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Ultimate Fitness

Posted by medconsumers on July 1, 2003

New Book: Ultimare Fitness–The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health By Gina Kolata

In Ultimate Fitness, Gina Kolata, a science reporter for The New York Times, applies her investigative-journalist skills to the science—and too often, the pseudoscience—behind the fitness training advice aimed at helping us look good, be healthy, and maybe even live longer.

Kolata brings us back to the early 20th century when most physicians thought “an enlarged and irregular heart with murmurs was a diseased heart.” In those days, an enlarged heart was called athlete’s heart — clear evidence of the harm caused by too much strenuous exercise. As recently as 30 years ago, heart attack patients were warned never to do anything that made their hearts beat fast, and everyone who reached middle age was advised to begin taking it easy. Physician-created fears about the dangers of running and other strenuous exercise prevailed right up to the exercise “boom” of the early 1970s.

The book covers the fitness revolution that began with jogging, and before we knew it, there were aerobics classes, health clubs, body sculpting, performance-enhancing supplements, and StairMasters. But, given the sedentary nature of most Americans, the scientific question eventually became: What is the least amount of exercise we have to do and still get a health benefit?

In time, studies showed that moderate exercise like walking for 20-30 minutes three times a week could reduce the odds of premature death in men and women. Even better, the exercise did not have to take up 20-30 consecutive minutes; it could be, for example, a couple of minutes of stair climbing in the morning and 20 minutes of walking after work. Kolata expresses her own surprise at finding that the proven health benefit of moderate exercise accrues solely to the heart. Don’t expect to lose weight, the prime reason why most people exercise.

It is the vigorous workouts that are Kolata’s personal favorites. An avid exerciser, fully qualifying as an off-the-charts gym rat, Kolata hits her stride in this book when she takes on the conventional health wisdom surrounding health clubs, performance enhancing programs, and the latest workout tools. When her daughter became certified as a fitness trainer, Kolata got a firsthand over-the-shoulder look at the process and found it to be more about paying escalating fees than actual training on the proper use of weights and health club machines.

Weight lifting, long the province of men who want strength and large muscles, has been taken up in recent years by women who also grew strong, though not large-muscled. Kolata found no evidence to support the claim that strength training will reduce the risk of osteoporosis-related fractures, though it might cut down on the hip-breaking falls by strengthening muscles and improving stability. Don’t bother trying to spot reduce your thighs on that favorite machine of women at every gym. You can’t spot reduce the fat, says one interviewed expert, though you can spot increase the size of a muscle.

Once she began wondering about those maximum heart rate charts found on the wall at every gym, Kolata might have become the first science reporter to look for the evidence to support the standard formula that is programmed into exercise machines at health clubs and is used in the standard doctor-ordered treadmill test. She found that the interpretation of heart rates to be “mired in myths and misconceptions, in pseudo-science and marketing .”Is there such a thing as a fat-burning zone?

The formula that shows you the maximum number of heartbeats per minute for someone your age seems to have been uncritically accepted ever since the exercise movement began in the early 1970s. Kolata traced its origins to an old, poorly designed study. And the first successful commercialization of the formula was attributed to a Finnish company that continues to sell heart monitors, not to professional athletes but regular people who use them while working out.

Throughout the book, Kolata’s skepticism is balanced by her obvious love of exercise, especially the test-your-limits extreme sort. She works out regularly for the pure euphoric pleasure of it all and because strenuous exercise is an invigorating antidote to the long hours spent at a sedentary job, a sentiment echoed by many of her fellow gym rats when asked about their motivations.

This book will be of interest to exercisers of all kinds…including those who plan to join them some day.

Maryann Napoli, Center for Medical Consumers(c)

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