Fat-fighting man

Sometimes it's tough being Exercise Man.

Burrell Solomon, the man behind the superhero-style moniker, is all about fitness in a city famous for fatness, a staunch nutritionist in a town whose food motto, repeated on signs everywhere, is "You Buy, We Fry." So driven is Solomon to get the people around him in shape he even offers some free workout classes, yet gets almost no takers. 

He's an energetic, earnest champion of good health who has the misfortune of living in the capital of the unfit.

"When you go into other places like Chicago, maybe California, the African-Americans have more of a healthy mind-set," says the youthful-looking 40-year-old fitness teacher. "But a lot of African-Americans here are party-type people. We're more caught on 'I got a nice look, I got a nice backside, I got a small waist, so I'm in shape,' and that's not true. You feel me?"

Nevertheless, Solomon continues to spread the word in his own flamboyant way. He's a bundle of physical and verbal energy, determined to get the residents of Detroit — named every year by one national magazine or another as the country's fattest or least fit or some equally unflattering designation — into shape and to adopt healthy lifestyles. 

"Here in Detroit, with a lot of us, every other Friday is the Fourth of July," he says, listing pork chops, fried chicken and vegetables shrouded in a fried batter wad as the kinds of food that thwart his mission. "With a lot of African-Americans, we figure greens is healthy, but universally, to everyone else greens is green vegetables — asparagus, broccoli, green peas, stuff like that. Not collard greens with salt pork and pig tails."

Solomon grew up on the east side, dabbled in bad behavior until he saw friends go to jail or to the grave, then underwent a gradual spiritual awakening that, he says, has kept him clean, law-abiding and healthy ever since.

He fought in amateur boxing matches for a decade — "I thought I was going to be the next Muhammad Ali" — but found himself on the wrong side of the punches too much for his liking. "I got old and I got tired of just the poundings and the beatings," he says. So he turned his enthusiasm for fitness into a career. 

The name "Exercise Man" was bestowed upon him. "I was training my sister, who lost like 30 pounds with me running a lot from St. Jean to Belle Isle and back. She said, 'You so crazy with this you need to be called the Exercise Man.'" Thus was a star born. He even went and had the title registered as his official business name, cementing the identity in case anyone else had ideas of appropriating it. "There's only one Exercise Man," he says with authority. "This is me right here!" He's also a part-time ministry student and Sunday School teacher, the Clark Kent to his Exercise Man alter ego.

He got some local exposure as the star of a fitness video that aired on a local Comcast cable public access channel, featuring him and the program's host doing cardio moves at various Belle Isle locales on a sunny day. 

Word has spread about this fighter of fat, and now he teaches kickboxing and cardio classes at community centers and schools within the tri-county area, and has several students in his personal training program. He's listed in the phone book under his real name and takes new students.

As befits a man with a superhero-style title, he's got a distinctive costume — shiny gym shorts and a tight-fitting Lycra shirt, both of which have "Exercise Man" spelled out on them, often paired with bright blue or red boxing shoes. If he wore a cape you'd think he could fly.

He sometimes finds himself preaching the fitness gospel on the street to anyone who might listen, even the homeless and the beggars. "When a guy's saying, 'I'm hungry,' I'll buy him a bag of potato chips with no salt in them, Better Made, and some water. He'll look at me, 'Man, what's this?'"

Ruby Cunningham, 36, is a student in Solomon's kickboxing class. Her first encounter with him was when he approached her on the street and asked if she works out. "At first, when I met him I thought, 'This guy's crazy.' But he's just passionate about what he does," she says. "He challenges you, and says things like, 'Come on and work off those cakes.'"

Her reaction to Solomon isn't unusual. "At first you're like what the heck is this?" says Kris Nichols, 43, who's trained with him for four years. "But you get to know his personality, he's fun to be with and we have a good time. He's a great talker. He's entertaining. He likes to talk a little smack."

Exercise Man's home base is a nice complex of apartments on Vernor Highway near Gratiot Avenue on the east side. His place is small but clean and neatly arranged. A little bookcase holds two shelves, one featuring fitness books, the other religious titles, the two halves of his life represented in print. A bowl of fresh fruit sits near the door to the balcony. Various fitness certifications hang on walls. A large portrait of Muhammad Ali looks down on the room. Exercise equipment is tucked into a corner.

His neighbors pass through the courtyard without giving a second glance at the man in a borderline superhero costume doing chin-ups on the children's playscape or crunches on a concrete slab in the commons area. They wave with genuinely friendly smiles for the sincere neighbor who's always exhorting them to better take care of themselves.

That willingness to help is epitomized in the free "boot camp" exercise program he offers in the commons area of the apartment complex, though the past few times he's held it he's managed to draw only a couple people. It's hard not to be discouraged by this.

"No disrespect, but when I was in the suburbs, I got a huge following," he notes. "They even come out in the snow. For example, I was at Nine Mile and Gratiot at this high school, 11 of them showed up to work out in this much snow," he says, holding his hand high above the ground to indicate a whole bunch of snow. "Here, you are begging people to come train in Detroit and what you got to hear is, 'Oh, I got a nice body, I look good, so I don't need to work out.' And it's sad."

Exercise Man's struggle is fighting the deeply entrenched eating habits and sedentary lifestyle favored by so many Detroiters. He only recently talked his own mother out of cooking most things with lard. And, he notes, when you're surrounded by out-of-shape people, there's little peer pressure to be fit and eat well. 

"If they put you in a pig pen, after so long, you been there for two or three years, you gonna think you was a pig, oink oink," he says. Of the people Solomon trains, he estimates only about a third will stick with the program when he's not right there with them. This is his constant battle.

"As a trainer, I can encourage you, I'll put you on a food program, I'll stretch you, help you, but I can't stop you from eating at Burger King at 3 o'clock in the morning."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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