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Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Gym and Sauna - An Ancient Roman Resurrected

When I was at secondary school between 1964-1968, of all lessons on the curriculum, the one which always gave me the jitters was that dreadful 35 minute P.E. period. In the early days, that is in my first year in particular, it appeared twice a week, on the second period before the morning break. Therefore the first period, which was labeled "Maths" received scant attention. In addition to the two P.E. lessons was the double period Games, played on the field outside once a week. Here it was assumed that I was born with the innate knowledge on how to play football and rugby without the need to be taught or understand the rules. After all, at primary school in London we never kicked a football, let alone handle an oval one. Little wonder I was always the last boy standing on the shelf after the team captains had selected their players.
But it was the gym that scared me. The wooden floorboards were raised a little from the ground, and with an air space underneath, this created a thunder effect whenever we ran across it. The acoustics were further embellished by the deep, almost growling voice of the P.E. master, an ex serviceman who kept a size 11 plimsoll in his office, adjoining the boys changing room. Whenever a pupil forgot his kit, he was made to bend over, in front of all the rest of us, to have the sole of the footwear slam across his buttocks.
So I left school with a very negative feeling about the gym, which made me even more glad to throw away the school uniform (although now I wish I had kept it as memorabilia).
It was five years later as a fledgling backpacker that I stood among i scavi of Pompeii, an ancient Roman settlement which was wiped out by the eruption of Vesuvio in AD 79. One of the sites I stood at was the Palaestra an exercise yard complete with Natatio or outdoor swimming pool.

                                                     Above: The Palaestra at Pompeii
                                                     Below:  The Natatio

Palaestra was a Latin term used in the Roman language. The Greek name for the same exercise yard was Gymnasium. From the Greeks we use the word Gym in our English language today.
There seemed to be an irreconcilable difference between the Roman Palaestra and the school gym. Especially when socialisation also took place there. Many of the ancient exercise yards were part of the bathing complexes, within one can exercise, swim then sit inside a Calidarium, or hot, steamy sweating room, then plunge into the cold water of the Frigidarium. Very much like the sauna today. It was not only a leisure centre to promote health and well-being but a social hub where even business transactions were discussed and finalised.
Here was the contrast between what the gym was originally intended and the 1960s school version. In the latter what I went through as a schoolboy was actually a military drill. It brought fear and a general dislike to team sports. It had also made me averse to serving the Country in the military. The P.E. master's attempt to transform me into a young British bulldog was a complete failure.
I was introduced to the sauna for the first time in 1976 by a work colleague, three years after that trip to Italy. Perhaps as a full-blood Italian, the sauna brought out the long-hidden Roman ancestry out of me. I just loved it. Even the ancient Romans had the dry sweating room, the Laconicum. Sitting in the sauna has identified myself with my own ancestors.
 Over the years I began to develop a weight problem. When it got serious enough to raise concern, the nurse who I came to consult, recommended visiting the gym as part of the weight-loss program, along with a change of eating habits.
The gym at Coral Reef Water World, very close to where I live, was once called Sunny Gyms, something more likely found at the lobby of a Caribbean hotel, and I often wondered what my old P.E. master would have made of it.  The very title emphasised the difference between it and my old school gym.
Having been refurbished in recent years, The Health Studio, as it's now called, is where I call once or twice a week, if I can get the extra time. The machine I use is the elliptical cross trainer.

                                                        Above: Coral Reef Health Studio
                                      Below: Rear drive elliptical, the same at the Health Studio

On the elliptical I can complete a cardio workout over a course of fifty minutes, burning off as much as 1,120 calories, which is roughly half a full day's calorie intake. To make the workout less tedious, I have the wall-fixed television tuned into Radio Magic, a virtual non-stop music playing channel which specialises in music from the 70s to the 90s, which is ideal for my generation.
After the gym session, it's the steam room, the modern Calidarium. After a fifteen minute sitting, its the cold plunge pool, or Frigidarium. Then a full session at the Laconicum, or sauna. It is here, in the sauna suite at Coral Reef that I have met other bathers and made friends, even visiting each other's homes, dining and going out running together, and yes, talking business matters.
It's thanks to the gym and sauna facilities right up my doorstep that this ancient Roman has been fully resurrected to enjoy the greater pleasures along with superior hygene in the 21st Century.

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