Read an Excerpt
The Quest for Truth About Exercise and Health
By Gina Kolata
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2003 Gina Kolata
All rights reserved.
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.
This is the realm of the exercise aficionados. This sort of special class, with its aggressively fit instructor, is the place where you are most likely to find people who never got the message that it is okay to go slow, that you don't have to sweat to get in shape, that walking isn't just for wimps. We want to be pushed harder than we could ever push ourselves. We want to watch our heart rates climb as high as they can go, and stay there. We want Gregg to play fast techno music to set a pace, and we want him to force us to ride our stationary bicycles for forty minutes while he perches on a bike on a small platform at the front of the room, tossing his head from side to side and pedaling furiously, glistening with sweat. We don't want the usual Spinning instructor's reassurances: It's your ride. Take a break if you need one. Slow down if your heart rate gets too high.
In a way, Gregg's Spinning session is a throwback to the early days of the fitness movement. The days of no pain no gain. Of going for the burn. Now, the movement seems kinder and gentler. Walking. Yoga. Signs on aerobic machines at gyms informing exercisers of the maximum number of minutes they can stay on: "Twenty Is Plenty." Machines that measure your heart rate and warn you if the number of beats per minute goes higher than a formula allows. "Fat burning" exercises that are done at a very low level of intensity, the theory being that working harder makes you lose, if anything, less weight.
Gregg, explains the pale and solemn young man behind the desk at the health club, "is a breed unto himself." Every other Spinning instructor, he tells me, is tamer. The instructors have been taught not to push so hard. Gregg "is not for everyone," the young man warns.
An e-mail arrives at my computer at the New York Times that seems to confirm the walkers' philosophy. If what the publicist is saying is true, then maybe science is telling us that the less-is-more movement is on the right track. I may love pushing myself until my heart is pounding and my face is red with blood and my body is soaked with sweat; but that does not mean that there is any scientific evidence that this extreme notion of exercise is best. It might be that Gregg and his class—and the fact that Gregg actually told us to go for the burn—are as anachronistic as the "Groovy" on Gregg's shirt.
The press release gets right to the point: "Less is more when it comes to health and exercise, according to a new study's findings, which are going to be unveiled later this month at a prestigious exercise physiology conference in Finland," the publicist wrote.
"The effectiveness of traditional exercise programs, which usually consist of long periods of aerobic activity, aimed at achieving and sustaining a narrow target heart range, followed by a single 'cool down period,' [is] being questioned by a group of researchers from Harvard University Medical School, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the U.S.-based Dardik Institute." I have never heard of the Dardik Institute, but the medical schools named in the press release are, of course, among the best in the world.
The study involved healthy women ages thirty-two through fifty-eight, who exercised in very short bursts by running in place on a trampoline or pedaling on a stationary bicycle. Following one minute of exertion, they recovered for seven minutes.
"In one month, the women only did 40 minutes of actual exercise (all of it low impact)," the e-mailed press release says. And the results? "The women exhibited dramatic increases in their cardiovascular fitness and the strength of their immune systems while experiencing significant decreases in stress and anxiety."
The study, the publicist informs me, "calls into question the entire 'Aerobics Industry.'" Do I want more information? Of course, I tell him.
Okay. Why deny it? I'm a skeptic, conditioned by long years of science reporting. Why believe this report when its conclusions seem contrary to the position of the American College of Sports Medicine? The College says that aerobic endurance training for fewer than two days a week at less than 40 to 50 percent of maximum effort and for less than ten minutes "is generally not a sufficient stimulus for developing and maintaining fitness in healthy adults."
Of course, the College could be mistaken, but since it based its conclusions on a body of evidence, and since its statement was written by the country's leading experts, I had a feeling that the new study, not the college, was the more likely to be wrong. I'm also a skeptic because, like every other science reporter I know, and like many of the nation's most renowned scientists, I've been burned. I've written stories only to learn that the studies I'd based them on, often published in the world's best medical journals, contained fatal flaws and that their conclusions were wrong. And I've had scientists tell me of their own realization that they had fallen in love with hypotheses that were later disproved by more rigorous studies.
"This was the biggest disappointment of my career," said Charles Hennenkens, a Harvard researcher who had invested nearly two decades of his life in a theory that beta carotene could prevent cancer and heart disease, only to find that it didn't.
"We deceived ourselves and we deceived our patients," said Dr. Gabriel Hortobagyi, a cancer specialist at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who spent years convinced that the way to fight advanced breast cancer was to give the highest possible doses of powerful chemotherapy drugs.
So as I scan the press release for this new less-is-more exercise study, I am looking for reasons why I should not believe it. My first thought is that something has to be wrong.
When you work at a place like the New York Times, you can count on getting hundreds of press releases every week, zinging at you by fax, e-mail, Federal Express, and regular mail. Then you get repeated phone calls. Did you receive the press release? The invitation to the press conference? The information for dialing into the teleconference? You get the tip sheets from medical and scientific journals that come out every month, some every week, in which the editors summarize in the most enticing way the conclusions of the papers they are publishing. If you are to survive, you have to learn to skim over these appeals and pick out the one in a hundred, or fewer, that actually look promising.
I have another reason, as well, for being suspicious. From what little I have seen of the exercise field, the tiny pearls of good science are buried in mountains of junk—hucksters who promote programs with not even a pretense of objective evidence that their methods work; studies that involve a handful of people and have no valid data but draw grandiose conclusions; exercise theories that are akin to urban legends.
I expect that this new study will likely fall into one of two categories. Either it will be a reasonable piece of research that will show that fitness does not require much effort. Or its data will be inadequate to show anything at all. In either case, I am definitely interested. I am aware that even if the study fails to show that less is more when it comes to exercise, that would not be evidence that more is more, that my maximum-sweat, maximum-effort regimens are the right way to go. So why not take a look at this new study, I decide. No matter how it turns out, it promises to be a case in point.
Excerpted from Ultimate Fitness by Gina Kolata. Copyright © 2003 Gina Kolata. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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