes. "These people are never going to try out a bench press or an elliptical trainer. Tofu and soy products don't interest them. But they're learning fitness as part of a larger picture. It's about falling back in love with life, with yourself, with the good food made in your own kitchen and the joy of walking in your neighborhood and smiling at every wildly quirky, unexplainable offering the day presents, and then dying happy."
Bosco argues that his approach has as much to do with fitness as all the abs workouts or high-energy protein shakes the health gurus push our way. He says fitness is about finding how we "fit" into this world and making peace with it.
"Their gut stays about where it was," he says. "But my Lord, their heart sure grows stronger."
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