During the Bush presidency, I saw on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger, looking tight and muscle-bound, pointing a finger at me. I wondered if his intrusive finger suggested that I should do to my body what he had done to his. I finally surmised that the intention of the picture was to inspire me to ask myself: Am I in shape?

Schwarzenegger had been appointed to chair the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports--chosen, I assumed, because he was admired by many people for his physical prowess. I wrung my hands in despair. Was he supposed to be my role model?

When I look at pictures of iron-pumped musclemen, such as Schwarzenegger, I do not see someone who is in shape. I see an anomaly, a distortion of the human body. I do not see a lithe, flexible, dexterous body, capable of a free range of movement.

When are we going to move out of the dark ages and begin to redefine what being "in shape" means and what "physical education" is about? When are we going to stop defining a vein-popping, muscle-thick mountain of a man as the epitome of the in-shape person? When are we going to make stretching the central life-giving exercise in our fitness programs?

I know a lot about body abuse. I spent 25 years as a professional dancer believing that pain was gain. I used to believe that if I hurt after a dance class, I had really accomplished something. Aching muscles were merit badges in the dance community. So were rail-thin bodies. Dancers became thin and stayed thin any way they could. No one cared how we maintained our weight. No one wanted to know what was being sacrificed. I walked around hungry or in pain for two-thirds of my life.

As a dance teacher, I guided my students in the same pain-is-gain credo. I thought I had taught well only when my students limped out of class. Hard classes made any teacher well-thought-of and highly sought-after in the dance world. Pain and staying in shape were inseparable.

I never understood when I was dancing that when the body is in pain, it closes and tightens protectively. The muscles contract until they become stiff. This rigidity leads to greater pain and eventually to injury. Instead of becoming more in touch with ourselves through understanding and feeling our bodies, we become less so.

When people use a fitness regimen to make themselves look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, or an eating regimen to make themselves look like an anorexic prima ballerina or a bulimic fashion model, they are separating their bodies from their natural, spiritual selves.

I shudder to think of all the young men and women I saw walk out of a dance studio with an injury or in precarious health, never to walk back in again, never to walk without pain again.

Now, 45 years after I started to dance, I measure fitness differently than I used to. I have new ways to view and train my body. They always involve stretching and releasing, or stretching and breathing, or stretching and meditating.

What is the body designed to do, anyway? Quite simply, the muscles of the body are designed to move the bones, and the bones are designed to balance and support the weight of the body. If either begins to do the job of the other, the body moves inefficiently and is out of shape, no matter how strong it is, no matter what the muscle size, no matter what kind of exercise program is being practiced.

If the bones no longer balance and support the weight of the body independently, muscles tighten to hold the bones in place so that the body will not collapse. As soon as that happens, the holding muscles lose their range of movement and become incapable of performing their designated function, which is to move the bones.

To be in shape, a body must have flexibility. The ability of the muscles to stretch keeps the bones free to balance and bear weight.

As a dancer, it took me more than 30 years to learn to do a plie--a bending and straightening of the legs--an easy movement that I made difficult. I see now it is a simple fall, or drop, with a rebound. Before that realization, I worked with great care at wearing out my knees by pushing and grinding my way through multiple plies incorrectly. I used to do more than 100 of these cartilage-wearing knee bends in every dance class I either took or taught. I now understand that eight deep, careful, thoughtful, releasing, opening, rebounding plies are enough.

Although I have not taken a dance class in more than 10 years, I consider myself to be in good shape today. True, I no longer have the "perfect" dancer's body that I prided myself on many years ago. I have more curves now than I had in those lean and mean days. I weigh more. I would never find my picture in the swimwear issue of Sports Illustrated. I don't lift weights, nor do I starve myself or try to survive on soft drinks and candy bars the way I used to between rehearsals and classes.

I invest an hour and a half of my day for my aerobic workout, pedaling between 10 and 15 miles on my bike. I try to break a sweat each day and pedal outside whenever the weather permits. When I get home, I stretch and meditate for the next half hour.

I do this regimen at least six days a week. I rarely drink alcohol. I don't use drugs. I don't eat meat, and I avoid as many chemicals in my food as I can. This regimen is nonnegotiable in the same way that brushing my hair or flossing my teeth is nonnegotiable. It is something I automatically include in my day. I am finally fit.

I love it when I walk down the street and find my arms and legs swinging freely from my spine, my hands hanging loosely from my wrists, my head balancing neatly on my first vertebra, energy flowing through my legs. Although I only dance for myself these days, I feel I dance better now than I ever did when I was a professional performer. I have reclaimed my body.

It is very important that I know how to take care of myself during my senior years so my body will be able to keep moving happily, doing what it was designed to do, with my muscles moving bones and my bones balancing the weight of my body. Maintaining flexibility, I believe, is what keeps the fountain of youth turned on more than any other thing. It's better than a facelift.

I am certain that my physical fitness program will change as I get older. I sometimes wonder what I'll be doing when I'm 70. However, I'll keep my current regimen the way it is as long as I'm happy with it, feeling good about myself and feeling challenged.

One day I hope to see a different kind of body on magazine covers--a body looking alive, flexible, well-toned, healthy and happy. This picture will reflect a celebration of the human body, the miracle of movement and the dance of life.

Carolyn Stearns is a writer living in Deale, Md.

CAPTION: During her professional career, Carolyn Stearns believed that aching muscles were signs of accomplishment.

CAPTION: Now Stearns focuses on stretching, not stressing, the body.