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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

"Ms. Kolataís book tends to create new mythologies as much or more than it elucidates...I fear this book will serve primarily as another excuse for couch potatoes eager to ignore the scientific reality of the profound benefits of regular vigorous exercise." 
        Reader comment on Amazon.com by a member of the American College of Sports Medicine

"I am a sports medicine doctor and I found this book very insightful and full of all sorts of pearls I can pass on to my patients." Another comment on Amazon.com

Ultimate Fitness Ė Truth?

ULTIMATE FITNESS: The Quest For Truth About Exercise And Health (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), a new book by NY Times science reporter Gina Kolata, was called to my attention by David Walsh, MD, of the Medical College of Wisconsin. He thought I might find the book "worth a read and perhaps an essay." Heís right. I did and it is.

After perusing the decidedly mixed customer reviews on Amazon.com Ė all the way from "excellent readable book" to "bad and deceptive," even "horrible" Ė I was hooked. I had to decide for myself.

I found it a thought provoking and worthwhile book. (Otherwise, I wouldnít be telling you about it.)

Some readers disliked Kolataís personal anecdotes, especially about her adventures in spinning class. I thought they gave her a leg up on the typical science reporter and added credibility. Gina Kolata, about 55, married and the mother of two children, is a serious exerciser. She knows her way around both sides of the gym, cardio and weights. She and her husband train hard, puff and pant, and try to improve. I like that.

Others seemed disappointed she didnít deliver the "ultimate truth" on fitness. Trouble is, there are many things we donít know and may never know for sure. Soreness is an example. Some exercise physiologists believe the pain that occurs in muscles a day or two after exercise is probably caused by microscopic tears or inflammation. Others remain skeptical. "At this moment I do not know why muscles get sore and no one else does either," one expert told Kolata. In other areas controlled studies are impossible or not financially feasible. "No one knows how they could get people in one group to agree to exercise regularly for years and equal numbers in another group to agree to be sedentary," Kolata writes. Sheís right, of course. Seasoned athletes, especially, are not likely to submit to control by researchers. (I wouldn't.) It would also be unethical to ask people to be sedentary. Thatís just the way it is.

Kolataís reporting rings true on most things. I found her conclusions in several areas especially interesting.

The Fat-burn Zone

After telling us that moderate exercise is adequate for health purposes but hard is better for performance, she comes to the one area where weíve been led to believe that easy is better for both: fat burning. "Keep your heart rate low, they say, to burn fat," writes Kolata.

It defies common sense, says Kolata. A few give lip service to the hypothesis in her Goldís Gym spinning class, she reports, but almost no one follows it in actual practice. Itís a misunderstanding, says Kolata, perpetuated by companies that make heart rate monitors and "enshrined" on exercise machines, which feature "weight-loss zones" or "fat-burning zones."

Itís a myth, she concludes. Calories burned is what counts, and high-intensity exercise burns more calories Ė and ultimately more fat. "The harder you work, the more energy you expend, and the more calories you will need," Kolata writes.

As she does throughout the book, Kolata turns to recognized experts, in this case Jack Wilmore of Texas A&M and Dave Costill of Ball State. They provide the example of a 25-year-old woman who exercises for 30 minutes at low intensity (she walks) one day and burns 220 calories, half fat. The next day she exercises for the same period of time, but at higher intensity, running at a moderate pace, and burns 332 calories, one third fat.

"In both cases, she burns about 110 calories of fat during 30 minutes," write Wilmore and Costill in their highly regarded exercise physiology book. "More important, however, for the higher-intensity workout, she expends 50 percent more calories for the same time period!"

You wonít find any research papers supporting the so called "fat-burn zone," says Kolata. Itís "an urban legend of the fitness industry."

Hard Gainers

I frequently hear from people who believe they are hard gainers. I donít doubt that some people have a hard time putting on muscle, but Iíve often wondered if they could be as numerous as claimed. Gina Kolata provides the definitive answer. The first Iíve seen.

Citing the work of scientist Claude Bouchard, she confirms that thereís a large genetic component in how people respond to exercise. In a series of studies beginning in 1982, Bouchard had sedentary people, including identical twins and members of the same family, exercise in a laboratory setting where they could be watched to be sure they were really working. He found a large difference in response to training. "Some did not gain in fitness," Bouchard told Kolata. "Others improved by 50 percent, 60 percent. But they were all compliant."

"There are huge differences" in response to training, says Bouchard. "We found the same thing in each [study]. There are high responders and low responders."

From all of the work so far, Bouchard knows that about 10 percent of people do not respond. They "will never get any better with exercise, their endurance will never improve, they will never get faster, and they will never get stronger," Kolata writes.

Thatís the bad news. "The good news," says Kolata, "is that most people do respond, and some, about 10 percent, respond astonishingly well."

Some day we many be able to determine who will benefit from training, and how much. But for now the only way to find out is to start exercising and see what happens. As Earle E. Liederman wrote long ago, "You never know just how far you can go once your hands touch a barbell." Most people will surprise themselves. I did.

Metabolism

One area where Kolata dropped the ball is the relationship between weight training and metabolism. Citing researcher Claude Bouchard again, Kolata says, "Weight lifting has virtually no effect on resting metabolism." I donít dispute her facts; they are accurate, as far as they go. She simply didn't look far enough down the road. She missed the big picture.

The metabolic rate of resting muscle, according to Bouchard, is very low. "Skeletal muscle burns about 13 calories per kilogram of body weight over twenty-four hours when a person is at rest," Kolata writes. Two kilos or 4.4 pounds, the average amount of muscle a man can expect to gain in 12 weeks of weight training, is only 24 calories a day. Not enough to make any real difference, according to Bouchard.

I respectfully disagree. Twenty four calories a day, over time, can make a big difference. Thatís 8760 calories a year (24 x 365 = 8760) or the equivalent of about 2.5 pounds of fat. (A pound of fat contains 3500 calories.) In addition, muscle can burn up to 100 times more calories during exercise than at rest. Moreover, you continue to use more calories after exercise. If you exercise long and hard, those two kilos of muscle will still be burning extra calories up to 12 hours later. Even mild exercise, leaves muscles burning more calories an hour later.

Plus, by continuing to train progressively, the average man can expect to gain Ė and, importantly, maintain Ė more than two kilos of muscle.

But here's the most important point, the long range effect of those meaningless two kilos of muscle.

Few of us get fat fast. We get fat very slowly. The calories burned by two kilos of added muscle is enough to forestall, even reverse, the creeping obesity that makes most people fat. According to Jack H. Wilmore and David L. Costill (Physiology of Sport and Exercise), two of Kolataís favorite sources, the average person will gain approximately one pound each year after age 25, or a total of 30 pounds of excess weight by age 55. But thatís not the end of it. We also lose one half pound of muscle each year due to lack of exercise. That means the average person actually gains 1.5 pounds of fat each year, or 45 pounds over 30 years.

Thatís the equivalent of about 15 calories a day, according to Wilmore and Costill Ė and less than the 24 calories that would be burned by the two kilos of muscle Kolata says people can expect to gain from weight training.

And another illustration -- me.

William D. McArdle, Frank I. Katch and Victor L. Katch, write in the 4th Edition of Exercise Physiology: "Although it is common for most Ďnormalí adults to grow fatter as they age, those who engage in heavy resistance training increase their lean body mass and decrease body fat."

The powerful effect of regular weight training was translated into calorie burning power during my last visit to the Cooper Clinic at age 65. Clinic Nutrition Services calculated that the average man my age and weight would burn 1682 calories per day at rest, or 2059 calories with my current exercise regimen. They then subjected my current diet to computer analysis and found that my actual daily calorie intake is 2575, roughly 500 more than my estimated maintenance level.

So, why arenít I gaining weight? Clearly, the muscle built through a lifetime of weight training has speeded up my metabolism far beyond what it would be without weights. The extra muscle Iíve added -- and maintained --  burns the extra calories and keeps me lean.

Enjoyment Key

After explaining that a reporterís job is to report rather than give advice, Kolata offers some bottom line comments on health and fitness in an epilogue. As one who firmly believes exercise is the best medicine yet devised by man, I wasnít happy with her conclusion that exercise may be more a marker than the cause of health. But I like what she says about fitness and motivation.

To maintain your health, Kolata says, "Almost any physical activity will suffice, and thereís no need to push yourself." Getting fit and staying motivated is another story, however.

"The exercise that will make you thinner and more muscular, the sort that will allow you to run faster or swim for longer distances, requires not just consistency but effort," Kolata writes. She quotes exercise physiologist Donald Kirkendall with obvious approval: "If you want to push performance, youíve got to push the intensity." In other words, youíve got to work, sweat and stretch your limits.

In spite of her reservations about health benefits, the pearl she offers on motivation convinces me sheís a true believer, a serious exerciser. She understands when people tell her they stay with exercise because they love physical exertion. "I plan my days with exercise in them, just as I plan time to eat and sleep, to work, and to spend time with my friends and family," says Kolata. "Exercise makes me feel exhilarated and strong, it makes me feel focused."

Sheís got it. Go Gina!

[Iíve only scratched the surface of Gina Kolataís fascinating exploration of the world of physical fitness. "Kolata presents an eye-opening view of a multimillion-dollar business," says the jacket cover, and itís true. With the cynical eye of a skilled reporter and the curiosity of a serious trainer, she sketches the sometimes checkered history of physical culture, profiling everyone from Bernarr Macfadden to Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider to Dr. Ken Cooper and Johnny G. of spinning fame. She also delves into personal trainer certification and food supplements. If youíre interested in the inside scoop on fitness, youíll find Ultimate Fitness a good read. Love it or hate it, the book will make you think. Itís available from Amazon.com or your local book store.]

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Copyright©2003 Clarence and Carol Bass.  All rights reserved.