Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health

Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health

by Kolata, Gina Kolata

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From the highly acclaimed New York Times science writer Gina Kolata, the book for people who love exercise as much as they value the truth.

In Ultimate Fitness, Gina Kolata, science reporter for The New York Times, takes a fascinating journey into the fads, fictions, and genuine innovations that have defined the world of physical fitness.


From the highly acclaimed New York Times science writer Gina Kolata, the book for people who love exercise as much as they value the truth.

In Ultimate Fitness, Gina Kolata, science reporter for The New York Times, takes a fascinating journey into the fads, fictions, and genuine innovations that have defined the world of physical fitness. From weight lifting for men and women in the early days, to jogging in the 1970s, cycling in the 1980s, aerobics in the 1990s, and now Spinning, Kolata explains the science of conditioning and the objective evidence behind commonly accepted prescriptions.

Ultimate Fitness is also a book about the individuals who have challenged and influenced or failed to influence the industry, and the many of us who have participated in this multimillion-dollar corner of American culture.

Editorial Reviews

When it comes to exercise, is less really more? Or is "No pain, no gain" the dictum to live by? If the so-called experts know so much, how come results are so spotty? Seasoned investigative reporter Gina Kolata turns her sharp wit and incisive questioning to research that has spawned fitness fads from the aerobics craze of the '80s and the stationary bicycling phenomenon to today's workout trends. The ultimate conclusion is that we must still sift through glorified marketing that masquerades as science in order to find our own best exercise regime.
The New York Times
Ultimate Fitness is, at its best, a useful guide for people who plan to start exercising at a health club or who hope to improve their performance there. Kolata challenges many prevailing fitness assumptions. It turns out that a remarkably moderate amount of exercise is all you really need to remain healthy; that weight lifting doesn't significantly raise your metabolism and may not help women avoid osteoporosis; that the maximum heart-rate charts found on the walls of most gyms tell you little about how fast your heart will actually beat; and that there's no shortage of fitness quacks and charlatans eager to separate Americans from their money. There are also some useful training tips. — Eric Schlosser
The Washington Post
Instead, Gina Kolata, author of Flu and Clone, uses her own obsession with "spinning" -- the riding of a special stationary bike in which pedal resistance can be regulated for a harder or easier workout -- to examine the history and claims of the physical fitness industry. The result is an appealing hybrid: authoritative reporting enhanced with snatches of autobiography, both related in a clear, easy-going style. — Michael Dirda
The Chicago Sun-Times
When you sic Gina Kolata, a New York Times science and medical reporter, on the fitness industry, the results are a captivating and razor-sharp deconstruction that if we are lucky will put a few charlatans out of business. — Stephen J. Lyons
Publishers Weekly
Everyone knows that exercise is a good thing. But when New York Times science reporter Kolata (Flu) set out to investigate the claims of various fitness regimens, she found that "the tiny pearls of good science are buried in mountains of junk." Much of the accepted wisdom about exercise, it turns out, is false-from the belief that endorphins cause an exertion-induced euphoria to the notion that all individuals, with sufficient effort, can become fit. An avid devotee of "spinning," a type of stationary biking that mimics actual road conditions, Kolata brings both personal enthusiasm and journalistic skepticism to her subject. She traces the history of the fitness movement from the ancient Greeks through the 18th and early 19th centuries, when feats of strength and endurance became a popular means of entertainment. By the 20th century, increasingly sedentary living prompted a new interest in fitness: the jogging fad emerged in the 1970s, followed by aerobics, weight lifting and other activities. Kolata looks at hard data about exercise, but also interviews enthusiasts and promoters, whose devotion to their regimens sometimes transcends the available facts. People exercise for different reasons, Kolata finds. For improving overall health, moderate exercise appears to be sufficient. To improve physical appearance, intense effort is required. To reach a sense of exhilaration and strength, however, one must actually love physical exertion for its own sake. The "truth" about exercise, Kolata concludes, may lie in the view of psychopharmacologist Richard Friedman, who suggests that "exercise is more often a marker of health than its cause." Illus. not seen by PW. Agent, John Brockman. (May) Forecast: Kolata's many readers will clamor for this newest title-and marketing will reach beyond them. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Award-winning science writer Kolata (Flu) investigates 30 years of the American physical fitness craze, looking at issues like athlete's heart, maximum heart rates, fat-burning zones, training, runner's high, weightlifting, walking, food, water, the fitness business, and more. Especially interesting is Kolata's discussion of the requirements (or lack thereof) needed to become a certified personal trainer. She notes that when her daughter expressed interest in working in a gym, "all she had to do was take and pass a written exam. She did not have to show she knew her way around a weight room or that she knew how to run or how to use an elliptical trainer. She did not have to see a single client, nor did she even have to set foot in a gym." Fascinating historical information about fitness, understandable facts and figures, and a conversational writing style make this an enormously readable book. There are plenty of quotes and information gleaned from interviews with researchers as well as personal anecdotes from Kolata, a self-admitted Spinning enthusiast. Highly recommended for all libraries with health collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Samantha Gust, Niagara Univ. Lib., NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
New York Times science reporter Kolata (Flu, 1999, etc.) takes a revealing look at the myths and misunderstandings about what exercise can do for you. A clear-eyed skeptic who is also an unabashed exercise enthusiast, the author knows how to dig for truth behind the puffery of a press release. Researching one especially misleading handout led her to ask questions about the science behind the exercise industry’s fitness and health claims. For background, Kolata provides a brief survey of attitudes toward exercise from the ancient Greeks through the aerobics movement of the 1970s to the computer-monitored health clubs of today. She questions many generally accepted training claims--that low-intensity exercise burns the most fat, that weight training prevents osteoporosis, that stretching should precede a workout--and tries to determine how and why these and other ideas about fitness and health came to be accepted as fact. When her daughter decides to become certified by the American Council of Exercise as a personal trainer, Kolata gets an inside view of the exercise industry and concludes that for the most part certification is a business involving little training but lots of fee payments. She also scrutinizes the promotion of food and food supplements promising weight loss and muscle definition. As the author tracks down answers, she not only gives the reader a look into the worlds of exercise physiologists and trainers but also a glimpse of how an experienced journalist researches a story. Her personality shines through to brighten the reporting, as she shares the story of her own love affair with physical exercise, using adjectives like "exhilarated," "strong," and "focused" to describeher state of mind and body after a rigorous workout. For Kolata, it seems, the greatest benefit of exercise is not weight loss, improved health, physical fitness, or longer life, but sheer pleasure. Easy reading packed with information that, without inflicting guilt on couch potatoes, suggests that maybe they’ve been missing out on a lot of fun.

Product Details

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



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

Meet the Author

Gina Kolata is a science writer for The New York Times and the author of four previous books, most recently Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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