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Rio de Janeiro Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics, first visited Rio de Janeiro nearly 20 years ago and was stunned by what he saw on the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. No, it wasn't the local beauties in their scanty bikinis who shocked Cooper—at least that's what he says—but the hordes of Brazilians jogging, working out, playing soccer and volleyball, exercising all day long. "I've never seen people so devoted to physical fitness," says Cooper, who has visited more than 50 countries in the last two decades. "Rio was and still is the aerobic capital of the world. You won't see such fitness freaks anywhere else, not even in California. It's the only place I know where people work out 24 hours a day. You go down to the beach at any hour, even two or three in the morning, and you see people jogging. Some of them are 75 to 80 years old."

If you're thinking of taking a nice, relaxing vacation at a spectacularly beautiful seaside resort, stay clear of Rio. Not that Rio isn't picturesque. With its white sandy beaches encased by jutting granite peaks and the Tijuca rain forest, it is one of the most spectacular cities in the world ("God's gift to the postcard industry," one writer calls it). Nor should the threat of violence deter you. True, Rio does have more than its share of crime, but a little common sense and a visit or two to a house of macumba (an Afro-Brazilian religious cult) should help you get through your stay unscathed.

So why not Rio? "The city is great if you're preparing for a triathlon, but if you want to just take it easy and lie on the beach, forget it," said a Californian named Doug Loveid during a recent visit to Rio. "There's no way to relax when you're surrounded by grunting and sweating bodies doing pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, running, jumping, kicking—everything but resting. I got tired just looking at them."

Cooper, on the other hand, has been to Rio 14 times and has yet to tire of Brazil, and for good reason. Each time the Dallas-based physician visits the country, he is treated like a savior. Futebol ("soccer") is both a religion and an opiate in Brazil, and Cooper is credited with having used aerobic conditioning to help the national team win the World Cup in 1970. At the invitation of Brazil's soccer coach, Cooper—who at the time was working on scientific approaches to getting in shape and had just coined the word aerobic—devised a training program to prepare the Brazilian athletes for the heat and high altitude of Mexico City, where the three-week tournament would be held.

Cooper's methods worked: Brazil went undefeated and won the final against Italy 4-1. Skeptics claim that the Brazilians, led by Pelè, fielded the strongest team that ever kicked a bola and would have won the tournament without Cooper's conditioning program. Note, however, that Brazil was tied at the half in four of its six games, including the last one, and won not only because of superior talent but also because its athletes were in better shape. "I don't know if we could have won without Cooper's help," says Carlos Alberto Torres, the captain of the 1970 team, who ended his playing career with the NASL's New York Cosmos. "There were many excellent teams at the Cup, but we had an advantage because we had Cooper on our side."

Brazilians were so impressed with the work of the Yankee fitness guru that they went on a Cooperesque binge. Overnight, the name Cooper became synonymous with fitness and jogging. Never again would Brazilians "go for a run"; from then on they would "do cooper." Coaches created "cooper tests" for their athletes, and Rio city officials marked out a jogging path known as the cooper pista along Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

"Almost overnight Rio became a different city," says Aline de Castro Neves, a psychologist who practices in Rio. "Before, the most important thing for the Cariocas was the praia ["beach"] and the night. Men prided themselves on the Bohemian life-style. The beach, in addition to being a place to flirt and have a chopp ["beer"], was where the Cariocas would recuperate from the night before and rest for the night to come. All that changed in 1970, when the Cariocas traded the nightlife for athletics."

While the fitness craze soon cooled off in other cities around the world, in Rio it grew, embracing activities like the triathlon, weightlifting and, most notably, aerobics. Rio, a city of 5.5 million people, boasts more than 2,000 aerobic centers, including 12 on one block in Copacabana. "Our classes are packed; we don't have enough room for all our students," says Arthur Repsold, director of Corpore, a company with five aerobic centers and 8,300 members.

Rio is a jock's paradise. Though joggers may prefer the coolness of running through the Tijuca rain forest or around the giant lagoon behind Ipanema, most athletic activities take place on the beaches, which have adjacent soccer fields (regulation size), volleyball courts (also used for playing fute-voli, or volleyball without hands), fitness stations and cooper pista. Last year, floodlights were installed along Copacabana's 3.5-mile-long beach so that the action could continue nonstop. Midnight on Copacabana is now Brazilian surrealism at its best: Joggers and cyclists weave among strolling tourists, prostitutes, disco-goers, vendors, beggars and thieves, while a few yards away soccer and volleyball are played and Rio's Rambos lift weights.

Athough no one denies that Cariocas love to exercise, some medical experts question the motives behind the fitness craze and wonder if locals are really as healthy as they appear to be. "Some men and women spend hours each day building up, slimming down and toning their bodies, but then they'll smoke a pack of cigarettes, drink a few beers and party all night," says Dr. Paulo Pegado, director of the Aerobic Institute of Brazil. Getting and staying in shape is important for some, but to many—especially those under 35—it is secondary to looking in shape, or in the case of women, looking shapely.

Cariocas are known for their sculptured physiques. The men's bodies are tight and muscular, the women's curvaceous but athletic. Though rounded bottoms have always been a trademark of the "girls from Ipanema," small breasts are in, as are taut thighs and calves.

"There is nothing better than a strong, athletic body," says Tania Dias, 27, who is exercising on Copacabana. "We like to look at nice bodies, and we love to be looked at, even whistled at or flirted with, if it's done in the right way." Dias turns to look at a bodybuilding station where several men are doing chin-ups and sit-ups. Others, waiting in line, strut around or stand and flex their muscles. "Actually, there is only one thing Cariocas like more than being looked at or looking at other people," says Dias, "and that's looking at themselves."

Ah, well, Cariocas have never been known for their modesty. "It's not that we're all good-looking," says Dias, "but we think we are. So we act and dress as if we're celebrities."

As with aerobics, obsession with one's appearance did not originate in Rio, but it found a home there. On the beach, the Cariocas, who are usually naked but for a stitch or two, are equals: rich and poor, executives, movie stars, garbage collectors. Stripped of their tailored suits, fashionable dresses or tattered hand-me-downs, they are simply men and women, "like Adam and Eve, but with less on," says Dias. "Here, the only thing that counts is your body."

With so much emphasis on appearance and youth, is it any surprise that Rio has more plastic surgeons per capita than any other city in the world? Or that women put on makeup and jewelry and have their hair done just to go to the beach? Or that outsiders joke that the only things with any depth in Rio are the bay surrounding Sugar Loaf Mountain and the city's potholes? Or that nobody reads books at the beach? Or that Cariocas have been labeled narcissistic, uncultured, superficial and hedonistic?

Cariocas have heard it all and they don't mind, perhaps because they're so caught up in their own world and are too busy enjoying life. Still, the Cariocas deserve some credit. Regardless of why they work out, all that running and sweating can't be bad for their health. (In fact, life expectancy among all Brazilians has risen during the past 20 years from 59 to 65.) So what if their egos are a little inflated and they place undue emphasis on body over mind? That too can have its advantages. Hear Katie Byrne, a 23-year-old tourist from London: "When I visited Italy and Spain last year, everybody gave me these terrible looks when I put on my bathing suit, because my skin is so white. They made me feel awful and unwelcome. I thought the same thing would happen when I went to Ipanema, but surprisingly nobody even looked at me."

Surprisingly? The Cariocas were probably too busy admiring their own physiques.



A fitness station appeals to some Cariocas (above); others take exercise lying down.



Aerobics helped Pelè (here with the Cosmos) and Brazil win a World Cup.'



Rio offers many magnificent settings in which to take a morning "cooper."

John Maier is the office manager of Time-Life's news bureau in Rio.