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The Fitness Express

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Any day now, Bill Clinton could hand him a pink slip. But that hasn’t slowed down Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Bush-appointed role as chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In a new three-volume book series and videocassette, Anold’s Fitness for Kids: Ages Birth-5, Ages 6-10, Ages 11-14 and The Fitness Express, the tauter-skinned-than-ever movie star launches a sweeping family-fitness campaign. The tone is pure recruitment poster: Uncle Arnold want YOU, parents and teachers, to believe that the biggest natural disaster threatening Americans isn’t a hurricane or an earthquake, it’s a flabalanche.

According to statistics cited in all three Fitness books, 54 percent more U.S. children are overweight now than in JFK’s day, and nearly 70 percent can’t do enough calisthenics to meet minimum fitness-test standards. Shame on us, says Arnold in the text. ”Back in Austria when I was growing up, everyone was physically fit…kids played outside with their parents after supper, and went hiking and skiing with them…being in good shape was just a natural result of the life we lived.”

Hitler Youth overtones aside, the books (cowritten by Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines) give sensible advice for attacking a genuine problem. The only way to get kids on a ”lifetime fitness track,” says Schwarzenegger, is for families and schools to inculcate healthy eating and daily exercise. To that end, each volume tidily outlines a set of fitness goals in light, playful language aimed at adults (Birth-5), kids (11-14), or both (6-10). There are cautions against pushing kids to play sports they don’t like, and gentle digs at parents who set a bad example (”It just won’t work to tell little Suzy to lay off the Twinkies if she sees you sneaking them”). Handy appendices offer ideas for exercises, ”drills,” and games like this goofy ones for tots: ”Pretend to be tree branches reaching for the clouds, saying, ‘Rain on me — I need to grow!”’

But many parents may be alarmed by the aggressive flavor of some of the text, especially the large-type, autobiographical stories between chapters. With titles like ”Arnold learns the Value of Hard Work at an Early Age,” they’re intended for kids to read for parents to narrate aloud at bedtime. Cuddly they ain’t: They’re way too concerned with competition (”No matter how tired I was, I always made sure I carried more than my brother”) and going beyond one’s physical limits. In one tale, little Arnold is so anxious to break a chin-up record that he practices on a tree branch until ”my fingers were all cut and bloody from the bark.” Gee, Dad, read me that blood part again!

Happily, Schwarzenegger makes sport of his obsessive side in the Fitness Express video. The tape’s two 15-minute aerobic routines are more galvanizing than the books because you get Arnold barking right at you in that funny accent and playing his tough-guy routine for laughs. ”You take de chump rope ova deyah!” he commands, as he explains how to set up a phys ed facility ”without any expensiff equibment” or ”fency chymnasiums.” It’s hard to resist Schwarzenegger’s good-natured exhortations, provided you can understand what he’s saying: ”Fastah! Gimme mowah enachee! Now… chum-bing chacks!”

To Schwarzenegger’s credit, there’s no promotional plug for the book series in the video. But of course, the image of Arnie as a benevolent dictator beloved by kids ties neatly into his ongoing effort to soften his image and broaden his movie audience — and comes just in time for this summer’s Last Action Hero (in which a young boy enters the movie screen to befriend action- film star Arnold). So as Schwarzenegger pumps up his career, he’s also raising the aggression level in your child’s diet. If you think that’s unhealthy, you just may find the role model Arnie offers in these books and tapes something to get exercised about. Fitness Express: B+