Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Healthby Kolata, Gina Kolata
Kolata, science reporter for The New York Times, examines the fads, myths, and actual innovations that have developed in the world of physical fitness, basing her study on numerous interviews, research, and her own experiences as a fitness enthusiast. Discussion of interesting characters, from Bernarr Macfadden and his controversial early-20th-century quest for the… See more details below
Kolata, science reporter for The New York Times, examines the fads, myths, and actual innovations that have developed in the world of physical fitness, basing her study on numerous interviews, research, and her own experiences as a fitness enthusiast. Discussion of interesting characters, from Bernarr Macfadden and his controversial early-20th-century quest for the "best and most perfectly formed woman" to Johnny G., the contemporary champion of Spinning, provide insight into the inner workings of a multi-million dollar business-and the human motivations behind exercise. Annotation (c)2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.30(w) x 9.18(h) x 1.09(d)
Read an Excerpt
LESS IS MORE, OR IS IT?
My friend Cynthia, just back from a week in Italy, calls me, wanting to know if I can go for a walk. She needs one, she says. She spent the day before cooped up in an airplane for endless hours and she has to have her exercise.
I am at her house in five minutes, wearing my running shorts and a T-shirt, ringing her bell, waiting while she drinks a glass of water and searches for her sneakers and puts on some sunblock. We set out, on our usual mile-and-a-half-long path. We stroll down the small hill to the end of the street, turn right, up the long hill on Edgerstoune Road. We turn left at the top, making our way into Russell Estates, an enclave of huge and showy brick houses with neatly landscaped lawns and dogs hemmed in by invisible fences. We stride around a cul-de-sac and start back, going behind Edgerstoune, on the other side of the block.
A half-hour later, we are done. Ours is a well-traveled path, one that neighbor after walking neighbor traverses daily. I see them from my kitchen window -- the pairs of women, the couples, going out walking in the morning or after work. One woman even has a personal trainer who walks with her, supervising her exercise.
I live in the realm of the walking converts. Like Cynthia, they believe that walking will make them thin and fit. And if they never seem to look any different? Then, like Cynthia, they blame themselves. She tells me she has just not gotten out enough for walks. If she really kept up the program, walking daily, the exercise would do its magic, she says.
Everywhere I look, I see the walking message.
I turn on the television and the first channel that appears is showing an infomercial promoting a walking video. Smiling women give their testimonials: I was so fat I did not want them to take my picture when I went on a cruise, one says. When I heard "walking," I thought, "I can do that," she adds. Now thin and proud, she goes on another cruise, and seeks out the photographer. A former Olympic swimmer, Janet Evans, appears, wearing long black pants, slender and smiling. She, too, walks, she announces.
I pick up Self magazine. There it is again. Walking. Why are Americans so fat and people in other countries so slim, a story asks. It's because everyone else walks so much more. To prove it, the magazine put pedometers on a few Americans and people from a variety of places like Athens, Aibaci (in Niger), and Paris. Of course, there were some glaring economic disparities that played a role, but, sure enough, the Americans were not taking as many steps. Pauline Chu-Collins from Tustin, California, walked 4,776 steps in a day, the magazine reported. She had breakfast in bed, drove to lunch and the market, and shopped for forty-five minutes, she said. But Maria Kostaki in Athens, a bartender, put in 28,879 steps, and Ramatu Ahmad Mohammad in Aibaci, who walked for two hours to visit a friend and then walked another two hours gathering palm leaves, took 14,099 steps. Even Florence Labedays of Paris put in 13,522 steps. "I don't own a car so I do most of my shopping, errands and nights out on foot," she said, adding "I also walk to and from the train each day for work."
Walking, the article claimed, not only is "a great cardio workout" but also will "tone all your leg muscles." The source? John Reich, described as "a walking coach in Houston."
Not long after my walk with Cynthia, I am in Nantucket, a trendy island off the coast of Massachusetts where you can still find wide white beaches with no lifeguards to whistle you out of the water and sand dunes where beach grass undulates in the wind. Quaintness is the motif. Houses must be made of wooden shingles that turn a soft gray in the salty air. The town's streets are cobblestone. There are no traffic lights. There are no fast-food restaurants. No camping allowed.
But there is a gym, Nantucket Health Club, and some of us go there religiously, keeping up our workout schedule, lifting weights, using the StairMasters and elliptical trainers, and even walking on treadmills on sunny afternoons when the sky is a brilliant blue and the surf beckons, endlessly walking in place while watching television sets tuned to CNN.
I am intimately familiar with this gym since exercise is my obsession.
I believe in exercise to keep my weight down and also because I discovered that if I work out really hard and for at least forty minutes, I can sometimes reach an almost indescribable state of sheer exhilaration. I don't want to call it a runner's high -- I'm not sure what that is supposed to be, though many describe it as sort of a trancelike state. That is nothing like the feeling I crave.
I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had been born to be thin, naturally thin, like my neighbor Barbara, who is tall and slim, has no intention of exercising, and never gains weight. But that is not my fate and so I have taken up exercise. Vigorous exercise. Heart-pounding, sweaty exercise. I've been doing it for years, running before they invented special running shoes or sports bras. Riding a road bike before they sold bicycling helmets. I carry my running shoes with me on every business trip, always prepared to exercise. And I seek out what I call serious gyms, places where the lifting is in earnest and the equipment well maintained.
My first gym was Spa Lady, an all-female affair with pink machines and low weights. I bought a lifetime membership. "Your lifetime or theirs?" my sister asked. One evening a month the women could invite their boyfriends or husbands to join them. When the men arrived, they would lift the stacks -- putting on as much weight as the machines could hold, making sure we women saw just how tame those machines were.
I've long since moved on to a serious gym, Gold's Gym, where the color motif is black and white, and where the carpeted area for exercise machines quickly gives way to a black nonslip rubber floor. This is where free weights and the benches are kept and where men and women grunt and groan as they hoist bars loaded with heavy plates, those metal disks with a hole in the middle that you stack on the ends of metal bars. Posters on the walls for a new lifting class, called Body Pump, give the heavy-metal message to women. One shows the back of a woman lifting a barbell. "Doctors Say Women Need More Iron," it says. Another depicts a woman doing a lunge, holding a barbell on her shoulders. "Macho Is Not a Gender Thing," it says. You can see real bodybuilders at Gold's Gym, and you can hear men and women making their lifting arrangements. "See you on Saturday at eleven," one man says to his friend. "One hour. Triceps."
And I've gone through the historical sequence of exercise classes -- high-impact aerobics and low-impact aerobics, advanced aerobics classes where you need the instructor's permission to attend and step classes with all their variations -- before settling, for the moment, on Spinning. For a few years I went every Saturday morning to a studio that offered nothing but exercise classes and a boutique selling the then -- trendy thong leotards and tights and leg warmers, a sort of Flash Dance look. The aerobics room had a special floor, wood covered by carpet, that was slightly raised to reduce the stress on our legs as we leapt and jumped. It had a great sound system, and the mirror-lined room fairly pulsated to the rapid beat of the tapes the instructors played. That studio is gone now, a victim, perhaps, of changing times.
I also tried, and fell in love with, each exercise machine as it was invented over the past twenty years. LifeCycles. StairMasters. Elliptical trainers. I listen to CDs of fast music when I'm on the machines -- I buy them from a company that sells them to exercise instructors. I am a member of the company's frequent buyer program, getting CDs with the highest beats per minute mailed to me automatically whenever they make a new one.
But for now, my aerobic passion at the gym is Spinning. It is an industry unto itself -- with its own special training programs for instructors and trademark protection so stringent that only an official forty-minute class that is conducted according to the company's specifications is entitled to be called Spinning. It also is an intense workout on a stationary bike that attracts a greater proportion of the people who are serious about exercise than most group sessions.
This morning, the Nantucket Health Club has a special event -- a Spinning class, but in this case called a Spinning "event" since it is not really an official trademarked class. It costs $25, payable in advance, and the word is that it is going to be an insane workout.
I sign up and appear with my water bottle and heart-rate monitor, ready to go at nine a.m. I spot my assigned bike, number eight out of the ten stationary bikes in the room. Each bike has a small white towel draped over its handlebars.
The class is sold out, I notice. The exercisers start coming into the small Spinning room about ten minutes before the class starts, at which time the door will be closed, barring any late arrivals. We set up our bikes, arrange the seats and handlebars, put our water bottles in the special cages, strap the special watches that display our heart rates to the handlebars.
At a minute to nine, our instructor makes his entrance. Gregg D'Andrea. He looks promising. He is short, deeply tanned, and intensely muscular. His legs are shaved like those of a real bicyclist, who rid their legs of hair, they say, to make it easier to clean up scrapes when they fall. Gregg wears skintight black shorts that barely cover his crotch. He tugs on them constantly as they bunch up around his bulging glutes. His cropped, sleeveless black shirt says "Groovy" on the front and "Sex on Wheels" on the back. On his right wrist are two bracelets made of heavy links of silver. On his head, an orange bandanna.
Copyright 2003 Gina Kolata
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